Boost Student Agency

Are you ready for students to exercise their voice as stakeholders in their own educations?

Topics: Pandemic Leadership, School Culture and Climate

“Interesting times call for interesting measures,” said Joey (student names changed), a student in Albany, New York, summarizing the dilemma of last spring’s school closures. While COVID-19’s rampage across the country was alarming, a few silver linings emerged in education. One is the ascendance of student agency.

The question of how to engage students in continuous, rigorous learning and ensure they have the tools necessary to engage in learning stretched many districts to the limits of their expertise. And as the pandemic advanced, it exacerbated longstanding, widespread inequities: Students and families who struggled with traditional school structures found themselves struggling more, and insufficient resources made ensuring equitable access to quality learning a greater challenge.

As educational leaders began to consider how to manage the return to school, many smartly called on stakeholders from their communities to help figure out what students might need when they returned to what many hoped would be a “new normal” educational environment. Unfortunately, those stakeholders rarely included the voices of students like Joey.

Student voices are essential to knowing what’s needed to meet the unique needs of each learner—whether in the school building or at home. This is true even for elementary students, whose voices are largely left out because the adults in their lives often assume they should step in as spokespeople. Yet, listening to students offers principals a chance to gain new perspectives about their learning that adults might not be able to provide.

Ownership Benefits

Elevating students’ voices proves to them that they matter in significant ways. Research has demonstrated the benefits that support students’ social, emotional, and academic development, including a sense of belonging, new avenues for learning “ownership,” and the ability to build upon funds of knowledge. This is particularly true for students who have been historically underserved by the education system—students of color, students whose families are experiencing economic hardship, students acquiring and strengthening English skills, and students with diagnosed or undiagnosed disabilities.

One thing is certain: Students are not the same as they were back in March. A lot has changed, and it’s not just a matter of whether they can access a Zoom meeting or asynchronous learning materials. Something is fundamentally different in the way students at all levels—even the elementary “babies”—are approaching learning now.

School leaders will need to adjust their vision of how to provide equitable instruction for each student. Listen to the words of Michelle, an 11th-grader from Washington state: “School was like, ‘Be there at 7:30 and stay until 3.’ Now, I can wake up later and work until later. I like being able to set my own schedule.”

Her story exemplifies what we’ve heard from students across the nation when asked about distance learning. Over the three months when most buildings were closed but school was officially in session, students practiced an important skill that will continue to influence the way they approach their learning going forward.

The Decision-Makers

As students have engaged in new forms of home-based and digital learning, the power has shifted: They have taken charge of their learning and learning time. They have been called on to make decisions about when and how to do their work. Some students struggled with these decisions, because their families lacked the necessary digital tools, including adequate internet connectivity, to support one-to-one learning at home.

Others were forced into exercising agency because their districts provided only asynchronous learning structures, leaving students completely in charge of the details. Some students simply made decisions about their learning on their own as a way to assume ownership of their time—students like Dane, who said, “My school gave out work on Monday, and it was due on Thursday, so I could do it whenever I felt like it, as long as it was turned in by [that] day.”

In this new space, many students were challenged to develop the agency that enables them to determine when they do their work, how they do their work, and what it means to have the ability to make such important decisions. Having agency to make such decisions influences how students view their distance-learning experience.

Even in a distance-learning environment, teachers can guide students to boost agency. Research suggests that due to its connection to intrinsic motivation and mastery goals, student autonomy can help build motivation and self-regulated learning skills, both of which are essential to learning. In a digital learning environment, teachers can support student autonomy and self-regulation by using strategies to build self-advocacy, engage in goal-setting, and build student choice to encourage students to progress toward more independent learning.

Consider the words of Isabella, a middle school student from the Midwest. When asked what she learned about herself while engaged in distance learning, she said, “The best part for me is I’m doing things I like to do. I was learning guitar at one point; now I actually have time to do it again, since I can do my work whenever I want.” Isabella went on to explain that her teachers made assignments on Monday, and as long as she could turn them in on time (Thursday), she was fine.

Micka, a self-described high-achieving student from California, said she appreciated the freedom but often found herself in the dark because many tasks lacked specificity. She also mentioned that she got behind on her self-imposed schedule because distance learning reduced access to her teacher during office hours.

Encouraging Agency

These statements offer insights into two critical questions leaders must ask when attempting to provide equitable educational access and structures for all students. First, what adjustments must teachers and principals make to partner with students to further this development? Second, how can leaders support teachers to better recognize when students are exercising agency, so that they don’t misinterpret it as defiance and respond with disciplinary measures that tend to negatively impact students of color?

The following will allow leaders and teachers to approach relationships with “new” students through an equity lens. Consider these recommendations when supporting teachers:

  • Provide students with a questionnaire soliciting information about how they approached home-based and distance learning during COVID-19. This will help teachers think through how to structure learning tasks.
  • Organize a student distance-learning leadership group to give students a seat at the decision-making table. As adults consider how to ensure high-quality, equitable learning, they can adopt promising practices that students value.
  • Support teachers in developing critical questioning techniques to ensure that all students get the opportunity to exercise agency and tap into research-backed strategies that support agency development and a sense of belonging for each student in every class.
  • Involve students in designing learning tasks. This fosters cultural relevance and increases student motivation and engagement—important factors in learning.
  • Consider ways to bring students in as partners in designing how their work will be assessed. Doing so provides students with a lens into the grading process, which is often hidden from them.

School is a different place this fall, and most students are returning having had a novel learning experience. In doing so, they have become accustomed to a level of educational agency that many will want to maintain. Leaders must support teachers in helping students exercise their newfound agency, and true partnerships between teachers and students will be critical in this new space. If you listen, they will learn.

Tanji Reed Marshall is director of practice at The Education Trust.

Barbara Pape is director of policy and communications of the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise.

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