Student Agency: Teaching Students to Take Ownership of Their Learning
With Tips to Practice During the Age of Distance Learning
By Rocky Bragg, High School English Teacher from California
Student agency, in theory, requires all of us to examine the power dynamics of our classes and redefine our role in students’ learning. Student agency in implementation means equipping students with the cultural, navigational and social capital necessary for them to create, define, and structure what their learning looks like. In research and in practice, there is an inescapable vulnerability that we, as teachers, must be willing to engage with.
This vulnerability decenters the objectives we create and shifts the idea that we are the owners of learning, empowering students to assume a more powerful role of accountability, decision making, and assessment.
One-hundred years of compulsory public education has embedded in our curriculum and infrastructure a natural tendency to save and to do for our students, and inside of this unfortunate indoctrination, students have developed a learned-helplessness that disables their creative freedoms and sense of autonomy, and enables a presumed inability to do for self. We have failed them because we have failed to recognize what our role is.
There are 36 people in this room, including me. I have no absolutes. The value is supposed to come from you. We learn so much more as a group from you 35 speaking rather than just myself. Learning happens once you all recognize that it is fluid, organic, and responsive. If I tell you I have the end figured out, I limit each of your potential and I do you a disservice.
I recognize that the makeup of each classroom will vary greatly and ultimately, some might look at implementing learner-centered education as fantastical, utopian, or unrealistic. The class culture informs what student agency and learner-centered education looks like, and every teacher has a degree to which they can apply this methodology. But again, for this to be effective consider this:
What does the power dynamic look like in your classroom and how comfortable and in what capacity are you willing to share that power with your students?
Everyone can implement this at one level or another. Dip your toes in the water and let the rest of the process warm up to you.
What does Learner-Centered Education look like?
Energy! This process is incredibly rewarding, but it does not come without great patience, energy, and a working relationship between student and teacher. I would recommend that a smaller model of LCE is implemented first, but not immediately into the school year. I’ve learned that rapport and the types of relationships that I have with my students, as well as understanding their individual desires, must come before the power dynamic shifts. It would be an unrealistic expectation that I would be placing on a new group of students without having modeled what creating structure looks like and “knowing the room.”
“Knowing the room” means understanding the identities and personalities of one’s classroom, to the degree that as a professional, I can organize — or entrust them to organize themselves — in a way that will make them most curious, most effective and most collaborative in working toward group-identified objectives and instruments for assessing. This is about setting students up for success. And while the “real world” might not facilitate ideal working conditions, this process is about reminding students they are autonomous and they are powerful agents in their own education.
The following is one of my models of LCE at a four-week unit level:
- Text: The Stranger by Albert Camus
- Group: Senior English Students
- Length: 4 Weeks
As a class, we spent two entire class periods planning our unit. The first time I did this, it was incredibly chaotic and stressful, and mostly because I had not done an adequate enough job of giving them the capital they needed to form questions and be confident in their opinions on what they wanted. They still wanted to ask me, “Is it ok if we do this?”.
Each class had different ideas, which may look like more work for us as teachers, but the reality is that ingrained in LCE, is the accountability of students to maintain the culture and be the drivers of the work, with our constant empowerment and back-seat driving.
Inside of the planning phase, we established what would be our daily accountability, daily and weekly assessments, learning goals, and culminating activity. Students made the decision to include these items; it was not mandatory that they include any. But, there were questions that guided this process after frontloading the text, central themes, and context:
- What is it that we want to focus on? How do we want to focus on this idea(s) (theme, nuance, symbol, motif, concept, driving force of the work)? What tools will we use to hold us accountable in this conversation? Do we need to evaluate this? If so, how and who does the evaluating, the instructor or students?
- What questions do we want to have answered by the end of this unit? Why do we want to answer those questions and how will they connect to more meaningful or relevant ideas in our own lives? What tools will we use to evaluate our growth in answering those questions? How frequently and in what ways will we revisit this questioning?
- As an instructor, what do you want my role to be? If I am not leading the discussion, who is and how is this decided upon? What are the expectations of facilitators? What are the expectations of the participants? How are we all held accountable?
- What about you, your lived experiences, or the immediacy of your environment, do you want to see connected to this work?
All of these questions apply to each process of this planning, and while it may seem rigid in the beginning, you and your students begin to see how all of these concepts overlap and work towards higher learning. While clear in structure, some of these — as you can imagine — took much longer to establish agreements than others. We — students and myself — wrote all over the whiteboards to clearly outline these plans. Even in this process, power is shared and the dynamic has shifted from the instructor being the authority, to being a collaborator. When students realize that we are all creating meaning together, students engage in a fearlessness that traditional classrooms do not empower students to think with.
Students agreed to lead facilitations in groups, each group responsible for different sections of the novel. That respective group would create a journal entry to begin the period. They all agreed that journal entries needed to do two things:
- Hold students accountable for reading and knowing the basic outline of the readings
- Get students to discuss a larger idea related to one of the central themes I gave them in the frontloading of this unit.
Along with responding in journal entries, students asked to share their responses in small groups for smaller discussion before larger class discussions.
In groups of three to four, students led facilitations on the agreed-upon readings and decided that faciliations were responsible for the following:
- Journal Entry to begin class periods.
- A minimum of two discussion questions per member of the group.
- Discussion questions must be higher-level thinking according to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Students utilized this framework of Bloom’s Taxonomy from my mentioning of it earlier in the year.
- An engaging activity that does not mirror what previous students have done and that builds upon the knowledge they have acquired.
It is incredible to watch what students will create to engage their fellow peers when empowered and given autonomy. Additionally, students honed in on their presentation and public speaking skills and began to prepare more for their facilitation days because of the accountability placed on them by classmates. Students assessed one another’s facilitation and offered feedback with an agreed-upon rubric.
When it was not a student’s day to facilitate, every student was required to submit one higher-level question and two developed insights to me in writing at the beginning of class. My role was to evaluate the effort given and determine if everyone was buying into the process. It should be noted that in the beginning, the class came up with more ideas than what was used, but I tried to make them aware of taking on too much, and instead, settling for quality methods for guiding this unit.
Culminating Activity (Brain Map and Socratic Seminar)
We had been doing a ton of writing and they wanted a physical and verbal way of demonstrating their mastery. Students agreed upon creating a Brain Map. A Brain Map:
- Is a graphic organizer that uses one or two central ideas of the text and connects them to the real world/human nature
- Is presented in front of the classroom
- Is meant to communicate all of the aspects of an essay
This was artistic and worked them harder in ways than they expected. We all grew and learned more as a result. The second half of the culminating activity was a socratic seminar. Students gave me the role of creating five questions that branched off of ideas presented across the journal entries, discussion questions, and insights provided by all of the facilitations. I was also left to assess their learning stretch between initial ideas presented through the weeks, and what new contributions they had to offer.
My administration sat in on this unit for several days and watched us work through the kinks of this process. I had their support and that came complementary to what I felt my students deserved. It was stressful, it was difficult, and it required a ton of energy and patience. It’s not easy, but nothing in this profession is. This is a model of taking a chance, not what student agency has to look like in one’s classroom. This was my starting point and we all have to begin; that’s the one thing we all have in common. We all have to start somewhere, but having the fearlessness and dreams for our students moves us to make difficult decisions that have rewarding outcomes for young people.
Promoting Student Agency in Distance Learning
Many of us were using technology in the classroom prior to the epidemic, but now all of us have to rely on it in some capacity to finish our school years. This moment in time might be transformative for what learning looks like in the future and how it will shape national expectations. But, how do we empower students and encourage their agency in their learning? I have a few tools and ideas to take your classroom online and to empower young people to be decision-makers and creators in this age.
Originally called Blendspace, TES is a user-friendly platform that allows users to store and organize their lesson plans, attach Common Core standards, embed media of any kind, and share within the community.
Students contributed to this shared platform under their respective days (box numbers). But, this is one resource of many that a class can use.
Whether it’s submitting assignments, distributing instructions or creating a space for students to collaborate, I’ve been using google classroom since my first year of teaching. I’m finding that its service is more valuable now than ever. The app is functional and students get automatic notifications to their devices when a new assignment, instructions or additional announcements posts. Students can post directly to the feed if the teacher enables the feature and have the ability to ask questions and start brief discussions that are attached directly to the assignment in question. Also, uploading grades and assessments is as easy as downloading assignment grades as a .csv file and uploading to your grading platform (our district uses Schoolloop).
I love it. Aside from not being physically present, Zoom has taken my classroom online in all of the best ways. As a creator of a meeting session, you can assign a co-host to lead the sessions, take questions, answer to ‘raised hands’ from the audience, share their screens with viewers and more. Zoom also allows classrooms to break up into breakout rooms. This is the equivalent of dividing the class into small groups, without the noise disturbances of others in the room. Students can be leaders and create in these settings, and as a teacher, we have the ability to tune into each session, support and check in on students, and move on to other groups with a simple click of the mouse.
I’ve already used this service to do workshops with students and online debates. Students are creating their own sessions and inviting folks to join through google classroom or direct message by copy and pasting the link. It’s as simple as that. Students don’t need an account to join.
In the age of being homebound, I schedule mandatory classes and optional check-ins that allow students a chance to breathe, talk and be human with others that tune in. So long as they have a link and a device to work from, Zoom facilitates a very smooth and effective form of collaboration and communication.
Snapchat for the academic. Flipgrid allows students to respond to prompts and engage in discussions through brief video submissions. Students have used this service for mini TEDTalks where their peers can watch, award praise, and comment on their ideas. I also use it for public speaking assignments and presentation options for students who need extra practice delivering content online before in front of a class. This is a fun way for students to engage critically with content while having some fun.
This is fantastic for blogs and tracking student participation. It is also a place for young people to keep a portfolio of work. Students can create online prompts and discussion forums; as a teacher, Wordpress is accessible and user friendly enough to track participation and assess content.
Giving Students Our Best Selves
This is a brave and by some conventions, radical idea, to release this kind of power. The kids deserve it and it should be how learning happens. There’s a significant amount of desocializing and unlearning that has to happen at a macro level to give students the best chance to be owners of their learning. Learned helplessness has hamstrung young people. But, if we can begin with smaller forms of student agency and teach newer generations to be owners of their learning, we set up a future to create, assess, and continually criticize their learning in a way that is not limited by traditional instruction, and in a way that young people deserve.
Rocky Bragg is a fifth-year high school English teacher working in the Inland Empire. He received a Bachelor's degree in English and Master’s in Education from the University of La Verne, and is nearing a Ph.D. in Higher Education from Claremont Graduate University. His research focus is in the epistemology of teaching and my passion is to inspire transformative work in education. He works on the professional development committee and coach track and field at his high school. He works with the best young people around! When he’s not teaching Honors English students, he’s skydiving, Olympic weightlifting and enjoying time with his fiancé (pictured) and cat.
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