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Co-creators in the Classroom: Building Student Agency Through Design

May 10, 2017 · 5 min read

by room2learn

This year, we’ve focused on simple, effective design solutions you can bring into your classroom. We’ve created spaces for mindfulness, added pops of color to liven up a drab room, opened up more opportunity for movement, and even seamlessly incorporated video gaming into our lesson plans, just to name a few. These are all tools that we, as teachers, educators, designers, parents, administrators, etc, can take to school each day. But of course, we aren’t the only designers and agents of change in the classroom. Our students can and should be active co-creators of the classroom too.

There are a myriad of reasons why encouraging co-ownership of a classroom is beneficial to learning. In this post, we will focus on the concept of learner agency, defined simply as a learner’s belief in their ability to act and bring about change in their environment. At its core, the concept of agency pairs critical, independent thinking with action.

In a recent study by the The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, researchers suggested that student success outcomes, such as learner agency are as important to cultivate and measure as standard academic skills. The study outlines certain teaching practices, such as showing compassion without coddling and balancing rigorous, engaging material with instructive feedback, that support the development of learner agency.

We know that many of you are already incorporating these teaching practices into your classroom. Here at room2learn, we hope to give you ways to think about how design can support these practices. With these next room spotlights, we will peek into spaces that may support the development of learner agency and inspire your students to join your design team. Let’s dive in!

Inviting Change

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One way to invite students to be co-designers of your classroom is to ensure that your space actually invites in the potential for change. If all of your furniture is fixed and you have strict rules about keeping certain materials in certain places, then your students may not feel a strong sense of ownership in your classroom. Think about how your space suggests a sense of flexibility. In this reading library, both the chairs and the baskets for books are moveable. This invites students to create a learning environment that will work best for them.

Getting Personal

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Allowing students to bring in their personality and interests into a space is another great way to develop agency. Think about how you allow students to personalize their learning space. This can be as simple as a dedicated space on your wall for student decorating, or as detailed as the cubbyhole work spaces at BrightWorks, picture above. Here, students are allowed to decorate their space with their own artwork, moodboards, and inspirational messaging to keep their motivation sharp and their morale high. You can also check out our post on whiteboards to see how this easy-to-implement (and erase) surface allows students to bring their ever-changing musings and brainstorms into the classroom on a daily basis.

Maker Empowerment

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Makerspaces have been a hot topic in the education field for the past few years, especially in an effort to increase STEAM initiatives here in the United States. Yet makerspaces do more than build the next generation of designers and engineers. Makerspaces can support the development of agency for all types of students, regardless of their eventual career choice.

This specific type of agency cultivated in makerspaces has been defined by Project Zero’s Agency by Design research branch as “maker empowerment.” This concept states that when students learn by making, which includes understanding the intricacies , complexities, and design of objects and systems, then have a greater capacity to change and shape their world through “building, tinkering, and re/designing, or hacking” (Check out the Agency by Design website to learn more or check-out their latest book, Maker-Centered Learning: Empower Young People to Shape their Worlds).

Makerspaces come in all shapes and sizes and don’t always need to have flashy equipment like 3-D printers and fully-equipped wood-working labs. Think about how your space allows students to experiment, tinker, build and break apart objects and systems. To support the activities of a maker-centered learning, a makerspace must allow students and teachers to shift the room depending on the student’s needs. In the makerspace above, chairs on wheels allow for easy movement and large desks allow for big, messy projects and collaborative work. We also love that the trashcan has been moved right next to one student’s desk. Makerspaces should definitely not fear getting messy, but easy-to-move trashcans certainly help contain the chaos. Actually, it might be worth investing in more than one trashcan…

Building Agency, Designing Change

We hope this post gave you a few new ways to think about how learner agency is activated by your classroom environment. Just as we hope our students do not simply accept the world as it comes to them, we may not want them to accept the classroom as it comes to them. Ultimately, with the combination of teaching practices and environments that develop agency, students can become creators, rather than consumers of their world.

We’d love to see how you cultivate agency in the classroom. Show us your hacks and layouts on and tweet us at @HackClassrooms!


Designing 21st century learning spaces

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