Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Investing in Student Agency

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Activate Student Agency

lettersThis blog post first appeared on CompetencyWorks on October 10, 2016. 

This is the seventh article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

After the ramping up efforts have been put into place, the next phase of implementation is to re-engineer the learning infrastructure. The traditional system is based on three elements: a) time (days per year, hours per day, the time-based credit, semesters, agrarian schedule, promotion based on age); b) focus on curriculum and instruction; and c) A–F grading based on assignments, assessments, homework, and behaviors. If this system has been producing low achievement and inequity, what type of infrastructure and operations can be put into place to produce learning consistently with all students?

The following steps in developing what will be referred to in this series as the Instruction and Assessment model (I&A model) are not necessarily done in a linear fashion. They actually require an iterative approach so alignment can be developed within the learning infrastructure. Whether you start from scratch or draw from other districts, you will find that the discussion takes you deep into the core of learning. You may also find that once you remove the infrastructure of the traditional system, the experience is like trying to “organize spaghetti,” as described by Ty Cesene from Bronx Arena. The options will feel infinite as you begin to question the pillars, customs, and operational procedures that hold the traditional system in place.

Most districts focus on the core changes needed to create a transparent, coherent system that empowers students and teachers. They want to focus the attention on what is needed to ensure learning and progress, knowing that parents and communities are comfortable with the traditional understanding of how schools operate, and that some of the traditional structures still have meaning in today’s world. For example, in many communities, the agrarian schedule is now a tourist schedule in which employers rely on teenagers to join the labor market in the summer. Although this sounds like an adult issue, work experience is also a valuable component of helping students become college and career ready. Because each operational or policy change requires substantial leadership attention from district and school leaders as well as teachers, most of the districts that have converted to competency education continue to operate within a relatively traditional schedule for the first several years. It is later that they begin to move beyond the trappings of the traditional system.

Before beginning to design the infrastructure that will support your instructional model, take the time to consider the supports, the implications for student agency, your district’s overall pedagogical approach, and how you plan to support teachers through the transition.

Investing In Student Agency

Research on motivation and engagement has established that creating opportunities for students to shape their educational experience (i.e., agency) is an essential ingredient for improving academic achievement. Doug Penn, District Principal of Chugach School District in Alaska, referred to a Ted Talk by Dan Meyer that has sharpened his thinking about the relationship between active learning, deeper learning, and empowering students to take ownership of their learning. In wanting students not to be helpless, teachers need to help less. To accomplish this, schools will need to invest more in developing critical thinking and the habits of learning so students can help themselves.

Engagement and student agency always start with respecting and listening to the different perspectives that each student brings to the school. That’s why creating ways for students to express themselves and have voice is central to the work of student agency. Offering choice is equally important. It may start with curricular choice and expand to co-designing learning experiences as students become more adept at managing projects. Most importantly, it is the habits of learning that undergird student agency. Students are not given agency; they need to build the skills to become lifelong learners with the support of teachers and other adults in their lives.

Enabling Agency Through Transparency

In designing the new infrastructure to support teaching and learning, it is imperative to understand the importance of transparency in enabling student agency. It is by having absolute transparency about what students are expected to know and do, the criteria by which proficiency will be assessed, and a strong understanding of what proficiency looks like that students can begin to have the information they need to take ownership of their learning. The system of grading in competency-based schools indicates to students how they are progressing toward proficiency. It is equally important to be explicit about the habits of learning (those behaviors that contribute to learning).

Brian Stack, Principal at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire, explained, “Competency education has helped the entire school and students get on the same wavelength. With transparency in competencies, conversations focus in on learning. Transparency allows for an entirely different type of relationship between students and their teachers to form.” To this end, as Sanborn develops an increased understanding of the changing power dynamics, teachers begin to treat students as colleagues. “We are creating a culture of learning,” said Stack, “by eliminating the punitive responses that are found in so many high schools.” Another teacher at Sanborn added to this by stating, “When the competencies are laid out in front for you, you can just get on with the learning. Everyone has a shared vision of why we are in the classroom together.”

Something to Think About: Remember to prepare students for the transition. Provide training to teachers to facilitate conversations that compare the past traditional system and the new competency-based system so that students can articulate how the new system more effectively meets their needs and guides them toward success. For example, you can use the “grading cookies” exercise to engage students in why a different grading system is needed. 

Creating Classroom Structures That Enable Student Agency

The classroom structures of empowerment are relatively similar across competency-based schools regardless of grade level. At RSU2 in Maine, teachers begin the year by facilitating the development of a shared purpose statement and guiding principles for the classroom. A culture of cooperation develops among students as they take ownership for their education as well as their peers. Oftentimes, the walls contain reminders that mistakes are part of the learning process.

Students know exactly what they are learning and what proficiency looks like. Rubrics are readily available, and there is usually an example of proficient work. There may be posters on the wall for students to indicate where they are on their learning continuum. Students and parents often have access to an information management system that provides information on student progress and what they need to do next to continue advancing. Students should be able to tell you what they are learning, why it is important, how they know if they have learned, and what they will do to access supports as needed.

Providing timely feedback is an important element of creating student agency. If students have to wait a week or more to get feedback, they are more dependent on the teacher to advance, thereby lessening the drive to learn and undermining agency. Self-assessment and peer assessment can strengthen students’ abilities to reflect and revise their own work. Adaptive software can be very helpful, especially for providing rapid feedback.

An emphasis on process skills and reflection helps students become aware of how they are learning. At Making Community Connections Charter School in New Hampshire, students do End-of-Day reflections on their progress in meeting their daily learning targets and developing their habits of learning. At Chugach School District, reflections are part of the cumulative assessment used to determine if students are ready to move to the next level. Increasingly, schools are enhancing their approaches to building habits of learning.

In competency education, students are often provided opportunity in choosing how they will learn, the context of their learning, and/or how they will demonstrate their learning. Blended learning can provide even more transparency for students to move to the next level of study by creating access to the next unit or course. In both of these settings, there are often opportunities for students to co-design their projects based on high interest inquiry. At Chugach, students can choose to learn through individualized learning plans, described by Director of Special Education Debbie Treece as, “Scaffolding, and then stripping away a little bit of the safety net on the way to independent learning.”

Teachers will recognize that the practices described here to develop student agency are the same as those used in managing personalized classrooms. They are in fact entirely interdependent—it is unlikely that a classroom can become highly personalized if every student has to turn to the teacher for every bit of instruction, support, and direction.

Embedding Student Voice In Governance And Operations

In Pittsfield School District in New Hampshire, students are considered important partners. Students hold the majority of the seats on the Pittsfield Middle High School Site Council and participate in the development of school policy. In order to ensure students can fully participate, they are given clearly mapped responsibilities and guidelines. In this way, the council is authorized to review and approve proposals related to issues like open campus guidelines, rules, handbook revisions, and class meetings, so that before anything goes to the school board, it goes through them first.

Tobi Chassie, a project manager of the transformational process at Pittsfield, pointed out that students are now considered invaluable partners in addressing issues. For example, student participation in the revision of the disciplinary policy led to a different outcome than if it had only been adults making the rules. Students challenged the idea that suspensions were meaningful for improving behavior, learning, safety, or school climate. After student-led research was completed, Pittsfield adopted restorative justice practices. Student participation in the school council and other school governing efforts gave voice to students and built confidence. That confidence quickly spread from the students on the site council to other students.

The Grading Cookies Exercise

Have students all eat a specific kind of cookie, and grade the quality of the cookie on a traditional A–F scale. Then collaboratively develop a cookie quality scoring guide with the students, and have a second round of eating a cookie to score its quality. Teachers then guide the students through a reflection process to compare the scores from the two scoring processes. This leads to deeper understanding for all students regarding how the new scoring process provides far more consistent, clear, and accurate input about their performance in all content areas, so they can use that feedback to accelerate their learning. Once students are comfortable with such an activity, they are often excited to facilitate the same activity with parents and community members during public meetings about the transition.

For more information, explore this whole blog series:

Blog #1 Introducing Implementing Competency Education in K–12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders

Blog #2 What Is Competency Education?

Blog #3 Investing in Shared Leadership

Blog #4 Constructing a Shared Journey of Inquiry, Shared Vision, and Shared Ownership

Blog #5 Engaging the Community

Blog #6 Creating the Shared Purpose