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Aurora Institute

Policies for Personalization: Student Agency

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Thinking child deep in thought conceptThis blog post first appeared on CompetencyWorks on November 1, 2016. 

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

If a district puts into place all the pieces described earlier, they will be well on their way to creating a strong standards-referenced system — but not a student-centered one. The new value proposition is based on an integration of personalized learning that takes into consideration students’ needs, interests, and aspirations along with a competency-based infrastructure focused on proficiency, pace, and progress.

The following discussion, organized into two articles, is on the policies and procedures that need to be in place to ensure that the system you are implementing has students and their academic success — not the standards themselves — at the center.

Student Agency

Personalization and student agency go hand in hand — it is nearly impossible for teachers to manage a personalized classroom if students are constantly turning to them for direction. Thus, as schools move toward personalized, competency-based education, they will also want to create the conditions for students to take ownership over their education (i.e., student agency). There are a number of essential ingredients required to create an environment and learning experiences that help students build the skills they need to have agency: a school culture that is grounded in a growth mindset, strategies to help build habits of learning, opportunities for choice and co-design, transparency of learning objectives with well-developed assessments, and high levels of teacher autonomy.

As schools commence on the journey toward competency education, they are likely to find themselves thinking more and more deeply about the implications of student agency in practice, operations, school design, and policy. Below are three areas that schools will encounter and want to begin to create policies, guidelines, or operating procedures for.

How are you going to develop habits of learning? Habits of learning are an important ingredient in building student agency. Habits of learning cannot be taught only by talking about the habits — students must have the opportunity to develop, practice, and reflect upon them. Thus, districts will need to think about offering a mix of developmentally appropriate project-based and experiential learning opportunities. This may require thinking about the school calendar, changing the schedule, and/or committing resources to develop and sustain partnerships in the community.

Pittsfield School District has created a dynamic extended learning program that enables students to build skills, demonstrate competencies, earn credit from experiences gained outside of the school environment, and even partner with higher education institutions to gain college credits. These Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs) integrate with the competency-based structure by connecting the learning experience to core content areas. Each ELO is different based on student interest and the skills they are developing, but shares a commonality of involving research, reflection, and a presentation or project that links to the Common Core standards.

In what way will you offer students voice, choice, and opportunities to co-design their learning experiences? The transparency of the learning expectations enables teachers to create choice about how students learn, the context of their learning, and how to demonstrate learning. It may be a discrete choice, such as selecting which animal to investigate when looking at an aspect of biology or selecting which poet to learn about in English. In many cases, teachers provide options with the caveat that students may suggest alternatives. Choice in how to demonstrate learning will require schools to have well-developed rubrics that focus solely on the specific skills to be assessed so that students may submit written materials, presentations, or more creative products such as a play or 3-D model to demonstrate their learning.

Rose Colby, a competency-based learning and assessment specialist, has observed that teachers are changing some of their practices for unit planning to provide more of this kind of choice. In the teacher- and time-driven practices of the traditional education system, teachers often spend Fridays going over their plans for the next week’s curriculum. In a personalized, competency-based environment, this curriculum serves as a basic roadmap, but teachers make room for flexibility. This way, when students raise unexpected issues, want to explore an area more deeply, or simply need additional learning support, there is room already built in. As Colby explains it, “There is a resiliency that develops in order for educators and administrators to respond to student agency in the moment.”

Schools are also creating opportunities for students to co-design their learning with teachers. This entails creating the structures for students to identify areas of inquiry and then organize the learning goals as defined by the standards and habits they intend to fulfill. The I&A model becomes a common language that allows students, teachers, and any partners in the community to discuss the projects and learning expectations.

What are the skills and autonomies teachers need to nurture student agency? Teacher autonomy and student agency go hand-in-hand. In order for teachers to be able to be responsive to students’ learning, they need to be able to have some degree of autonomy in terms of pacing and their professional judgment. Kim Carter of Making Community Connections Charter School notes, “Teachers need to know how to manage motivation—when to push, when to pull, when to pause. They need to know how to give feedback that helps students navigate the gaps between where they are and where they are going in terms of their learning targets. Equally importantly, teachers need to know how to solicit and receive feedback from students about which instructional practices are helpful and which aren’t. One of the most important skills for teachers to nurture in themselves and in their students is metacognition.”

Don Siviski, previously the superintendent of RSU2 and the Maine Department of Education’s Superintendent of Instruction, currently at the Center for Secondary School Redesign, spoke on this point with, “Everyone in the education system has to model ‘agency’ and the empowerment of others. The superintendent has to honor agency with principals, principals with teachers, and teachers with kids. Remember—kids learn from what we do, not from what we say.”

Most importantly, districts and schools need to think strategically about what supports teachers need to help build student agency. Most teachers have not received training about assessing or helping students to build strong habits of learning. They will need support in learning how to manage a personalized classroom rather than a teacher-driven one. Some teachers may find themselves outside their comfort zones when trying to empower students or discover they don’t possess adequate assessment literacy needed to manage a wide range of choice in how students demonstrate learning.

For more information, explore this whole blog series: