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Aurora Institute

How Next Gen Learning Can Support Student Agency, Part 2

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Kristen Vogt

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Activate Student Agency

Students2This post is adapted from the Next Generation Learning Challenges‘ Friday Focus.

Happy Friday, everyone! Today I’m sharing with you more resources, information, inspiration, and awesomeness that came out of the December #NGLCchat on Student Agency. In this issue, I will tackle the ways that the next gen learning strategies of blended learning, competency-based learning, and project-based learning can support student agency. It’s based on what I learned from the guest experts and chat participants.

(The last Friday Focus synthesized what student agency is and what it looks like.)

Blended Learning & Student Agency

The participants view blended learning as a strategy that leads to student agency when it gives students choices about what, where, when, and how they learn. Blended learning leads to student agency when it…


  • Encourages free play: “the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives”
  • Builds student and teacher empowerment, collaboration, and trust (, scroll down to watch the video), like a holacracy: “a new way of running an organization that removes power from a management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles, which can then be executed autonomously”
  • Is designed by teachers: “Elizondo developed the model with a single goal in mind: free the teacher up for more one-on-one coaching time. Along the way, she’s training her students to teach themselves, focusing on skills like goal-setting, progress tracking and checking for mastery”
  • Allows students to individualize learning and master content at their own pace
  • Opens up an entire world of online content to students, not just what teachers can teach
  • Uses a tech platform that allows students to set their own goals and work backwards to assess how their daily, weekly, and yearly work impacts their future goals
  • Uses a tech platform that allows teachers to choose whether their playlists are going to match what they are teaching in the classroom or whether students can move through a whole playlist at their own pace through self-directed learning
  • Allows students to practice and collaborate digitally—through wikis, Google Drive, and screencasts—take more control of the collaboration process, and produce an end product: “Creativity creates agency”
  • Incorporates the three aspects of agency: thinking about the dynamics of an environment, forecasting alternate options for acting within those dynamics, and formulating flexible strategies to act
  • Prepares students to be lifelong learners, requiring social-emotional development, by developing strong relationships between teachers and students, developing students into self-motivated learners, and integrates together academic learning, lifelong skills, and student dispositions
  • Infuses student reflection—and educator reflection—to create a culture of ownership

Not all blended learning is equal, and the use of blended learning does not guarantee that student agency is promoted. Participants cautioned educators to avoid adopting blended learning in ways that “strangle the curiosity of inquiry” and to “eliminate the outdated idea that compliance equals learning.” Guest expert Casey Montigney reminded us, “Compliance means students can follow. We want them to lead.” Here are some key questions that can help you determine if your approach to blended learning is on the side of agency:

  • Do students have sufficient voice?
  • How can we shift from personalization for students to personalization by students?
  • Is the learner in the driver’s seat?
  • Personalization to what end?

Competency-Based Learning & Student Agency

Competency-based learning best supports student agency when students design their own pathway, are free to fail (otherwise known as free to learn) on their way to mastery, and demonstrate their learning through self-directed assessment. Participants view student voice and ownership as key links between competency-based learning and student agency, when competency-based learning…


  • Organizes around multi-age groups, like Montessori schools do. Guest expert Dave Lash lamented that grouping by age was the “worst decision in the history of public education” but competency-based education is our way out
  • Changes the way we talk and think about failure. Failure equals learning. If we want students to feel empowered by their work, they can’t fear failure. If you get everything right the first time, where is the learning? Competency-based learning that encourages risk-taking and experimenting promotes agency
  • Provides opportunities and time for revision, redos, and retakes because students need time to learn, unlearn, and relearn and students don’t all learn at the same pace. When time is no longer an obstacle, students can take ownership
  • Gives students support to design their own pathway to graduation, learn at their own pace, and develop their own goals; for example, Building 21 creates student agency through student-created learning pathways, workshops, and internships
  • Keeps the focus on learning not grading. When grades are necessary (and they aren’t going away any time soon), grades should instill hope and reflect learning; when they are not influenced by compliance scores—zeros for incompletes, turning in something late, completing homework—or scoring formative assignments where students are “coming to know” through practice and engagement with new material.
  • Provides separate and distinct Habits of Work grades that reflect work ethic, like at Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine. “We have second chances and we also have to take responsibility. We can revise if we have a good HOW grade.” In guest expert Casey Montigney’s classroom, at Medill-Shue Middle School in Delaware, students Request to Retest, self-evaluating to do better the second (or third) time
  • Teaches students to assess themselves, to maximize learning. How do students know when they have learned? When it’s making an impact, on themselves, others, or their local community and beyond. Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment from EL Education is a good resource for implementing agency in assessment.
  • Employs more authentic assessment. It’s authentic when they can see and feel a tangible change in themselves and a contribution to others. When they create metrics around that change
  • Emphasizes achieving mastery so students can be the architects of their own academic success and allows students to demonstrate that mastery in the way they best express what they know. If we aren’t asking students to master material, then why are we teaching it?
  • Uses tools such as the student-voice rubric from the Student Voice Collaborative and anchor charts from RSU2 in Maine

As we think about ways that competency-based learning supports student agency, I’ll end on this insight from Chris Sturgis at CompetencyWorks in a reflection on the book, Learners Rule: “Student agency is a natural phenomenon. It exists, and the question becomes whether we nurture it, draw on it, engage with it, or tamp it, even suffocate it, by the layering of rules, compliance and isolated studies. Student agency always exists; the question is, are we engaging with students in productive ways, or in ways that keep all of us from reaching our goals?”

Project-Based Learning & Student Agency

Some of the same themes from blended learning and competency-based learning emerged when participants were asked how project-based learning supports student agency: authentic learning experiences, reflection, student voice and choice, and connections to community. Project-based learning supports student agency because it…

  • Connects a student’s hand, mind, and heart with projects that matter. It helps students “learn to do” and “learn to be”
  • Creates sleuths, scientists, artists, scholars, musicians, dreamers, and, most of all, autonomous learners
  • Is collaborative, creative, authentic, and reflective. Students own the projects, solve problems, and manage time. They use their agency when they control some of the variables for learning, in personalized, or student-designed, project-based learning
  • Empowers students through voice and choice and builds community and encourages collaboration, enabling students to explore their interests, find passion, and challenge themselves
  • Starts with a “messy question” and students need to self-organize their learning in order to develop answers. It deeply engages students in the act of learning
  • Makes projects main courses, the unit of instruction. The project is the learning. Students exercise agency as they work through the project and find strategies for learning that work for them.
  • Involves creation and making something that wasn’t there before. Bringing something new into the world is a powerful human drive, according to Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High
  • “Fosters young people’s sensitivity to the designed dimension of the world, which may be a powerful way to increase their sense of agency,” according to Agency by Design and Lighthouse Community Charter School: “As students become more aware of the design of the world around them, they begin to see themselves as people who can affect that design and are also empowered to actually do the work — to tinker, hack, and improve design”
  • Links maker ed and the local community. Incubator School emphasizes impact projects: Where, how, at what level do you want to make a difference? What do you need to learn to do that? Project H believes that design is a “social act that builds citizenship in the next generation.” Other forms of service learning are agency-building as well

Resources for Implementing Project-Based Learning

Thank you to everyone who participated in the chat for helping us understand how to elevate next gen learning practices so that they embrace, honor, and encourage student agency. I’m especially grateful to the #NGLCchat guest experts:

  • Grace Belfiore, Researcher and author, lead developer of MyWays project
  • Dave Lash, Researcher and author, lead developer of MyWays project
  • Andrew Miller, Consultant with Buck Institute and ASCD
  • Casey Montigney, Teacher at Medill-Shue Middle School, member of the Carnegie Foundation’s Student Agency Improvement Community
  • Michele Savage, Principal of Medill-Shue Middle School, member of the Carnegie Foundation’s Student Agency Improvement Community

The next #NGLCchat will be February 11, 7pm ET. The topic: Teacher Development for Next Gen Learning. We hope you will join in to share your expertise!

See also:

Kristen Vogt, knowledge management officer for NGLC, makes lessons, strategies and outcomes from NGLC grantee projects available to a wider audience. Kristen previously at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in Princeton, NJ. Kristen also has past experience in student and academic affairs in higher education, in particular with first-year transition programs and student support. Kristen earned a B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Notre Dame, an M.A. in Higher Education from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in College Student Personnel from the University of Maryland.