Five Ways to Promote Agency in a Student-Centered Classroom

Five Ways to Promote Agency in a Student-Centered Classroom
Five Ways to Promote Agency in a Student-Centered Classroom

Academic Leadership//

December 4, 2022

Inquiry-based and project-based learning are becoming standard practice, and student agency, or “voice and choice,” is recognized pedagogy. Nurturing agile and innovative learners through modern classrooms helps prepare students for real-world experiences, empowering them to advocate for themselves, make decisions, and strengthen their resolve.

Student Agency: What Is It?

Student agency is rooted in the principle that students have the ability and desire to positively influence their lives as well as the world. It refers to their capacity to create positive, effective change by setting goals, reflecting upon them, and acting responsibly.

It is about students showing initiative, taking action, and making responsible decisions rather than accepting those determined by others.

When students play an active role in their education, they are more motivated to learn and more likely to take ownership of their learning. They are also more likely to “learn how to learn,” which is a critical skill they will use throughout life. A well-developed sense of agency helps students achieve long-term goals and overcome adversity.

Five Ways to Promote Agency in the Student-Centered Classroom

In an educational system encouraging student agency, learning involves co-construction, when teachers and students co-create the teaching and learning process. This requires students, teachers, parents, and communities to work together to progress toward their shared goals. To ensure student agency is developed in their schools, educators can:

Establish a classroom culture of inquiry and creativity. Rigid schedules and timelines discourage productive struggle, which requires time and patience based on student needs.

Though students must understand what their learning goals are, to reach these goals, the structure of their learning environment needs to be flexible, offering multiple pathways to success and providing them with the opportunity to move at their own pace.

Additionally, collaboration is central to creative, inquiry-based learning. Rather than drive student learning, teachers can instruct students on how to work effectively together to achieve a common goal. Helping students establish what effective collaboration should look like, sound like, and feel like is paramount to building a powerful learning culture.

Emphasize relevance to create engagement. Teachers often try to entertain students with lessons and materials that are interesting to teachers. This approach can generate engagement, but only temporarily.

When teachers involve students in a curriculum based on student interests, the unique ideas and passions of each student are the drivers of relevant, authentic, compelling, and motivating educational exercises.

Giving students a voice in designing a path toward learning outcomes connects them more meaningfully with their world.

Communicate learning targets. Learning targets are not curricular standards, but a way to meet them. By sharing your goals and learning targets with students, you demonstrate transparency and respect for your students.


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In comparison, a curriculum standard might call for multiple independent actions and then be divided into learning targets. Typically in the form of a question, the standard is communicated in student-friendly language to help manifest required skills over time.

When students understand the necessary steps to achieve their goals, they will take ownership and work harder while also satisfying their individual passions and interests.

Make time for feedback. As students work toward their learning targets, they benefit from periodic evaluation, letting them know where they are, where they need to go, and how they might get there.

This feedback may be generated between teacher and student, from one student to another, or through student self-evaluation. While each form of assessment has its place, in a classroom that promotes student agency, the most powerful commentary is self-evaluative.

Set aside time for students to analyze where they are in relation to their learning targets without the pressure of having to move forward with their assignment or project. The following five questions may guide them through this process:

  • What strengths can you identify in your work?
  • Where do you notice opportunities for improvement?
  • Which decisions would you make differently next time?
  • What additional questions do you have about your topic?
  • Is there another approach you might consider at this point to help you achieve your goals?

Evaluation may also result from students showcasing their ongoing work. Whether in the form of blogs, websites, videos, or social media posts, publicly sharing experiences is a social norm that can also have a place in the classroom. This helps students garner feedback from those inside and outside of their learning space, and also provides an opportunity to promote their work.

Empower teachers to flex their agency in the classroom. Because teachers are the drivers of educational transformation, they crave opportunities to step outside the confines of traditional curriculum and experiment with innovative, cutting-edge approaches to teaching.

Teachers in a student-centered learning environment embrace a constructivist teaching approach based on the belief that durable learning occurs when students are actively involved in co-creating curriculum, as opposed to passively receiving information. Because of advances in technology, teachers are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge. Rather, they are consultants and guides promoting inquiry, innovation, and collaboration. Educators may use new strategies to ensure that the focus of education is not solely on preparing students to thrive in our current world, but also on preparing them to succeed in the world of tomorrow.

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