Sunday, August 12, 2018

Student Agency is More Than Voice and Choice

Educators and schools across the globe have embraced the concept of student agency.  It is a relatively simple concept in theory, but much more difficult to implement in practice.  The underlying premise is to move learners from a state of engagement to empowerment so that they exert more ownership over their learning.  For many schools, this flies in the face of a traditional schooling mindset that was more geared to learners having to buy-in to a one-size-fits-all system where success was determined by how well everyone did under the same conditions more or less. Oh, wait…. this is still the case in many schools. I digress. A culture that embraces student agency promotes risk-taking while working to remove the fear of failure helps students develop a growth mindset, and has students applying what they have learned in real-world contexts as opposed to just in the classroom.

Student agency is all about improving the learning experience for kids. The most common strategy that is embraced in schools is empowering learners through voice and choice.  This could come in the form of kids selecting the right tool for the right task to demonstrate conceptual mastery or choosing where to sit in a classroom with flexible seating.  It might be facilitated by posing questions and then having students respond under cover of anonymity using mobile devices.  Or maybe it is combining both elements of voice and choice through pedagogically sound blended learning activities. Learning in and out of the classroom should always be at the forefront when it comes to agency. However, we must not lose sight of the third element that comprises this concept, and that is advocacy.


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While voice and choice are more aligned with ownership of learning in the classroom, advocacy aligns with improving the school or district culture.  Learners should be in a position to advocate for ideas, strategies, resources, and other elements that will help them succeed. This is not a new concept in any sense.  Adam Fletcher writes:
Student advocacy has a long history going back to at least the 1930s when a youth-led group called the American Youth Congress presented a list of grievances to the US Congress including public education. Through the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s to the free expression movement of the 1960s to the resurgence in student voice in the 2000s, student education advocacy is alive in the US today. 
Meaningful student involvement engages students as education advocates to work within the education system and throughout the community to change schools. Many students participate in committees, on unique panels, and in functions that help raise awareness or interest in education issues.
How would you rate the level of learner advocacy in your school or district?  This was one of my main focus areas as a principal.  Every month I convened all elected members of student government and engaged them in a conversation as to how they wanted to improve their school. The discussion was relatively broad, focusing on anything related to academic, social, and emotional ideas for growth and improvement. My only request was that each idea or suggestion was accompanied with practical strategies for implementation. After each meeting, I emailed detailed minutes and provided regular updates on where some of their well-articulated suggestions stood. The best part for these students was when my admin team and I implemented some of their excellent ideas.  There is no point in student advocacy if no action results.  Schools with vibrant learning cultures recognize this fact.  Below are some other ideas to think about when it comes to empowering student advocacy, the majority of which were implemented in my former school.

  • When hiring new teachers and administrators include students on the panel for the first round of interviews.
  • If you make a move to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) or 1:1 elicit input from students when crafting policies and expectations.
  • To start the school year, allow students to co-create classroom rules.
  • When looking to improve divisive topics such as grading and homework allow students to weigh in and offer suggestions.
  • Empower students to use social media and the school newspaper or magazine to engage in respectful dialogue about how to improve culture.
  • As you either create or refine your makerspace, gather student input on what themes, tools, and technology they would like to have
  • Ensure there is a student representative to the local Board of Education (BOE) and Parent Teacher Organization (PTO)

Student agency can be a powerful force in education.  It can increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination amongst our learners while also engaging them in activities which aim to influence decisions in a school or district. How are or will you integrate more opportunities for advocacy to create a learning culture that prioritizes all elements of student agency?

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