Can we measure student agency?

Several years ago when we started to think about how we might measure student agency at our school as improving student agency was our goal, we spent some time gathering data about what agency could look like at each age level. As I walked around each morning to greet everyone, I started to make a note of things I saw that demonstrated what could be considered agency. For our youngest learners, I saw that some students were able to put their outdoor shoes neatly onto the shoe rack as they prepared themselves to enter the classroom. Some of our second graders set out their learning tools for the day, including sharpening their pencils when needed. Because of the time of day when I was observing (and also where our understanding of what student agency was at first), most of these ‘incidences of agency’ seemed to fall into the Self-Management Skills domain. These students showed ownership of the processes required to effectively start a day of learning.

Although Self-Management Skills are arguably the most important of the Approaches to Learning Skills as these are needed to allow time and opportunity for Thinking, Research and even Communication and Social Skills to develop, we were sure there was more to learn about agency here.

We found that some of our older students, for example, were opening their laptops to practice their 10-finger typing or even moving their post-it notes from one place to another on charts designed to show stages of understanding. Here, students were showing ownership of the processes required to learn, which is our ultimate focus.

What is ownership?

Knowing what Voice and Choice looks like is something we felt quite comfortable with. It was time to define what Ownership as part of Student Agency meant for us. Simply put, ownership is possession. In child language, “It’s mine!” For me, the core of the shift we are making is to take the entire learning agenda out of teachers’ hands and put it into the hands of the learners. (Note: the Latin root of ‘agenda’ and ‘agency’ are the same: agere “to do, act, manage”.)

I have found the five-part model of ownership of learning (first published in 2013 by Conley and French in reference to Key Components of College Readiness) helpful in breaking down the elements of our programmes so that we can see where we are doing well and where we need to develop ourselves in order to support our students more. I believe that most PYP teachers would feel confident in the areas of motivation and engagement, metacognition and, with a growing awareness of the importance of growth mindsets, self-confidence and persistence. Where many of us need to improve is in goal orientation to allow for self-direction, self-efficacy and self-monitoring.

Before we went too far, we still needed to think about how we would know if our students’ ownership of learning increased. Would the indicators simply be improved progress and attainment? Would we be able to know that our efforts to put the curriculum more into students’ hands was the reason for the improvement? In order to focus explicitly on students’ thinking, we used some of the Looking for Learning protocols that we learned so much about from Pam Harper and Howard Marshall from Fieldwork Education. Of all of the questions one can ask students to ensure that learning is actually happening and is appropriate and sufficient, these are my favourite: What are you learning? Why are you learning it? What will you learn next?

Stop and think.

As an educator, what answers would you like to hear to these questions? If you heard those things, would you believe your students had agency? How will you know when they have increased their levels of agency?

What we heard after one school year of gathering replies to these three questions were things like this:

What are you learning? ‘About space’, ‘About fractions’, ‘About colour’, ‘German’

Why are you learning it? ‘Because we’re learning about exploring and discovery’, ‘So we can get smarter and get better jobs’, ‘Other people don’t know how to mix colours, and if you want to be an artist and need to mix colours you can’, ‘So I can speak in a shop’

What will you learn next? ‘We are going to learn more about space’, ‘We are going to make a presentation’, ‘We are going to paint a picture’, and, overwhelmingly, many students replied, ‘I don’t know’.

Some of these responses are not bad, but what I would hope to hear as we get better at this are more detailed replies to what a student is learning, more personal reasons why they are learning this and certainly a clear idea of what is coming next in the learning for him or her. This is a massive task as we, ourselves, are overwhelmed with our agendas! And herein lies the beauty and focus of Core & More – to ensure the aims of our curricula are manageable enough to give them to our students. 

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Albert Einstein

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