I have recently become interested in utilising student agency more formally in my classroom. For a long time I have allowed for some student agency on a basic level, for example outlining to my students what lessons they have that day and allowing them to decide in which order we have those lessons. However, the turning point was last year when I asked my middle school students to plan our summer term residential trip. They had to select two destinations, research and create an itinerary, vote on which itinerary they preferred and present it to the Principal to ask for permission. Once it was signed off, I liaised with the tour provider I had used previously (Adventure Korea, they are excellent) and the students then had to run the majority of the information evening for the parents. Throughout, I guided and supported the students but the students had total choice, voice and ownership of the project and it presented many powerful learning opportunities for my students.
Jump forward to this academic year and I was presented with the challenge of utilising student agency in my Year 5 class on a day-to-day basis. I started small, experimenting using it for a week which naturally lent itself to this approach (the students were completing an extended piece of writing and preparing for their Exit Point) before looking to use it on a more regular basis.
There have been many mistakes and some successes and my inquiry into this approach is still ongoing. As it stands this is where I am at the moment:
1) We start the week with a blank timetable like this. If there are any fixed commitments I will add them onto the timetable.
2) I will look at what I have assessed that we need to do and add these sessions to a table like this.
3) The students are then invited in a group of 3 to come and timetable the upcoming week on a Thursday or Friday. All students will have the opportunity to plan the forthcoming week at some point. All empty slots become Must/Should/Could time.
4) At the moment I plan some of the Must/Should/Could activities and then ask the class to add their ideas. I am working towards my class taking more responsibility for this aspect – this is where the true student agency will begin to happen. However, I quickly realised that the students needed some guidance with this and they needed to be aware of the scope of activities that they could select for themselves. When we first did this, my students planned handwriting and reading comprehension tasks for their Could activities and then didn’t want to do the activities. I assessed this was because they did not have the knowledge of what they could and could not do.
5) Finally, the students receive an individual copy of the weekly timetable and the above page with the Must/Should/Could activities and notes section. They are supported to use this to plan their week, schedule appointments and priorities tasks.
This is a brief synopsis of where I am with utilising student agency. I am certain that as time progresses and I use this with different classes things will adapt and change. Finally, here is a summary of what I learnt so far:
- The approach works. My students come in and elect to continue their tasks outside of the designated learning time on our timetable.
- It is important to remember that each class is unique in the same way that each student is unique. What might work with some classes using this approach won’t work with other classes.
- It is essential that the students have a strong early years education so that they are at a developmentally appropriate level to deal with this level of ownership of their learning and still be successful. Otherwise, it is not uncommon for students who have not had this solid grounding to demonstrate a level of regression with some of the Could activities that are on offer.
- As the trained and experienced facilitator in the room it is essential that I continue to guide students to develop the skills, understanding and knowledge that they will need for later life. It is a balancing act of utilising student’s agency and still supporting them and pushing them to be successful (whatever that means for the individual student). This is not the free schools (or alternative schools) movement re-branded for the 21st century.
- It is challenging to objectively assess how well you are utilising student agency in the classroom.
- You will make mistakes.
Where are you in you journey utilising student agency in your classroom? What are your hesitations/doubts about using this approach? Where would you suggest I go next with this? Please leave your comments in the box below.