Student Agency: Teaching for the Future

Each year, as the school year is about to start, I am again filled with excitement.  So many new variables make my profession as a teacher a constantly renewing one --new students, sometimes new curriculum, and always new ideas for how to make the curriculum more accessible and engaging to my students. 

But at the same time, I’m also reassured by the constants --I know that my purpose is not just to teach my students the curriculum, but to teach them to be prepared for the world outside my classroom. To educate them not just to be successful in my 7th grade Humanities curriculum, but also to teach them the many skills and habits that will prepare them for new academic and social challenges outside of class. To foster in them the orientation that it’s not just about the grade.  Rather, what’s more important is that they challenge themselves now, and that they develop the habits to challenge themselves even more and grow in the future.

In short, I aim for my students to develop their confidence and competence as lifelong learners.

Such are the lofty goals that we teachers take on each year, each day, often without others outside of our classrooms or students recognizing (or sometimes even valuing) those aspirations.

But as I keep up with my professional development reading these days, I’m increasingly reassured that more professionals in the field of education are starting to value those same goals for students.  There is more recognition that the noncognitive skills students bring to their learning are just as valuable and important to develop for their long-term academic success.  And in fact, if we can support our students in developing those skills, our lofty, long-term, educational goals for students are more likely to be attained.

The Why: Research Findings that Support Student Agency

So what is student agency? Why is it important?  What exactly are the noncognitive skills that add up to student agency?   Do these goals have a research base? And if so, how can we as educators best develop them? 

At Gateway, where students’ process of learning has been central to our mission from our founding, we have been following the research literature closely.  In this blog, I have pulled together a few clear findings to support our everyday, yet aspirational, work to shape students’ agency now and support their future success. (See my next blog for specific strategies we use here at Gateway to support these goals!)

Fact #1:  “Noncognitive” factors and skills matter for students’ success.  In their 2012 report “Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review,” the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research reviewed more than 250 papers in the field of psychology and education.  This research reviewed confirms what many educators already knew intuitively –teaching students in their habits of learning and engaging meaningfully in their education is essential for their long-term success.  And while the report did not identify exactly how we teachers should approach this challenge, it validates with research that these goals should be interwoven in what we do with our students each day.  (Include image & link to research paper)

Fact #2:  Classroom, school and community practices already exist that support students’ agency. In their 2013 paper “Student Agency Practices in the Middle Shift Learning Networks,” the Raikes Foundation identified key classroom, school and community practices that schools in their Middle Shift Learning Network are already doing.  This paper also reviewed the research base for these many practices.  Advisory programs, project-based learning, and strong community partnerships that promote public presentations of student work all support aspects of student agency, as they delineated it.  And while research is still needed on some practices, this review of both research and strategies is an excellent resource for both teachers and schools to support their work.  (Include image & link to research paper)

This research base has validated for me my own instincts as a teacher.  We educators know many ways to support students’ agency; now we need to share them more widely! 

At Gateway, we have developed a searchable resource database of classroom, school and professional development strategies that support the development of students’ agency.  This platform serves as our invitation for teachers and schools to collaborate, share best practices and innovate towards developing students’ noncognitive and student agency skills.  (image & link to Student Agency resource page)

In my next blog, I’ll share four strategies that supports Student Agency that can be readily incorporated in any classroom.

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