Principal - May/June 2021 - 31

S

tudent agency is trumpeted in newspapers,
education journals, conferences, and many
schools as something we want to elevate.

But cultivating student agency means much more
than handing over the adult's microphone or letting
students decide which book to read. Activating student
agency depends on a school environment that builds
trust and relationships among students and adults.

Student agency requires each student to experience a
sense of belonging in all classes and activities. Authentic
student agency also depends on rigorous teaching and
learning that relies on understanding each student in a
" whole-child " way.
So, what is student agency? While there is no one definition,
common elements have surfaced to describe it. Jennifer Davis
Poon, a fellow at the Center for Innovation in Education, summarizes four concepts central to student agency:
1.
2.
3.
4.

Setting advantageous goals;
Initiating action toward those goals;
Reflecting on and regulating progress toward those goals; and
Creating a belief in self-efficacy.

Within Poon's framework sit student voice and choice,
as well as ownership-other terms tossed about in today's
efforts to transform education by engaging students. The examples that follow demonstrate the power of this framework.
For Scott Cavanias, principal of Alvarado Intermediate
School in Rowland Heights, California, student agency means
" making sure students have a place at the table. " He and his
team look for opportunities for students to have a say in
their learning and showcase their gifts and talents; these can
then be celebrated by teachers and staff members.
Cavanias also stresses the importance of allyship in developing student voice. By this he means that students are
capable of advocating for themselves and for others. " It's when
a student notices injustices, not just in bullying, but when they
become an ally in their classmates' learning, " he says-noticing
when another student might need assistance with reading or
more time to process a question, for example. 

Is It Worth the Effort?
Rethinking classroom practice and
design and spending more time bringing students into the teaching and
learning equation seems like a lot of
work. Is it even possible to accomplish
in the elementary years?
There are numerous reasons to elevate and amplify student agency. One
reason is that it can greatly increase
a student's motivation to engage in
learning, even among younger students
who tend to already be enthusiastic
about beginning their learning journey.
Motivation-and particularly intrinsic
motivation-is a key factor in learning.
Motivation is a factor that connects
to cognitive flexibility and self-regulation
in the early grades for critical thinking,
mastery of content, and collaboration
with peers. Other reasons to promote
student agency and voice are to help develop self-awareness, social awareness,
self-management, and more. These
skills-along with cognitive and content
development-will guide students from
the classroom into the world beyond.
" When the teacher gives us choices,
it helps me to learn because I can
choose the one I know the most about
or I can choose the one I want to learn
about, " says a third-grade student.

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