The Art and Science of Developing Student Agency
By Kathleen Cushman, co-author, Belonging and Becoming (Harvard Education Press), and
Wendy Baron, Chief Officer, Social and Emotional Learning, New Teacher Center
Dreaming up a capstone project for his science class, Ryan Gallagher wanted something that would put his San Diego eighth-graders in the driver’s seat, as learners.
“There’s this game,” he said with a wry smile, “and middle school kids can see it.” Convinced that their teachers know the right answers, the students play along. “In their view, we’re just trying to guide them to those answers.”
But Mr. Gallagher was aiming for something more than such compliance. Educators call it “agency” — the satisfying power to make our own decisions and choices, take meaningful action, and see the results in our own development and learning.
To foster that sense of agency in his students, Mr. Gallagher assigned a project in a scientific field that he knew almost nothing about — hydroponics, in which plants are grown in water, rather than soil. And as he learned alongside the kids, “they could see my excitement in discovering these new things.”
“When they genuinely look in your eyes and you have this fear of, ‘I don’t know,’ they love it,” he reflected later. “And they remember it.”
As a student named Rylee explained:
“The best projects, you’re the one who has to figure it out and make it work. Because it isn’t the teacher’s project! Where they tell you everything, it’s almost like you already know what’s gonna happen. If it’s gonna work out perfectly and they give you all the steps, then what’s the point of the project?”
The Power to Choose
Mr. Gallagher wanted his class to learn both plant biology and the basic principles of chemistry. He decided to form student teams that would build working hydroponic devices to grow food in an aquatic environment.
First, the teacher brought in experts for the class to interview. To his delight, it turned out that professional hydroponics gardeners use one of four different techniques. Each of his four student teams would choose one of those methods, calling on an experienced practitioner for advice.
Many of Mr. Gallagher’s students, of course, did not put science (or even gardening) on their top-ten lists. So their teacher gave them another opportunity to exercise agency, through choice. Students could choose to demonstrate their scientific understanding using the artistic forms in which they felt most confident.
“You may not immediately see any correlation between hydroponics and video editing,” a student named Jackson reflected afterward. But the chance to explain the scientific process through the medium of video energized and motivated him.
“I ended up watching a lot of videos on [hydroponics],” he said. “I put a lot of hours into it, but when you’re having fun, you’re interested. You are learning a lot, but it doesn’t feel like hard work.” With each new video draft that he produced, Jackson said, “I’d get excited to show people what we worked on with the hydroponic system and what was new about it.”
Increasing Competence, Confidence, and Creativity
Student agency grows when teachers put students in the driver’s seat, giving them the chance to work toward competence, confidence, and creativity.
As youth learn to accurately assess their strengths and limitations, they develop the confidence and optimism that leads to a growth mindset, studies show. And they begin to understand that success depends on the willingness to risk failure, get feedback, and keep trying. In the hydroponics project, that process unfolded:
- Guided practice helped students get better at what they tried. “This project gave me a lot of confidence as far as building goes,” said Anderson. “We had so many times where we had to do the task, like hooking up the pump or changing the filter. Rehanging the lights, we did it so many times that it just became second nature for us.”
- Students began to believe in their capacity to learn. “Seeing other people who were ahead of you in the project helped you believe that you could do it, too,” said Rylee. “And going to see people who actually do this for a living — and having [them] come into our classroom and teach us about it — made you believe in yourself.”
- Students came up with their own ideas for innovation. “I don’t want [my work] to look like everybody else’s,” said a girl named Paris. “I want to surprise people and [for them to] be, like, “Whoa! I never would’ve thought of that.”
Making Work Public
In a culminating exhibition, these eighth graders showed their functioning gardens to an audience of parents and community members. They explained the method’s potential impact on global water conservation and food shortages, and they answered questions in accurate and knowledgeable terms.
“If you tell kids that they’re going to exhibit their work, the caliber of the work greatly increases,” Mr. Gallagher said. “Something about that exhibiting and standing in front of an audience that doesn’t know—that’s causing them to reflect back on their learning and pull information out.”
His students agreed. “It makes it feel like we do work that’s important to the world, that it relates to the world,” said Paris. “These kind of things show me that you do use things that you learn in school outside of school and that it can help you in your future.”
Classroom Take-Aways for Building Student Agency
Mr. Gallagher’s curriculum unit worked because he built a level of trust and belonging in his classroom. He knew his students well — including their interests out of school. He helped them to identify their own strengths and differences, and to make the most of them in small-group work.
As he modeled a mindset of curiosity and openness, his students grew more willing to take risks in their learning.
They learned to give and receive feedback, to consider new perspectives, to revise, and to persist. The seeds of student agency were planted, and curriculum and instruction provided fertile soil — an optimal learning environment where they could thrive.
Not every teacher, of course, has circumstances where a project of this type would meet with support. But even in more restrictive contexts, teachers can try out some of its key elements. For example, they will gradually observe increased student agency (and teacher agency, too), in situations where:
- Students are choosing their study topics. In every curricular area, teachers can offer “choice” assignments in which students grapple with important content. For example: “At your age, what rights do students like you have under the U.S. Constitution? What rights are denied you?” Students then select one example to investigate in depth, describe differing perspectives on the matter, and support their point of view with evidence.
- Students are deciding how to explore content. Twenty-first century scholars use many different methods in their research, and young people can, too. (Reading, viewing multimedia, conducting experiments, observing or interviewing others, and engaging in collaborative activities are just a few.)
- Students demonstrate understanding in different ways. They start by helping create an assessment rubric that clearly identifies the criteria for excellent work. Once that’s agreed on, students can show their learning by various means — writing; artistic expressions (from infographics to video or theater); a debate or mock trial; or an activity teaching others what they have learned.
- Students progress at the pace that’s right for them. By providing just the right stretch — through challenges neither too easy nor too hard — teachers can help each student maintain a “can-do” mindset and reach for a “personal best.” Though individual paces may vary, the class shares exemplars that inspire — and the belief that persistence and practice bring rewards to all.
All those elements appear as Mr. Gallagher and his students reflect on their hydroponics unit. What new ideas do they spark for you? How might you develop student agency in your classroom?