Quality Design Principle #7: Activate Student Agency and Ownership

“In the beginning it was hard. There were projects rather than textbooks. But then I realized I was learning a lot of things. I learned to manage my time and resources. I set goals now and plan my day. I’ve learned to self-regulate myself. I even plan to give myself free time every day.”

– Student, EPIC High School North, New York City Department of Education, NY 2014


The learning sciences point out that learning is something done by students, not to or for students. Thus, competency-based schools use strategies to help students build agency: the skills and ability to direct one’s course in life and become a lifelong learner. When students have agency they find purpose in learning, are motivated to put forth the effort needed to persist through challenges and are able to manage their progress in learning. Agency requires both mindsets and skills, including growth mindset, self-regulation and other social and emotional skills, metacognition and perseverance. Districts and schools can help students to develop these skills; they can design learning environments and experiences that teach these mindsets and skills explicitly, give students opportunities to practice them and give students time to reflect as they grow. When students take ownership of their learning, they transform the learning environment so that teachers are better able to provide tailored and targeted instruction.

Key Characteristics

  • Active learning. Schools and pedagogy are based on the learning sciences with students actively engaged in their own learning.
  • Opportunities for agency. Instructional strategies are designed to help students build skills and have some degree of autonomy in their learning. Teachers construct opportunity for students to make choices in their learning and co-design learning tasks. Students learn to set and reflect on a goal. They have voice and ownership in decisions about their learning and increased leadership in classrooms, school activities and school governance.
  • Building blocks for learning. Students are supported to build developmental skills, mindsets and character traits of learning. Learning experiences provide opportunities for practice and feedback. There are additional supports and learning opportunities for students that have not yet learned or are struggling to master the building blocks for learning.
  • Timely and transparent information. Students have access to accurate information to support informed decision-making.
  • Educator support. Educators are supported and have opportunities to develop their own competency in coaching students on the building blocks for learning, designing learning experiences in which students have opportunity to practice and effectively assess student development with attention to cultural differences.

How Is Supporting Students in Building Skills for Agency Related to Quality?

One of the most transformative changes in personalized, competency-based education is the shift from compliance to empowerment. Whereas the traditional system expects students to be compliant, passive learners, high-quality competency-based systems engage them as productive, active learners. There is powerful evidence that agency is vital to student learning and development. For this reason, high-quality competency-based education systems turn to instructional strategies that help students find authentic purpose in learning and motivate them to put forth the effort needed to learn. They are intentional in helping students build intrinsic motivation and with graduated release provide opportunity for students to learn to make decisions about and co-design their learning.

There are at least three capacities that schools need to build to support students in becoming active learners and build the skills for lifelong learning: coaching, meaningful information and opportunities.

  • Coaching: Although one can argue that we are all born with agency, it requires skills to be able to become strong self-advocates and lifelong learners that can successfully navigate new environments and challenges. Multiple skills and mindsets are needed for student agency and have been best described as the building blocks for learning. These skills and mindsets include growth mindset, self-regulation and other social and emotional skills, metacognition and perseverance.
  • Meaningful Information: Empowering students means providing them with meaningful choices. Students can only make meaningful choices about their learning when armed with adequate information about the cycle of learning, learning targets, what proficiency looks like, and concepts and skills they needed to reach proficiency. For this reason, schools and teachers must provide students with timely access to information about learning targets, moderated definitions of mastery and where they are in their learning progress.
  • Opportunities: Empowering students also means providing them with real opportunities to practice the skills necessary to be independent learners. Teachers can proactively develop these skills in students and construct learning experiences that let students practice selfregulation and develop academic behaviors. Classroom management strategies can enable students to practice decision-making at appropriate developmental levels. Teachers support students to build skills, using gradual release that empower students and increase agency, not simply handing over the reins. Many schools create opportunities for students to expand their agency by taking on increasing levels of responsibility from the classroom to activities to clubs to school governance at the highest levels. These opportunities build skill development and contribute to a culture of respect and empowerment. It is important to ensure they are offered to a range of students and that, over time, all students have opportunities for leadership roles.

As students become active learners with increasing ability to guide their learning, the roles and power dynamics in the classroom will change. With the help of classroom management strategies and routines, students can take more responsibility for their learning and free teachers to work purposefully with small groups or individuals. In classrooms where students have high degrees of agency, an observer might see groups of students working collaboratively and independently on projects, guiding themselves through learning through student-to-student inquiry and student-directed learning tools. A teacher or teachers might circulate between groups asking critical questions to push their learning, provide targeted supports to a small group of students struggling with a similar concept or skill, or provide virtual feedback on student work. Thus, a virtuous cycle is created: when learning is personalized and students become active participants in their education, greater degrees of personalized learning are enabled. Teachers are better able to meet students where they are and students feel more engaged when they have more autonomy of how they learn, how they demonstrate their learning, and more opportunity to pursue tasks that are of interest to them.

This shift in power within the classroom is significant not only for its impact on learning outcomes, but also for its impact on students’ lives. When students develop agency they build the skills to take active roles in their learning. These very same skills also allow them to make change in their lives and in their communities. Promoting agency also promotes equity by ensuring that students develop into adults who have the capacity and resources to direct the course of their own lives and counteract injustices in the world around them.

It is critical that educators are supported in learning how to help students build the skills needed for agency. For many teachers, this will require building new skills and addressing certain mindsets. It is not at all uncommon to hear teachers express fear that agency is “good for some kids, but not for my kids.” While it is certainly true that some students might need more support or different supports to develop agency than others based on their learning and life experiences, we caution teachers and leaders against assumptions about who can have opportunities for leadership and self-direction and who cannot. As districts and schools create opportunities for teachers to learn instructional strategies for building agency, they might also want to provide opportunities for discourse and reflection that challenge assumptions about what students can learn to do.

Policies and Practices to Look For

  • Classroom management, learning experiences, instruction and assessment are designed to develop the mindsets, motivations and skills that promote agency. Students have opportunities to develop these competencies in their core learning experiences, through coaching and advisement and in extended learning opportunities.
  • Students have timely access to information about learning targets, definitions of mastery and their own progress to make decisions about their learning.
  • Common assessments and common outcomes enable students to have access to flexible pathways, co-design projects that reflect their interests, multiple ways to learn and multiple ways to demonstrate learning.
  • School strategies to nurture student agency are intentionally monitored to ensure that all students, specifically historically underserved and marginalized students, are receiving the feedback and coaching they need to build skills.
  • Teachers use similar classroom management routines and practices to support students taking ownership. Navigating different routines and dynamics in each classroom is minimized to increase the sense of safety and lessen demand on working memory.
  • Students can explain what they are working on, why it is important, what they need to do to demonstrate learning, and what they can do if they are struggling.
  • Students, regardless of academic achievement levels, are encouraged to take on leadership roles and participate in governance.
  • Student-led conferences are used to engage parents and guardians in which students prepare and present their growth academically and as learners.

Examples of Red Flags

Student agency is thought to be the same as choice. Too often schools interpret the concept of student agency as equivalent to choice. This misconception shows up in many ways: teachers think students have agency if they get to pick which book they read or where they sit, or think that having longer playlists equals more agency. There is nothing wrong with these practices—choice provides a limited form of autonomy for students to exert control over their learning process. Providing choice is only one technique to help students build agency, but it is not adequate on its own. Choice needs to be meaningful, grounded in a student’s awareness of where they are in their learning, what they need to do to progress and what matters most to them. Without cultivating purpose, metacognition and self-regulation, choice can be superficial.

Students are encouraged to participate in governance and leadership opportunities but only if they are on track (i.e., at grade level). Privileging students who are on grade level or on track is a trait of the traditional system. It is important to check assumptions about gateways to other learning and leadership opportunities in a school. At first glance, it may make sense to not let a student who hasn’t completed their learning objectives for a semester participate in leadership or other extracurricular activities so that they can direct their time toward learning. However, if they are on a trajectory to getting on track by filling gaps and learning at a growth rate of 1.5 or 2 performance levels per year, they should be commended not penalized. Pay attention to growth, not just grade-level standards.

Teachers do not receive support in how to coach or assess the building blocks for learning needed for agency. Schools often highlight some or all of the building blocks for learning to help students take ownership and build the lifelong learning skills but fail to remember that educators need support themselves in building these skills and in coaching these skills. In addition, coaching and assessing the building blocks for learning is a potential area for bias: without consciousness or intention, bias can undermine efforts to support students in building agency by skewing a teacher’s perception of who has agency or is capable of having agency. For example, a common attribution bias is assuming that students who are late don’t care about their education. However, the exact opposite might be true. There are students that care so deeply about education that they may wake up before dawn to take three buses to get to school or may have helped their three younger siblings get to school.

Source: Sturgis, C. & Casey K. (2018). Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Content in this book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

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