How Educators Can Build Student Agency and Help Students Advocate for Themselves - Digital Promise

How Educators Can Build Student Agency and Help Students Advocate for Themselves

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November 29, 2018 | By

As a first year teacher, I struggled to figure out how I could best meet the needs of my students. It was quickly apparent to me that each student had unique strengths and weaknesses, and I made it my mission to figure them out. I learned that not only did I need to understand their uniqueness, but I also needed to work with them to build their capacity to advocate for themselves. One of my students, Nic, made this patently clear to me.

Nic was the type of student who challenged my thinking. He never shied away from telling anyone what they should be doing differently, including me. He would frequently shout across the room, “Stop tapping your pencil that way!” or “Why do you keep raising your hand so much?”

I spent months trying different strategies to support Nic’s behavior without success. I ultimately realized he didn’t need as much trial and error—through his comments in class he was telling me what he needed, I just had to listen and support him. Instead of making the fixes for Nic, I shifted to working with Nic on how to effectively communicate his needs for himself. When he realized I was willing to listen, we began to trust each other, and life in the classroom began to click for us. For example, when a fellow student was making it hard for Nic to focus, he knew what he needed and that he could ask me to support him.

At the end of the school year, the district announced my school was closing. I realized that next year a new teacher would be charged with figuring out what made my students tick. I worried, as all teachers do, how my students would do in their new environments. One thing I was certain of, however, was that Nic was better equipped to communicate his needs to his new teacher.

In the intervening years, I realized that Nic’s particular strength is well researched. Nic was good at advocating for himself and had a strong sense of agency. Student agency has two components: (1) knowing yourself as a learner, and (2) explaining, creating, or asking for what you need to meet your learning needs. Students with high levels of agency take responsibility for and ownership of their learning and build relationships with other learners who can provide mutual support.

Since those years in the classroom, my role at the Friday Institute has centered on providing all students with the learning environments they need to be successful. My experience with Nic is constantly in the back of my mind; rather than working with educators to do this for their learners, I work to encourage teachers to bring students into the learning process—not just as bystanders, but as active partners.

Educators must purposefully cultivate both sides of learner agency. Fortunately, there are many valuable resources available to teachers interested in going deep into this work, including:

  1. Understand the ways your students’ learning might vary. There are tons of resources about learning sciences. For example, the Learner Variability Project connects learning sciences with classroom strategies so you can arm yourself with knowledge about your learners. You can take what you learned there and earn micro-credentials for supporting your learners’ individual strengths and challenges.
  2. Teach your students about their own learning. Too often as teachers we try to fix things for our students. Nic taught me that students often perform best when we give them the tools tailored to them—and let them make the most of learning. Students LEAD is a self-guided course for students to build their understanding of their own learning, get strategies to use in and out of school, and learn how to advocate for themselves. There is also a course for teachers, as well as a guide for how to use the course in their classrooms with lesson plan ideas and conversation starters. There is also a guide for parents so students can work with their allies in making sure they have what they need in and out of the classroom.
  3. Respond to their needs. When a student lets you know something isn’t working, listen.

While Nic was able to tell me what he needed, I learned I have to purposefully teach my students this skill. The research shows that agency is something teachers can cultivate. Agency is a skill that will transcend any one classroom and serve students well for the rest of their lives.

Mitra, D. (2004). The Significance of Students: Can Increasing “Student Voice” in Schools Lead to Gains in Youth Development? Teachers College Record, 106, 651-688. Retrieved from

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