Deirdre Moore | September 2015

Could Agency Be the Key?

How do we make kids want to come to school?  How do we make them feel truly invested in their own learning?

I’ve thought about this a great deal lately, and I keep coming back to student agency.  At a school where I work, tardiness and absenteeism are a serious issue. As is a lack of family involvement in the school, and student achievement.  It’s not that I think that student agency is a cure-all, but I do believe that enlisting the students as partners in the teaching/learning process is essential to helping address what ails this school, and I am guessing many schools like it.

If students really believe that they can achieve. If they know exactly where they are performing, where they need to be performing, and are empowered with concrete steps to help them reach that performance level. Well, that could be the tipping point to truly engage them and invest them in their learning.  If we educators help foster a hunger for learning, and help develop their grit and growth mindset, we can prepare to get out of the way and let the learners take over!

But that brings me back to that haunting question – how? 

Previously, I alluded to one possibility: having the students get regular feedback on performance.  Let them monitor their own progress, and be sure they know exactly what they can do in order to raise their level.  It seems obvious when I say it, but it’s actually not done as often as it should in the classroom.  Often, teachers keep the data and reveal it sparingly to the students and their families.  Even when shared, it may not be done in a way that helps those learners understand. They’re uninformed of what it means, or what it can tell the teacher and student about what should be done next.  This information is crucial in the areas of reading, writing and mathematics. They provide the basis for almost everything else a child will learn in the core subjects in school.

And what’s another way to facilitate student agency? 

The arts.  We must allow students to dig into an art form – at least one or more if possible so each child can find the area that really speaks to them.  And just as in the core content areas, we should allow children to monitor their growth.  They need to know where they started, so they can see the progress they’ve made.  Sometimes progress in an art form is easier to see than reading, writing or math.  It may be more motivating for a student.  That means students need portfolios of their work.  They need to focus on a skill and keep at it so they can see progress.

That may be easier in visual art as art pieces can be kept in a physical portfolio or photos can be taken of the work and they can be examined easily for areas of progress.  But even the performing arts can be studied in that way.  This requires electronic portfolios – recordings of musical performance, dance performance or theatrical performance.  Allow students the time to keep working on one piece or project and build in regular reflection time.  Work with them to create goals and give them specific strategies to help them reach those goals.  Then celebrate the achievement of those goals.  Praise not the talent but the hard work that was invested to reach those co-created goals.

Having a sense of purpose is so foundational to humans.  It is motivating and it is essential. 

We need to have students have that sense of purpose, to have goals they helped define that are clearly articulated and regularly monitored by both student and teacher, to be given concrete and achievable strategies to help them achieve those goals.  If we pursue that in both the arts and the core curriculum students will begin to feel empowered, to feel that they are agents of their own learning.  As I stated, it seems so obvious but it’s actually not that easy to do.  However, if it is done with consistency in a supportive environment, I believe those students and their families will be knocking down our doors to get in to our schools!

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.