Student agency can be described as “the idea that students have the capacity to take action, craft and carry out plans, and make informed decisions based on a growing base of knowledge (Safir & Dugan, 2021).” Roger Hart’s Ladder of Participation is one conceptual framework which describes the degrees to which students may or may not find agency within the educational system. From this perspective, it is critical that all young people have the opportunity to learn to participate in the educational system that directly affects their lives. This framework is used as a metaphor to represent increasing levels of youth agency, control, or power, and challenges us to rethink how adults work with young people. The eight “rungs” of the ladder reflect a continuum of agency that ascends from nonparticipation, no agency, to degrees of participation, increasing levels of agency (Hart, 2008).
Involve Students in School Decision Making
When viewing student agency through the lens of the “ladder of participation”, staff will find that there are various ways to engage young people in decision making, depending on contextual factors such as developmental level. As we move up the “ladder”, one critical distinction within the “rungs” of student participation is whether decisions are adult or student initiated. This will often involve a mindset shift, as adults are typically used to making decisions for, and apart from, students.
|In Theory…||In Practice…|
|When decisions are adult-initiated and adult-led, staff develop and share ideas with students (Martinez et al., 2019)||For example, staff will usually develop possible ideas or solutions, students will be consulted about these options (e.g. through surveys), and staff may or may not decide to use the student feedback.|
|When decisions are adult-initiated, and students are consulted, ideas are developed by staff, and both students and staff come to a consensus on which ideas to implement (Martinez et al., 2019).||For example, staff may show students sample acknowledgement systems created by other schools. The school staff then may ask for student feedback on how to adapt the acknowledgment systems for their school context, and staff will use the student feedback to develop their own system.|
|When decisions are student initiated and shared with adults, students develop and share their ideas with staff. Students may provide written summaries of data or feedback collected, they may lead their own student team, or they may serve as a student representative on a school planning team (Martinez et al., 2019).||For example, three student representatives from the student team may sit on the monthly school planning team and engage in problem solving alongside staff as they review attendance data and share student concerns.|
|When decisions are student-initiated and student-led, students identify priorities, develop and share their ideas with staff, and also make the decisions on what to share (Martinez et al., 2019).||For example, students may develop survey questions related to belonging and engagement, and collect and present the feedback to the school planning team along with potential identified solutions.|
Empower Students to Drive Their Learning in the Classroom
Involving students in making decisions fosters engagement both inside and outside the classroom. Consider the following ways that lead students to feel empowered, valued, and respected:
- Offer students choices that are related to how they engage in daily tasks, such as where they sit, what they are going to read or write about or how they will be acknowledged. These provide opportunities for them to have a voice in their learning (Will, 2023).
- Talk with students individually about learning intentions you’ve set and their results from initial assessments. Help them identify where they are in their learning and where they are headed.
- Create opportunities for students to exercise choice and agency in how they receive feedback. For example, at a specific time each week, students can leave a piece of work on their desks for their peers to provide feedback. All members of the class would then rotate from one desk to the next, leaving signed sticky notes offering advice and tips (Fisher, Frey, Gonzalez, 2023).
- Reflect on how you may repurpose existing supports and structures to empower students to direct their learning. For example, one middle school used their study hall period to offer students the ability to receive targeted support and time for work completion, as well as set and monitor goals (Cohen, 2023). They rebranded their study hall, involved families, and called it WIN – “What I Need.” Before going to WIN, students identify what they will do during the period, why they are choosing to spend their time this way, how much time they anticipate spending, and what resources they’ll need. By thinking outside of the box and meeting the needs of students within their classes, they were able to promote student autonomy to enhance learning.
- Encourage deeper and more meaningful learning and growth by supporting students to develop agency in data review, goal setting and monitoring their own progress. Bram (2023) describes how a middle school teacher began this work by engaging in discussions about metacognition and growth mindset using read-alouds that could serve as growth mindset texts. After creating a color-coded, visual representation of one data set (a student-facing assessment tracker), the teacher worked with her students in small groups to set SMART goals. She allowed them to analyze their own results and guided them to choose one goal they were interested in tracking (providing a bank of options as a scaffolded support for those who needed it). She created data folders for each student where they could track their goals without the pressure of sharing them with other students. Every Friday, Michelle led goal-setting sessions where she would conference with students individually or in small groups (Bram, 2023).
Support Students’ Development of Self-Efficacy
One important consideration, when creating opportunities for students to practice autonomy, is to provide experiences likely to result in success, therefore building self-efficacy. Research has consistently shown that students who have a strong sense of belief in self behave more autonomously in various activities, such as planning, goal setting and monitoring their own progress (Bandura, 1997; McCombs, 2015). Building in scaffolded supports to ensure that students feel confident about their capacity to lead and make decisions for themselves and others requires intentional thought and planning. This might include actions such as responding to individual and collective values, norms, affiliations and lived experiences. When students feel they understand what is being asked of them, as well as the prior knowledge and experience they will need to draw from to accomplish the task, students will develop agency that can transform their learning, and their classroom and school environments.
Hart, R. A. (2008). Stepping back from ‘the ladder’: Reflections on a model of participatory work with children. In Participation and Learning: Perspectives on education and the environment, health and sustainability (pp. 19–31). Netherlands: Springer.
Will, M. (2023, September 27). How to boost student engagement: 3 tips from teachers. Education Week. How to Boost Student Engagement: 3 Tips From Teachers
Fisher, D., Frey, N., and Gonzalez, A. (2023, September 1). 4 C’s for Better Student Engagement. ASCD. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/4-cs-for-better-student-engagement
Cohen, Z. (2023, October 17). Reimagining Study Hall to Promote Student Goal-Setting. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/
Bram, M. (2023, October 20). How to Involve Early Elementary Students in Data Collection. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/data-collection-elementary-students
Safir S. & Dugan J. (2021). Street data: A next-generation model for equity pedagogy and school transformation. SAGE Publications. Retrieved October 30 2023 from http://public.eblib.com/choice/PublicFullRecord.aspx?p=6453646
Martinez S., Kern L., Hershfeldt P., George H. P., White A., Flannery B., Freeman J. (September, 2019). High School PBIS Implementation: Student Voice. Eugene, OR: OSEP TA Center on PBIS, University of Oregon. Retrieved from www.pbis.org
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control, New York: Freeman.McCombs, B. L. (2015, March 9). Developing responsible and autonomous learners: A key to motivating students. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/education-career/k12/learners