Although many teachers recognize the importance of making students active agents in the classroom, it is easy to overlook student agency when we plan our lessons. However, the ability to make key decisions about their learning is a powerful motivator for students. If they are invited to tailor the learning to their interests, decide how to approach a problem, or determine what they will create, it makes them feel valued as individual learners. It also has the advantage of getting more students to lean into the learning happening in the classroom.
When I work with teachers designing lessons using blended learning models, I encourage them to think about where in the lesson they can hand over decision making power to the students. A simple approach is to think about the what, how, and why of a lesson, assignment, or project and give students the opportunity to answer one of those questions.
Can you allow students to decide what aspect of a subject or topic they want to focus on for a lesson, assignment, or project? For example, if we are researching Elizabethan England to complement our reading of Romeo and Juliet, I invite students to decide what aspect of that period most interests them–the plague, entertainment, fashion, gender roles, musical instruments, the monarchy–and research that topic. Even though they are focused on different topics, they are still developing research skills, designing a presentation, and presenting for the class. This agency to choose what students will focus on creates a level of personal investment in the task and invites students to focus on an aspect of the subject that interests them.
Can students decide how they will accomplish a task? Teachers are always tight on time, so it is easier to tell students how to approach a task. However, this one-size-fits-all approach does not encourage students to think critically about what they are being asked to do or how they would approach solving a particular problem. There is value in challenging students to think through a task, assignment, or project and articulate their own path for completing that work. For example, if students are asked to create a digital story or test a hypothesis, allowing them to decide how they will tackle that task, what steps they will take, and which tools or technology they will need can make that task more engaging for students.
Can you challenge students to articulate why a task, assignment, or project is valuable? Asking students to define the purpose of the work they do and then decide how they want to demonstrate learning can be an incredibly powerful exercise. Too often, students label the work they are asked to do as “busy work,” which is an indication that they do not understand the value of that work. If they can define why they are doing a task, they can also make informed decisions about what they want to produce to show they have learned.
When students work on a project, I will often allow them to decide on the topic, articulate the path for how they want to complete it and ask them to think about the purpose of the project and propose a product. At the end of a project, some students have built physical models others have designed multimedia presentations and others have created digital artifacts. Allowing students agency about what they produce or create is another way to get even our most reluctant learners to lean into the learning.
Many teachers worry about a loss of control when it comes to student agency. When I work with teachers, I am quick to point out that student agency does not mean students make all of the decisions, but it does mean they get to make some of them. I also share that in my experience the more I release control of the learning to the actual learners, the more rewarding the learning is for everyone.