Student Agency and Meaningful Student Involvement

Middle school students in a SoundOut planning workshop in Washington State.
Middle school students in a SoundOut planning workshop in Washington State.

Student agency is the ability of learners to create, change, transform, move and mold the world around them.

Researchers, policymakers and others it the term to describe when students experience power, control and authority in learning, teaching and leadership throughout schools. Student agency is a key outcome of Meaningful Student Involvement, and is a long-term investment in student learning all schools should work to foster.

Throughout this website, there are several references to characteristics, elements, activities and outcomes that some would say reflect student agency. The Cycle of Engagement is a key tool others would say fosters student agency. None of them are wrong; however, none are right, either.

Establishing and Sustaining Student Agency

Student agency is a deeply seeded understanding that drives learner experiences in schools. Five things have to be present in order for students to establish their sense of agency:

  1. Awareness—Students of all ages have the capacity to be aware that they are intentionally learning, deliberately being taught and are part of a larger process that is happening. Student agency requires awareness of that.
  2. Determination—Fostering student ownership of education can bring forward determination and deliberation in learners of all ages.
  3. Strategic ability—Once learners have 1) established a firm sense of place and 2) taken opportunities to understand their engagement style, they should have opportunities to identify their own educational goals. Establishing a sense of strategic ability can emerge from these understandings.
  4. Critical thinking—The assumptions, beliefs and ideals behind much learning lay unchecked in many educational experiences. Those that foster student agency effective make critical thinking central to the learning process.
  5. Re-creation—In order to experience authentic control over their learning, students need continuous opportunities to connect, apply and recreate what they have learner. Creating experiences in the classroom and throughout education where they can do that is essential to sustaining student agency.

Other elements of student agency that are important to remember include mutual respect; positive relationships with peers and adults; whole child awareness; and safe and supportive learning environments.

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