I was recently asked what “Student Agency” means in the EdTechTeam Honeycomb, the visual framework we use when supporting any school change initiative, including new technology initiatives, such as a 1:1 Chromebook or iPad roll out.
Student Agency is the most important part… and we’ve thought about making it the center of the honeycomb (instead of the rocket) if there is ever another element we want to include.
Student Agency is about the student being the “agent” (or “person with an active role” in learning) rather than the teacher. When a teacher lectures and students take notes (or when a teacher assigns worksheets and students complete them), the teacher is the active agent… the one in the driver’s seat – or the one doing the heavy lifting (to use two common metaphors).
But when the student has agency, the student is making, creating, doing, sharing, collaborating, and publishing in ways that are meaningful to them, using real-world tools. EdTechTeam takes an explicitly constructivist approach, believing that students create meaningful schema in their own minds through active engagement with the world… not through a process of passive transfer from a teacher’s mind to theirs. This is very much in the tradition of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, Papert, and other progressive educational theorists of the 20th century.
Student Agency is sometimes also called student-centered or student-focused learning… it tends to be differentiated for learners with different needs, if not individualized for each student. At its best, students are deciding what to learn (following their passions), and how to learn it (playing to the strengths of their own learning styles).
A teacher’s role in this is of course very important – as a facilitator and coach. Ideally, a teacher serves as a wise guide raising students’ awareness of what’s possible in the world, and what has come before them… seeking opportunities to connect students’ passions with things the teacher also considers important. Naturally, this is important for the cultural transmission function of education, particularly public education. Within the constraints of a mandated curriculum, the teacher might help connect a student’s learning path with the necessary concepts that will be tested, but naturally we prefer a more open ended approach where possible. With Google’s 20% time as a popular model, we often say that the most important question you can ask a student is “What do you want to learn?” – followed with “you’ve got me and all the resources of the school at your disposal.”
We no longer work in a time when our job as educators is to help students memorize a few things they might need someday… our job might much more accurately be described as helping students to access and use the information they need in ways that are meaningful to them. In short, to create the life long learning mindset necessary to thrive in their unpredictable future, we have to help students develop and hone the active and self-directed learning skills they’ll need – rather than creating the compliant and passive factory workers of the past. We have to give them agency during their education now if we want to unlock their potential for the future.