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Developing a sense of agency

6 min read


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pixabay - 21st century skills
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An experienced teacher who was new to my school came to me with a dilemma. A parent of one of his students had voiced her very strong feeling that recess was a necessity for all students. This teacher, however, had used recess as leverage for his students completing their work: those who had, earned recess, while those hadn’t, used recess time to complete their assignments.

This practice had “worked” for him for many years, and he was having difficulty imagining how to manage his classroom without it. Although I believed that recess was a necessity and not something to be earned, I refrained from telling him what to do, because I respected his autonomy as a teacher for managing his classroom. I did, however, recommend an approach that had always “worked” for me: Share the problem with the students; work with them on understanding it and developing a solution to it. We discussed some ways to structure the discussion and he said he would give it try.

A week later he came to me with a smile on his face. His students had reached consensus on a solution to his dilemma: All students would get a certain amount of guaranteed recess time, but those who hadn’t finished their work would get 10 minutes less. He was amazed at how the students weighed the pros and cons of each solution and the manner in which they reached consensus on what to do. He also reported that they agreed to try this for two weeks and then meet again to evaluate how it worked.

As the school year progressed he reported that all his students consistently completed their work more than any other class he ever had. For the very few times a student didn’t complete the assigned work, there were no complaints or protests about missing the extra recess time. He also reported that he continued to share all classroom problems with his students and how he no longer felt that he had to control his class the way he had in previous years. What he discovered and what he had allowed his students to experience was a sense of agency for designing their learning environment.

This result shouldn’t be a surprise; it only reveals something most teachers already know. Students love to help. Even the most difficult student welcomes the opportunity to help with even the simplest classroom chore such as bringing notes to the main office, or helping decorate a bulletin board, so any problem, accompanied by a request to help present in the right way to students, is eagerly embraced.

Students’ desire to help and solve meaningful problems is too often an untapped resource hidden by the assumption that the teacher needs to always be in control of the classroom. The common practice of naming a class after the teacher — Ms. Smith’s class —  is a vestige of this assumption. When educators shift the paradigm from controlling to empowering, students experience the type of learning needed for success beyond school and throughout their lives; they will develop a strong sense of agency.

Steve Jobs provided us with his description of agency:

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and you’re life is just to live your life inside the world … That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it … Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Although it is important for students to feel that they can meet their goals and solve their problems, the agency of Steve Jobs extends the concept beyond individual needs to the world itself. Jobs didn’t state that only a few special people could change the world, he believed it was opportunity that awaited everyone. The difference, therefore, between the people who just live in the world and those who change it, was not their ability, but rather their vision and beliefs. Henry Ford (of the 20th century) put it this way: “If you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”

Students, who experience what it is like to change their classroom and their school, will be the people who will believe that world is not a given and will begin to change it for the better. Conversely, education that is not guided by developing a sense of agency in students remains stuck in a perpetual tug of war where learning is dependent upon teaching and teaching is dependent upon controlling students. Education, therefore, should be the process for instilling a sense of agency in every student and helping them gain the confidence for doing whatever it takes to improve their life, their community and ultimately the world.

Although this concept of student agency should radically change the vision and mission of education, it can begin to grow in every student in any classroom, without new programs or curricula. It can start with the simple act of a teacher turning to students and saying: “Here is a problem we are having and I need your help with it.” Educators who ask instead of tell, invite instead of direct, involve instead of instruct, are really flipping the switch of teaching and learning toward agency. Students are waiting to be asked and given these opportunities even though they don’t know that they are. Every educator can do this right now!

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written three books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden), No Place for Bullying (Corwin) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin). He writes a blog at

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