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Student agency

5 min read


Join us this month for blog posts about blended and online learning. In this blog post, Superintendent Michael Snell highlights how his district uses technology to give students more agency in learning.

Think about how we, as adults, organize our daily lives. From the moment we wake each morning, many of us:

  • Check our social media status and calendar
  • Respond to emails from a portable device, usually a phone
  • Review our schedules on the same device
  • Check a weather app or “Ask Siri” if we will need an umbrella today
  • Check out the latest news via a favorite news app or review whatever our RSS Feed has pushed to us since last night

And, for a good number of us, this all happens before we even take one step out of bed in the morning. You see, as adults, we self-organize and self-determine our daily work and life activities using technology and involving other humans as we see fit.

Now think about where or HOW we learned to self-organize. It certainly did not happen during our public education experiences. If your school days were anything like mine, you were told what to do. Handed a worksheet. Given a “review packet” before the big test. Today, in our school district, we offer a number of different paths to our students, including online and virtual courses that create a natural, blended environment when appropriate for that individual student.

There was little to no self-organization, or student agency as we refer to it today in our schools. It’s not your fault nor was it mine; it is just the way schools were organized in the early 1900s.

Today, as we explore customizing and blending education, we’re reimagining school so that operational efficiency and accountability do not override what’s best for our learners. We’re talking about how to give learners more opportunities to access information and self-organize — without giving up the control and accountability we need in a school with hundreds of learners.

Here at Central York School District, we are exploring this through the development of curriculum mapping. We all know there is a 13-year progression that our learners experience as they move through our system. How can we make it crystal clear what they must know and be able to do to master the material in a unit? A curriculum map offers this information and empowers teachers to offer more student agency in how learners demonstrate mastery of the standards.

What if we allowed (really encouraged) a learner to think of another way to demonstrate what she’s learned in our classrooms? She would need to present her idea to the teacher for approval, then begin.

We are introducing this approach through a unique program called Apollo. Here’s how it works:

  • Apollo combines art, English and social studies into one course.
  • There are three teachers – one for each of the above subjects – who collaborate to create one curriculum for the Apollo students.
  • Every student in Apollo acquires and practices eight research-based thinking skills (compare/contrast, contextualization, perspective, etc.) across all three content areas in a project-based environment.
  • Students do not move from one class to two to three, but remain in the Apollo class for four hours.
  • Projects are assessed with rubrics developed by the students, and each rubric is comprised of three of those eight thinking skills.

In addition to their projects, students in the Apollo program are challenged to self-organize by completing individual assessments for each thinking skill in all three subject areas — but only when they are ready for them and within the marking period.

“This is our way of knocking down the walls and allowing the students to take ownership of their learning and progress at their own pace,” says Wes Ward, a Central York High School English Teacher in the Apollo program.

The “Apollo” program challenged teachers and administrators to reimagine education and remove barriers to student agency. Teachers such as Ward and, most importantly, our students have felt the results.

Deborah Dadeboe, an eleventh-grade student of Central York High School, said the Apollo program’s removal of traditional scheduling and class structure enabled her to have more input into her learning.

“We choose the lessons we attend, how we will apply skills and concepts to our projects and set deadlines for ourselves,” Dadeboe said. “Having the choice in the matter makes me want to learn, makes me want to come to school.”

That is what student agency can — and should — look like in today’s world.

Michael Snell became superintendent of Pennsylvania’s Central York School District in January 2009. Previously, he served as Central York School District assistant superintendent. In addition to his experience with the district,  Snell also served as assistant superintendent of West York Area School District from 2003 through 2007.  He received his doctorate in Educational Leadership and a master’s degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Temple University. The district uses  online curriculum from Odysseyware. Learn more about the road less traveled on his blog, Snell tweets @drmichaelsnell.