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What student choice and agency actually looks like

By Daniel Owens
November 14th, 2016

Snapshots from six schools using blended learning to put students in control

smart-collaboration student choice

Student agency, which we might loosely define as students’ ability to influence their own learning, undoubtedly plays a critical role in education.

Many schools and districts see the value in it, but it has often been difficult to achieve. Shifting to an approach where each student directs their own learning — rather than the traditional teacher-led approach — does not happen overnight. The mere idea can be intimidating, and figuring out ways to develop ownership through teaching and learning practices compounds the challenge.

There are, however, a variety of schools using blended learning to increase student agency, and many of their practices have been captured and shared through The Learning Accelerator’s Blended and Personalized Practices at Work site. Understanding more about how other schools are empowering their students through choice and agency can make the idea less intimidating and the challenge of implementation less complex.

Studies have shown that personalization strategies increase students’ ownership, choice, and self direction, which in turn lead to improved academic and nonacademic outcomes. These types of strategies are foundational to the work of The Learning Accelerator (TLA), the nonprofit where I work. During the the past eighteen months, TLA has been identifying the core elements of blended and personalized learning, as well as conducting an extensive search to find, capture, and share instructional strategies from schools and districts that are blending learning incredibly well.

After identifying six schools that best exhibited blended teaching and learning practices, TLA captured seventeen student choice and agency strategies, highlighting a multitude of ways that ownership can be increased through teaching and learning practice. These strategies can be grouped in a manner we know improves student outcomes by creating ownership, choice, and self-direction.

Student Choice

Student choice can happen in a variety of ways in education, including a student’s ability to choose their learning path, the pace at which they progress, and the environment in which they learn, among others. Student choice provides opportunities for students to make decisions in their learning, building agency.

  • CICS West Belden enables students to choose resources and assignments through “menus.” CICS West Belden creates “Learner Profiles” for each student to better understand how each student likes to access information, what helps them stay engaged in their learning, and how students like to show what they have learned. Combining this information with formative and summative data, teachers are able to create custom menus for students that include resources that closely match their learning needs. Students are able to choose which resources are most interesting and relevant to them, or even find new resources if none of the menu options meet their needs.

Student Ownership

Student ownership often describes elements of their own learning that is the responsibility of each student. Students can be responsible for a variety of elements in their own education: their class schedule, their daily schedule, the information the receive, assessments they choose to take, etc. The more elements students are responsible for, the more agency grows.

  • Leadership Public Schools (LPS) Richmond High School increases students’ active participation in their learning by allowing them to request assessments when they are ready to take them. The Navigate Math class a LPS Richmond was created to help students backfill essential skills before taking Algebra, the course that most often keeps students from graduating in California. Summative assessments help determine which individual set of skills each student needs, and they are able to progress through them at their own pace. Students use online resources to learn the material, and take quick formative assessments afterwards to determine their level of knowledge retention. Based on this data, students can determine whether they are ready to take unit assessments, which count towards their grade. Students are counseled on how to interpret their data and know that if certain formative assessments show areas of weakness, they should go back and work on them before requesting an assessment.
  • Roots Elementary works with their K-1 students to co-create their personalized learning schedules. Every student at Roots has a personalized learning plan and an iPad. At the beginning of each day, and throughout the day, the iPad tells the student where they need to be, often alternating between independent learning time, small group instruction, and large group direct instruction. Given the young age of students, feedback is gathered in a structured process every few weeks. Students share what they currently like and don’t like about their learning and educators are able to modify their learning plans to reflect this feedback.

Student self-direction

Self-directed learning involves a good deal of initiative and responsibility on behalf of the student. Multiple elements of ownership and/or choice are often involved in self-directed learning (i.e. students control the path and pace). In self-directed learning, students are able to move through learning objectives with minimal input from a teacher, who often verifies mastery or provides support as needed.

  • Pleasant View Elementary enables student choice of learning pathway and place. Fifth grade students at Pleasant View start learning units by taking a diagnostic to identify what they know and don’t know. Once a student knows what they need to work on, they are able to choose which learning resources they wish to use. They are also able to initiate their assessments and, upon passing, determine whether they want to deepen their learning on that topic or move on to the next learning objective.
  • ReNew Dolores T. Aaron Academy offers eighth graders structured support. The teacher in this classroom identified a strong need to backfill math skills from previous years, and set up a structure where students could master these skills in the sequence they chose. That meant each student could be working on a different learning objective during class, so providing individual support could be challenging. As part of their mastery demonstration, students create a video explaining the problem-solving process and working example problems. If a student is struggling, they first reference this library of videos. If they need more help, students can view the class data sheet to see who has already mastered the objective and ask them for assistance. Finally, if all else fails, individualized help is provided by the teacher (who has more time since students are self-supported).

The above examples highlight only a small fraction of the great work being done across the country to build student agency. Schools and districts nationwide can use these examples as starting points, to illustrate what this work looks like in practice and clarify which types of strategies they hope to implement in order to create more agency and improve student outcomes.

About the Author:

Daniel Owens is a partner at the nonprofit The Learning Accelerator.

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