By Kristin Klingensmith

IFL Mathematics fellow

Sara DeMartino

IFL English language arts fellow

Many educators name student agency as something they want to work to develop within their schools and classrooms. But what is student agency? And, more importantly, what can we as educators do to foster student agency?

To start, we should work from a common definition of agency. The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University defines agency as “the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative […].” In their work they frame agency as being on a continuum from having a sense of agency to expressing agency.

If we keep their definition of agency in mind, then we have to acknowledge that agency is not something that is given, but rather is something that can be nurtured in others. And because students spend most of the school day participating in learning activities in classrooms, we have to consider what agency looks like during the learning process and the impact teachers have on students’ development of agency.

To foster agency in the classroom, students should have opportunities to be active participants in their learning and be asked to think deeply about content. Students are the meaning makers in the room, and the teacher provides support through feedback and scaffolding that allows students to do the heavy lifting.To better understand student agency and the impact teachers can have on its development, let’s compare two scenarios from second grade classrooms. The students in both classrooms are working to solve the
Doubles Task. As you read, look for instances where you believe students are expressing agency.

Scenario A

Mrs. Miller begins when everyone is sitting silently with the task and a pencil. She tells the students to watch what she does so they can learn how to solve addition equations with double-digit numbers quickly.

Mrs. Miller says, “I know that there are 49 cookies in each box, and there are 2 boxes, so I have to add 49 + 49.”

She writes 49 + 49 = ___ on the board.

Then she says, “I add the tens together and then add the ones together. Then I will put the tens and ones together. 4 tens + 4 tens is 8 tens—80.” Then she says, “9 ones + 9 ones is 18.” She continues, “I know the total amount of tens, 80, and the total amount of ones, 18, so now I put the tens and ones together.” Mrs. Miller says to the students, “Write the amount we get when we add the tens and ones.”

She sees some students write 80 + 18 = 98. Other students shout out their answers: I got 98. There are a lot of cookies. Wait, I got 88. No, it is 80 and 18, so it has to be 98, don’t you know?

She is disappointed that they shouted out and did not wait to be called on. Mrs. Miller says, “I wish you would follow the directions. But two of you shouted out the right answer, so good job.” Mrs. Miller writes the final step on the board: 80 + 18 = 98.

Mrs. Miller then turns to the class to check their understanding. She asks, “Why did we add 80 + 18 to get 98?” The students look at her and then at one another. One student says, “Because you told us to.”

Scenario B

Ms. Franklin tells the students to get ready for math and posts the Doubles Task on the board. As students move into their math groups, they begin to work on the task in groups. Ms. Franklin walks around the room, listening to their conversations and providing support as needed. She notes that some of the students have made diagrams of base ten blocks while others are using manipulatives. Some students are working more abstractly without the use of visual models.

As she approaches one of the groups, she hears a student say, “I added 50 + 48.” Another student says, “I think we made a mistake. We have to add 49 + 49.” Another student says, “It’s okay because it’s 98 either way. It is just easier to add 48 + 50.” Ms. Franklin asks where the 48 + 50 came from, and a student answers, “We moved 1 from this 49 to this 49.” Then Ms. Franklin asks, “Are you allowed to move some from one addend to another? Why or why not?” The students pause and then start to talk as a group. Ms. Franklin hears several students say that both 49 + 49 and 48 + 50 equal 98. One student says that moving 1 from 49 over to the other 49 does not change the answer because they are moving 1 not adding 1. Ms. Franklin says, “Get your reasoning on paper. Be ready to explain to the class why changing 49 + 49 into 48 + 50 does not change the answer.”

Ms. Franklin continues to circulate among the group listening for their mathematical reasoning and asking questions to stretch their thinking.

You probably noticed instances of student agency in both classrooms, but recognized that there were more instances where student agency was being expressed in Ms. Franklin’s class than in Mrs. Miller’s class. Though Mrs. Miller’s students were willing to share their answers and be heard (without waiting for her to call on them), Ms. Franklin’s students expressed agency more consistently and in more ways.

The evidence of student agency in these scenarios is directly related to the instructional decisions that Ms. Franklin and Mrs. Miller made that worked to either “boost” or “dampen” student agency. Both Ms. Franklin and Mrs. Miller start by selecting a task that is of high cognitive demand and that allows for multiple student solution paths, which provides students something worthwhile to talk about and figure out. This instructional decision serves to boost agency. Unfortunately, after the selection of the task, Mrs. Miller works in a way that dampens student agency because opportunities for students to think, reason, and even interact are taken away. In contrast, Ms. Franklin continues to boost student agency. She creates an additional challenge when she asks a small group of students, “Are you allowed to move some from one addend to another? Why or why not?” which leads students to think more rigorously by working to understand why moving an amount between addends does not change the whole, rather than simply report the steps they used to arrive at the answer. The challenge works to captivate the attention of the students and requires them to engage in meaningful discussion of the mathematics. Based on their interactions, it is likely that students in Ms. Franklin’s class regularly participate in meaningful classroom discussions.

If student agency is to remain a goal, then looking at what is happening in the classroom must be the focus. We have to recognize that students from every background deserve and have the right to experience classroom environments designed to foster agency. We have to believe that students are the most valuable resources in the classroom and come to us as thinkers whose contributions have merit. We have to ask if the materials we put in front of students are worthy of serious thought and cognitive effort. And we have to consider how instructional practices subtly, or not so subtlety as in the case of Mrs. Miller, convey beliefs about students and work to boost or dampen their agency.