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Student agency: what is it good for?

student agency at Dulwich College International

Dulwich College International’s recently formed Education Team are using educational research and evidence data, students and educators' qualitative interviews to frame a progressive new strategy for our ten schools and colleges. In this article, Sian May (Director of Senior School) invites us to a discussion of what student agency is good for. We would actively welcome engagement in this discussion from anyone with an interest in the best models for 21st Century schools.

It is always a pleasure to engage with other educators. As such, I enjoy my daily routine of exploring the incredible learning experiences which are discussed and shared on Twitter. The recent IB Hong Kong regional conference proved a useful spark to our ongoing discussions regarding student agency. We believe that our newly devised school evaluations place student agency at the centre of our understanding of learning in our schools. This echoed the message of wellbeing experts such as Dr Jamie Chiu with her emphatic statement that, “Every child needs to be known, respected, and heard.”

At Dulwich College International, our bold mission is to establish the “best schools in the world” where "students come first". This vision hinges on us building from our students first focus before pivoting to experts, educators or research. We recently launched an ambitious campus review at each of our schools engaging thousands of students in group discussions built around our Learning Principles. Our students (spread across Asia) were able to provide in-depth articulation of their most effective learning and more broadly, what constitutes effective teaching. This incredible engagement with our students provoked the question: how do we nurture, prioritise and harness this huge capacity for agency amongst our students?

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In January 2019, as a member of the Education Team, I had the privilege of working with our highly motivated Heads of College at our group steering meeting, to build a definition of student agency that would guide our focus as pedagogical leaders. Our school leaders who possess a wealth of experience and expertise created a variety of ambitious and inspiring definitions and criteria in relation to this task. The resulting professional discussion was enhanced by analyses of evidence, theory and reference to our shared values. The commonality between colleagues was heartening but not surprising. The irony too of adults gathered in a room devising a definition of “student agency” was not lost on the group! However, it was a vital first step in responding to the huge volume of student conversations that, we as a group, have embarked on since August 2018. This continues to provide us with an unprecedented insight and immersive analysis into learner experiences.

Our collective conclusion was emphatic. Student agency must underpin all aspects of school culture with a clear focus on relationships and wellbeing, the learning environment, pedagogical leadership and student leadership.

Our starting point for the culture we wish to nurture has involved asking students questions such as:

  • Who owns the learning?
  • Why are you learning this?
  • How do you feel about your learning?

Student agency occurs when children are known, can exercise choice, enjoy responsibility and are able to contribute to the progression of their learning. Research on motivation, outlined in the Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, has suggested that a strong sense of autonomy is the key to developing the healthy self-motivation that allows children and teens to pursue their goals with passion and to enjoy their achievements. It is this focus on intrinsic motivation that has created the most interesting challenges for our next stage of evolution as a group. Our vision for the group seeks to move beyond more traditional extrinsic rewards and accomplishments for our communities to become more equitable.

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As Tonya Gilchrist rightly states, it can be challenging to measure student agency itself, but we can begin by measuring how we are progressing in fostering learner agency in our schools and classrooms. In effect, we must be prepared to examine ourselves as educators, and the environment we provide to empower students to exercise their agency. For Dulwich College International, the Learning Principles are our shared understanding around which student agency develops. We, as pedagogical leaders, must encourage all teachers to build our students’ capacity for autonomy in all aspects of their learning and lives. This represents a unique and exciting opportunity in a range of cultural contexts. We will continue to speak with our students about their experiences to see how student agency is accelerating in each context. However, simple indicators can provide us with the insight needed to release agency in our students. The beginnings of agency are emerging when our students can state:

  • I can choose my own resources
  • I can explain the question I am investigating
  • I can describe what my finished product or performance will look like when it is a success
  • I can explain what I do not understand about _____ yet
  • I can voice my opinion

Similarly, for educators to be able to make the following statements means the beginnings of the equitable environments which enable agency are emerging:

  • We ensure that all students are known and heard in our school community
  • We focus on student progress rather than outcomes
  • We actively build peer to peer and broader community cohesion
  • We cultivate intrinsic motivation in our students
  • We ensure that students regularly learn in natural settings

This leads us to explore what cultural components must be present in order for the environment to be conducive to authentic student agency. We, as educators, must set the contextual conditions for agency to flourish. Dr Helen Street’s definition of ‘Contextual Wellbeing’ is for us to create school communities that value equity, collaboration and student autonomy. These are the guiding principles for every single decision and action which take place in our schools.

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Teacher Wellbeing

In 2007, Dr Professor Rob Briner and Dr Chris Dewberry, Department of Organizational Psychology, Birkbeck College, University of London, conducted a UK based study in relation to the impact of teacher wellbeing. The findings suggested significant links between how teachers within a school feel about their work and the student outcomes in that school. These links were found even after controlling for other factors that are known to have an influence on student outcomes. As a group, we are keen to reach beyond studies such as this and OECD statistics regarding teacher working conditions. Our clear vision is that well-resourced schools must deliver beneath the veneer for all members of the community. It is therefore essential that we develop the social-emotional competency, relationships and wellbeing of our educators, leaders, support staff and parents. As a priority, teacher and school leadership wellbeing is paramount. Countless studies by Sue Roffey, Rebecca Collie and Jantine Spilt (and others) acknowledge that when educators and other school staff experience manageable stress levels, and social and emotional competency, their collective efficacy and capacity to support positive relationships and social and emotional learning for students will increase.

Therefore, driving forward student agency can crucially also support and develop teacher agency. One example where this can occur relates to the way we engage with exam-based courses and summative assessments. When we, as educators, empower students to moderate each other’s work and spend time unpacking criteria to enable them to identify their own ‘gaps’ and strategies, it helps us, as educators, to resist the temptation to ‘teach harder and go faster’ as examinations approach.

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The evidence is compelling that when students develop quality, equitable relationships with each other and their teachers, this collaborative community of learning leads to life-long mental health protective factors which promote resilience and wellbeing. Our focus must be school cultures and communities, not individual skills and attributes i.e. importantly and crucially it is about what we can create as school leaders and educators rather than what students can do individually. We must value and prioritise learning which is active, fun, personalised and curiosity led as it results in high achieving students whose stress is reduced and sense of self is heightened. 

Student agency is much more than independence. It is more than the ability to do something on your own. It is more than a skill. It is the opportunity and the empowerment to create, choose, take charge of, and own your knowledge, learning, and skills. Agency is neither a skill that needs to be developed nor measured. It is something that all of us already have - the difference lies in whether others in our environments respect, value and support it.

Students join our school communities with a variety of languages, experiences and cultural norms. Therefore, each collectively represents a unique context. Both students and staff should enter a community which proactively nurtures individual perspectives, abilities, strengths and preferences. All of our other educational aims are achieved fully and sustainably when this is established.  Students and teachers emerge as partners in learning, become adept at understanding themselves and each other, build flourishing self-esteem, develop complex skill sets and develop the ability to evaluate their own performance and that of others. Only this will ensure our students’ lifelong protective factors and our educators will wish to stay in our schools to build and secure the culture. Dulwich College International’s learner experiences are our central motivator as a group and as an education team. This brave new(ish) world requires us to take the next bold collective steps towards living out our shared vision of student agency.