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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Student Agency and Personalized Learning

A goal of personalized learning is to build student agency, or students empowered to be in charge of their learning. Student agency is a paradigm shift from the teacher as the locus of the classroom to one in which the teacher is the facilitator, guide, and coach, while the student is “doing” the learning.

Making this shift is common sense. 

Think about a powerful learning experience, in or out school, in which the metaphorical light bulb went on, an “aha” moment. Now think about the qualities or characteristics that made that learning experience powerful. When I facilitate this exercise with students, teachers, and administrators, the answers are quite consistent. The experiences usually have to do with when the individual was actually doing and applying something new, like learning to ride a bicycle, tutor a younger student, build a robot, solve a complicate problem, or travel to a foreign country. The experience entails qualities such as persistence, going out of your comfort zone, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, patience, and creativity. Almost always, it is something someone is passionate about, they chose to do it.

Those are the qualities and conditions of learning we need to recreate in personalized learning schools, moments that are regular occurrences rather than occasional, intentionally constructed and built into every student’s personal learning pathway. The lens of student as shaper of their learning engaged in the process of uncovering and constructing should be embedded throughout the curriculum.

In fostering student agency, we as educators need to be prepared to listen and connect to students’ personal experiences in engaging with the world. Their experiences might be quite different than our own, and may touch upon race, economic, and gender disparities in the world around them that students encounter every day. Michelle Fine (1987) in her ethnographic essay on Silencing in Public Schools, details how student discourse about race and class inequities in students’ lived experiences inside and outside the school were often detoured or outright shut down by teachers who were uncomfortable in discussing how societal inequities manifested themselves in students’ everyday lives. She notes that by keeping students’ personal lives out of the curriculum and classroom discussions, this “silencing” process makes “irrelevant the lived experiences, passions, concerns, communities, and biographies of low-income, minority students.” On the other hand, she posits that engaging in discourse about societal influences around us gives license for students to enter into “critical conversations about social and economic arrangements, particularly inequitable distributions of power and resources.” She concludes her essay by calling for “participatory pedagogy,” that is, giving all students license and agency to engage in learning in ways that have meaning to them.

Student agency also involves student activism, or experiencing what it means to contribute to making this world a better, more humane place. Years ago, a science teacher at Boston’s Greater Egleston Community High School, a high school situated in a low-income, mostly Latino and Black neighborhood, told her students that the neighborhood had some of the highest asthma rates in the city and state, and asked them to figure out why. Students researched and discovered that one potential cause of asthma rates was diesel traffic. They went out and charted the amount of bus and truck diesel traffic, researched diesel traffic rates in the city and found that diesel traffic was the highest of any intersection in the city. They found that this tends to be a pattern in cities – route diesel traffic through the poorest neighborhoods. They put together their research and presented to state and city agencies, resulting in a reduction in diesel traffic in the neighborhood.

Student choice; learning by doing; discourse about power, inequity, and students’ lived experiences; and student activism – all ingredients that make for powerful student agency and preparation for active citizenship in an increasingly diverse and global world.

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