Creating Agency in the Classroom

by Paulyn Zinsonni

Our goal as educators is to lead children until they can lead themselves. Creating agency in our class and home environment allows children to initiate learning actions, take responsibility, and make wise decisions when making choices. Agency is the ability to take action or to choose how to produce a desired effect. 

Where Do We Start?

By providing a guided environment where children are empowered to make decisions and take ownership of their learning, interactions with others, and routines, we, as educators, start to see the impact of the lessons we teach our children in action. It is not always about telling them what to do and how to do things but empowering them with the freedom to show us what they can do. I emphasize the word ‘guided’ so that the implementation of agency is not confused with allowing children to do as they please without appropriate guidance. 

Creating agency in the classroom may be as simple as providing books on display that pertain to the topic of the current study or collaborating with children on defining classroom roles and essential agreements. My favourite is giving choices of classroom games and leisure activity supplies and discussing who is responsible for maintaining the items they have chosen to have in the classroom. By collaborating with students on classroom decisions, job descriptions, and essential agreements, you show them that it is not ‘my’ class; it’s ‘our’ class and our learning.  We all contribute to our school experiencing success by intentionally playing our role. 

Agency in Action 

A great example of the impact of agency on learners’ progress and achievement from my class is our class jobs. At the start of the school year, we worked together on the description and responsibility for each class job. We employed the use of writing job letters every two weeks and being rewarded with House Points for how effectively we completed our position based on the reviews from our peers. Students knew exactly how to perform the jobs because they defined them. They were also aware of their peers’ responsibility to perform their jobs and would remind each other of their roles. Our job letters became more descriptive every time, and students knew when to turn them in with little or no reminders. They were performing jobs they defined and took full ownership of. 

Another excellent example of the impact of agency is students becoming more independent in their learning and wanting to dive deeper into topics discussed in class. When my co-teacher and I started to provide students with resources at different levels of learning, such as books, magazines, puzzles, question cards, and computer searches, we observed students taking the initiative to read more about the discussed subject topic, and they showed eagerness in sharing their own independent inquiry. 

Working Together to Succeed 

Collaborating with students on what the assessment criteria should look like is another great way of creating agency. Establishing clear expectations and guidelines with students is essential to ensure success in assessment criteria. Giving students the freedom to take ownership of their learning and providing opportunities for self-assessment will also help promote agency both in the classroom and at home. As teachers, we want to offer guidance and support while encouraging children to make their own choices and take risks. Creating agency can be achieved through various ways, such as student-led projects or letting students choose their learning activities. However, it’s important to avoid overly strict rules and limitations that stifle their creativity and independence. Students in our Year Four class became more engaged in preparing for assessments because they set them.  After every marking for evaluation, students took their time to reflect on what they did well and what areas were challenging. They wrote great feedback that informed my co-teacher and me about what steps to take next and gave us a clearer understanding of our students’ learning. 

Theory to Practise 

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is an excellent reference for building up to creating agency in the classroom. Children’s need for guidance from a more skilful person should end at some point where we as teachers (the skilful person) should step back and watch our lessons take on a life of their own as we observe our students apply their knowledge and become leaders for one another.  Agency in the classroom also allows the teacher to observe students’ growth and see where they need to be of further assistance. 

We all want children to be empowered positively, and it starts with us as professionals creating an environment that encourages students to take the lead. 

The children we empower will empower others. 

Creating agency is the first step.

Paulyn Zinsonni is the IB Coordinator at Foshan Etonhouse International School.

To connect with her, click Here

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