Student Voice & Agency: A Toolkit for Classrooms

Rob Mason

Enabling students to develop a capacity to know what works best for their own learning

Student voice and agency are concepts that historically might have meant allowing your school captain to present merit awards to students in assembly. In recent years, education researchers and practitioners alike have begun to dig deeper into what it means to give students voice and agency in practical and meaningful ways for their learning. It is a concept tied closely to our earlier topics of metacognition and self-regulation; providing meaningful and authentic voice and agency becomes so important when students develop a capacity to know what works best for their own learning.

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Definitions

Before diving too deep into the world of student voice and agency, it’s important to define a few terms:

Student voice

Student Voice refers to the values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds of individual students and groups of students in a school, and to instructional approaches and techniques that are based on student choices, interests, passions, and ambitions

https://www.edglossary.org/student-voice/

Student agency

Student agency refers to learning through activities that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated with appropriate guidance from teachers.

https://www.renaissance.com/edwords/student-agency/.

Importantly, listening to and acting on student voice gives students agency and choice in how they learn.

 

What student voice and agency looks like in the classroom:

  • Hearing from all students in a class
  • Providing students with opportunities to collaborate and make decisions with adults about what they learn, how they learn, and how their learning is assessed
  • Giving students the opportunity to make choices in developing their understanding of concepts
  • Building student capacity to provide peer feedback that can be delivered, understood, and used to enhance learning
  • Building student autonomy so that students are able to self-regulate and learn independently
  • Developing students who are agents in their own learning; building self-efficacy and the belief that students have control in their learning outcomes

What student voice and agency isn’t:

  • It is not free reign and choice over all learning experiences. Student voice and agency is about being heard, and learning being negotiated. Engagement is key, but the teacher should be positioned as an expert facilitator, not a dictator.
  • It is not a tokenistic student survey that is collected, collated, but not used to change teacher practice or inform future learning experiences
  • It is not ‘just’ student leadership roles – school or class captains, prefects, etc.
  • It is not asking the vocal few students in a class and using their feedback to change how every student learns
  • It is not auditory forms of communication only. A student’s ‘voice’ can be communicated in a range of different modes. The ‘hearing’ of student voice is the reception of the student’s message by the teacher.

A Toolkit for Classrooms

The following resources represent a range of modern approaches to incorporating student voice and agency into the classroom. They include a combination of case studies, how-to guides, blogs, articles, policy documents, and introductions to education researchers in the area. There are many practical strategies contained within, that will help you picture what student voice and agency might look like in your classroom.

Resource #1: Student voice and agency: A case study at St Albans Secondary College

This video, produced by the Bastow Institute, shows interviews with a number of staff and students at St Albans Secondary College as they discuss how student voice looks at their school. Topics covered include:

  • Collecting student feedback at multiple time points throughout the year and from multiple sources
  • Embedding student feedback into teacher Professional Development Plans (PDPs)
  • The development of a student learning team, where a group of students works collaboratively with teachers to guide and improve learning at the school
  • Building trust between teacher and students, so that feedback is not only possible but valued
Resource #2: Russ Quaglia on student voice

Russ Quaglia is an expert on student voice and aspirations. This video is a good launching pad to explore more of Russ’ work – including his books on student voice titled ‘Student Voice: Turn Up the Volume’ (http://quagliainstitute.org/qisa/library/view.do?id=662). Key points from the video include:

  • Every student has something to teach us
  • Misconceptions about what student voice is
  • How to achieve meaningful and purposeful student voice in the classroom
Resource #3: Responding to student feedback

Resource Link: https://www.aitsl.edu.au/tools-resources/resource/responding-to-student-feedback-illustration-of-practice

 Produced by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), this video shows a secondary mathematics teacher discussing his experience with receiving feedback from students and adapting his practice to meet their needs better. Key points from the video include:

  • Receiving feedback from students can be confronting, but is ultimately helpful
  • The importance of not just listening but acting on what students say
  • Adopting the use of technology to reduce teacher talk time in the classroom in response to student feedback
Resource #4: Amplify: Empowering students through voice, agency and leadership

Resource Link: https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/school/teachers/teachingresources/practice/Amplify.pdf

Amplify is a document produced by the Victorian Department of Education and Training in 2018. It outlines ways in which student voice, agency and leadership can improve student learning and motivational outcomes, and situates these within the Victorian Government’s Framework for Improved Student Outcomes (FISO) framework and the Victorian Teaching and Learning Model. Within this document, resources include:

  • A list of links to other tools and resources for promoting student voice and agency (p. 25)
  • Case studies involving three Victorian schools and their efforts to integrate student voice and agency into their regular practice (p. 27-29)
  • A handy checklist for teachers to use when reflecting on their readiness to promote student voice (p. 21)
Resource #5: A collaborative learning space

Resource Link: https://www.aitsl.edu.au/tools-resources/resource/a-collaborative-learning-space-illustration-of-practice

Another video from AITSL, this time following a year 1 teacher in Queensland as she explains her approach to a unit of work in which students are included in the planning process. Students are given ownership over decisions throughout the storytelling project, including the types of writing and presentation involved.

Resource #6: Connect Magazine

Resource Link: https://research.acer.edu.au/connect/

Connect is an independent publication that supports student agency and participation. It is freely available as a PDF download from the above link to the Australian Council for Educational Research website. The most recent issue, published in August 2019, includes a focus on students and teachers co-designing learning. Of particular interest is the case study of Bundoora Secondary College on pages 16-19, titled Taking Control and the Power of Choice. Points of interest here include:

  • The school’s PACE21 (Passion, Achievement, Choice and Empowerment for 21st Century Skills) program was established with the aim of giving students choice and control over their learning. Intended outcomes are both academic and more holistic (persistence, collaboration, critical thinking, etc.)
  • Students are given free selection of subjects after their first year at the school. Even the two remaining core subjects, English and Maths, include options within them for students to select based on their abilities and preferences.
  • An increased focus on student voice and agency has also noticeably shifted the school’s approach to teaching – away from a ‘chalk and talk’ method to a much more student-centred environment.
Resource #7: What do you mean when you say student agency?

Resource Link: https://education-reimagined.org/what-do-you-mean-when-you-say-student-agency/

This blog post, by Jennifer Davis Poon of the Center for Innovation in Education, unpacks the term ‘student agency’. The author suggests that student agency occurs when students are involved in the goal-setting process. It is proposed that components of student agency include:

  • Setting advantageous goals
  • Initiating action towards those goals
  • Reflecting on and regulating progress towards those goals
  • A belief that one can act with agency

The article goes on to break down each of these steps, listing skills required for success at each stage.

Resource #8: Thinking routines

Resource link: http://www.visiblethinkingpz.org/VisibleThinking_html_files/03_ThinkingRoutines/03a_ThinkingRoutines.html

A major factor in ensuring the success of student voice in your classroom is in providing space for it to occur. One teaching strategy developed to encourage student voice in the classroom is Harvard Project Zero’s Thinking Routines. The routines are adaptable to different contexts and classrooms, and provide opportunities for all students – not just the most vocal – to be heard. Thinking routines could be used to gather feedback on teaching, to evaluate changes made as part of student feedback, or simply as a mechanism to promote class or group discussion about learning.

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The Science of Learning Partnership Schools Initiative connects research and practice, to enhance educational outcomes in Victorian Schools.

If you have any questions please email: luke.mandouit@unimelb.edu.au

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