At Richmond High School (RHS) in inner-city Melbourne, our vision is to develop young people who are active, resilient, lifelong learners. One of the priorities in our strategic plan relates to promoting student voice and agency, which is also a priority for all government schools in Victoria.
While it is clear that we are doing a lot in the area of student voice – they are part of the interview panel for all jobs that involve working with students, lead school tours, take on student leadership roles, and represent their cohorts in different ways – student agency seems more complex, yet perhaps more impactful.
Over the past year, we have prioritised upskilling staff at RHS in the understanding and development of student agency, particularly in relation to student learning in the classroom.
The Department of Education in Victoria makes the case in its Amplify practice booklet (State of Victoria , 2019) that ‘there is strong evidence that students become more engaged in learning when they have opportunities to exercise agency in their learning’, defining agency as ‘the level of autonomy and power that a student experiences in the learning environment’. The expectation is that teachers ‘enable students to be active participants in their learning’.
In practical terms, this might mean teachers creating opportunities for students to co-construct their learning activities, success criteria, and the evaluation of their learning in class.
Feedback from students in the RHS Attitudes to School Survey suggests that while they have very positive views of our school, they do not always understand the purpose of the learning taking place in class, nor do they all fully understand what success might look like.
If our school vision involves creating lifelong learners with autonomy and resilience, then we need to explore student agency in more depth and detail.
Professional learning sessions
For us at RHS, the work on promoting student agency at first involved the formation of a student voice and agency action group, with staff and student volunteers who explored what this would look like at our school, and how to develop it in our classrooms. This action group, facilitated by Jo Sayer, one of our Leading Teachers, planned and ran several professional learning sessions for staff in 2020 to help us all gain a clearer sense of what student agency involved, and how to promote it in the classroom.
One professional learning session for teachers on developing student agency through feedback built on a reading from Ron Ritchhart’s book Creating Cultures of Thinking, in which he argues that ‘autonomy-supporting teachers are always looking for ways to step back so that students can step forward. They want their students to feel in control of their learning’ (Ritchhart, 2015, p.219).
Our teachers discussed the implications of this on their teaching practice, with a particular focus on their use of feedback. Our shared agreement involved using feedback to and from students as an opportunity to build student agency.
It is clear that, as John Hattie and Gregory Yates note, ‘receiving appropriate feedback is incredibly empowering… because it enables the individual to move forwards, to plot, plan, adjust, rethink and thus exercise self-regulation’ (Hattie & Yates, 2014, p.66). The challenge for us at RHS is to develop the right skills to create genuinely empowering feedback that is precise and useful for our students.
Learning intentions and ‘evaluate’ strategies
This year, our focus is on using both the learning intentions for each lesson, and the ‘evaluate’ part of the lesson, as moments in which to promote student agency and metacognition.
Two of our leaders, Lori Michael and Jo Sayer, ran differentiated professional learning sessions for staff in Term 1 of 2021, exploring how to use effective ‘evaluate’ strategies to get students thinking and reflecting on their own learning and their progress in relation to the learning intention and success criteria discussed at the start of each lesson.
An example of this was the Learning Logs used in our Year 9 Inspiration subject, which is a combined English/Humanities subject with a focus on project-based learning. Students regularly take time at the end of a lesson to reflect in their online journals on questions such as ‘Did I achieve my learning intention? How do I know this?’ and ‘What helped the learning happen?’
One student was recently reflecting on his learning in relation to the learning intention ‘to learn how to write historical arguments’. He wrote in his Learning Log: ‘My current strategy is to write and look at my research if I need it… my research is helping a lot… I could improve [my writing] by using the sentence starters.’ Another student mentioned in his Learning Log that ‘Nothing really stopped my learning today. I successfully made a plan for how I get and use my information. My worksheet shows my plans for getting research.’
These reflections demonstrate a sense of ownership over the process of learning, clearly guided and supported by the teacher, but allowing the students the scope to navigate their own approach.
Protocols around Learning Walks and Talks were negotiated with staff in 2020, so that leaders could start using such walks regularly in 2021 as a tool for diagnosing and promoting student agency in class. When welcomed into a class, leaders on a learning walk ask students questions such as ‘What are you learning in this lesson?’ and ‘How is this activity helping you learn?’
Gradually, responses of students are becoming more sophisticated and authentic this year, with a Year 8 maths student recently telling me that learning how to read graphs ‘helps me not only to analyse data in maths and science, but it will also be important in my future career’. This young person had a clear sense in her own mind of what she needed to learn, and what ‘success’ would look like when she had learnt it. That seemed to exemplify a strong sense of student agency for us to continue building on in the future.
Surveys and focus groups
Our current work involves co-constructing with students and teachers further tools for implementing student agency in the classroom. To evaluate the impact of our work on student agency, we will be using a combination of student and staff surveys, as well as focus groups with students from different year levels, to understand better how far we have come and what work needs to happen next.
Our ongoing challenge as a school involves building on both the moral purpose of promoting student agency and the skills needed to do so in class. Our tools for achieving this will include a rigorous, inclusive and differentiated professional learning program for staff, an evidence-based instructional model which highlights opportunities for empowering students, and a culture of ongoing innovation and improvement throughout the school.
State of Victoria (Department of Education and Training). (2019). Amplify: Empowering students through voice, agency and leadership. Victoria State Government. https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/school/teachers/teachingresources/practice/Amplify.pdf (PDF, 986KB)
Hattie, J., & Yates, G. (2014). Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. Routledge
Ritchhart, R. (2015). Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools. Jossey-Bass