A few years ago, Harvard’s Achievement Gap Institute conducted a study on teaching and student agency. The study recognized agency as potentially “…as important an outcome of schooling as the skills we measure with standardized testing.” Indeed, when students take ownership of their education, they become more invested in the outcome. Learning about things that fascinate them helps them pay closer attention, process more efficiently, and engage in critical thinking. Students work harder, persist longer, and put their best foot forward.
However, the Harvard researchers also acknowledged the need for accountability, and the challenges this poses for educators. How do we provide opportunities to build student agency while also staying true to the standards and expectations we are required to teach, and against which students are assessed on high stakes exams? How do we integrate this empowering approach to instruction without losing sight of the necessity of mastery?
The connection between what a student enjoys and what she needs to learn is actionable data—something the educational world has plenty of thanks to the proliferation of both testing and technology. Data is a tool that can be as valuable as a teacher’s red pen, when used correctly. Unfortunately, much of that data is uninspiring, hard to use, and disconnected from work that is being done in the classroom.
So, how do we use data to support student agency? Here are three steps to get you started:
1. Share Meaningful Data
You can start the process by regularly sharing meaningful data with your students. Use data from formative assessments, unit tests, and state exams to start and guide conversations.
2. Make a Game Plan
As teachers, we’re always planning our next lessons. The value of focusing on student agency is that our students become partners in the process, and also become more invested in their own learning.
3. Focus on Growth
Prioritizing student agency doesn’t discount the value of standards and assessments; instead, it reaches beyond them. Once your students are comfortable with their own data—from benchmark exams, formative assessments, mastery tests, high-stakes assessments, etc.—and you’ve worked together to plot out clear goals and learning paths, it’s time to focus on growth instead of just proficiency. Of course, students still need to master content; this speaks to the core expectations of a grade level. But it’s the combination of growth plus mastery that truly equals meaningful education.