How Student Agency Can Ease the Pain of Remote Learning and Teaching

Writing for EdSurge, Chelsea Waite recently explored an approach to remote learning that has resulted in extremely high levels of student engagement at a time when some schools and districts are seeing half or less of their students participating in online instruction. Excerpts of the piece appear below:

What’s behind this rare level of engagement during such a traumatic and trying time? One factor is learner agency. As it turns out, nurturing students’ abilities to contribute and lead can have big payoffs as schools face ongoing uncertainty.

Agency is generally defined as an important learning outcome, characterized by the ability for students to set and pursue their own learning goals. It is an ingredient for their success through college and careers, and it is also a frequently cited goal among educators working to reimagine teaching and learning. 

But in addition to being an important outcome, learner agency may also be an undervalued resource for schools, especially when they have less control over how to structure students’ time and attention. The impacts of COVID-19 are highlighting at least three ways in which schools can benefit from nurturing students’ agency:

1. Benefits to student engagement and learning

Teachers can:

  • introduce more student control over activities, schedules, and assessments during remote learning.
  • invite students to develop homegrown projects related to their own curiosities and interests, or host a “skill share” to teach something new to their peers.

2. Benefits to social and emotional well-being

Teachers and school administrators can incorporate students into their efforts to check in with families. Having students call each other and report back could supplement staff efforts to reach all families.

Students can contribute or take the lead on strategies to raise morale and support well-being. 

3. Benefits to school operations

Teachers, staff and students can work together to identify operational needs—like tech support, attendance, peer tutoring, or class planning—that students can take the lead on.

Administrators and policymakers can pave pathways for student contributions to be valued, such as formalizing them through courses that count for school credit. Creating these pathways helps reduce the risk of student contributions remaining peripheral or haphazard if not embedded thoughtfully into the core of the school’s model.

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