The term Agency has been around for several years and has reached the level of buzzword.  As such, you need to understand it and see how it fits into the library program, particularly since administrators are reading about it.  Being able to discuss Student Agency shows your leadership and allows your principal recognizing that you incorporate the newest educational thinking into your library program.

I admit I struggled with the term for a while.  It is used in various places in the National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries.  The Glossary of Terms (p. 273) defines it as:

“When learning involves the activity and the initiatives of the learner, more than the inputs that are transmitted to the learner from the educators, from the curriculum, and the resources. It is the learners’ power to act. When learners move from being passive recipients to being much more active in the learning process, actively involved in the decisions about the learning, they have greater agency. (CORE Education 2014)”

I understood it when I read it, but it didn’t want to stick in my brain. Fortunately, the February 2019 issue of EL (Educational Leadership) has an article by Will Richardson entitled Sparking Student Agency with Technology that included a simpler, if more challenging definition. He explains true agency as:

“. ..the freedom to choose what to learn as well as how to learn it. Curriculum matters, but only to the extent that it is used to support students’ inquiry. In neglecting this aspect of independent learning, many schools are missing the opportunity to give students true agency over their learning.”

The concept is great.  There is no question in my mind that when students’ have agency they remember what they learn, they are engaged, and they aren’t bored.  Too many students still think school “sucks” or is a waste of their time. Student Agency changes that, but how do we incorporate it? It’s difficult to give students “voice and choice” when teachers feel bound by a highly structured curriculum.

The library is one of the best places to introduce student agency. Students need to determine what problem interests them and how they can solve it.  Agency involves inquiry-based, project-based and differentiated learning, sometimes called “personalized learning.” Makerspaces were introduced to be part of this, but these are limited by what you can provide.

Ross Cooper offers five ways to answer How Can Educators Best Promote Student Agency?  Although he is talking about the classroom, I think these fit even better in the library.

Create a Culture of Inquiry and Creativity – I am tempted to say “duh” – that is what is supposed to happen in the library. Cooper suggests the way to achieve this is to:

  • Learn to Let Go: In other words, don’t help so much. Allow kids struggle to find their answers, providing scaffolding as necessary.
  • Do Not Lock It and Block It: Too many places have blocked sources students need to solve the problems they are working on. That’s frustrating and stops the learning.
  • Teach Collaboration Skills: Yes, kids play collaborative games, but working on a project together is different. Give them the guidance they need before the projects start.

Emphasize Relevance over Engagement – This sounds contrary to agency, but Cooper is cautioning not to use your own interests to capture students’ enthusiasm.  It’s their choice that matters. If all students are working on the same project, even if you have given them free rein over how to present it, they don’t have agency.  They are not in control over their own learning.

Share Learning Targets – Let students know up front what you want them to achieve.  In other words, start with the end you want to achieve and let students decide which route they will take to get there. Give them guidance, if necessary, in the form of exemplars.

Facilitate Ongoing Feedback – Students need feedback from you, from other students, and from themselves. The last is the most important one. Some conferences (and the Antiques Roadshow on PBS) have a Feedback Booth.  Set up a table for this. It’s a place where students can stop and analyze where they are, where they are going, and whether a change of course is needed. They can speak with you, work by themselves, or tap a classmate.

Allow for Reflection and Publishing – In most school settings there is no time for reflection. Once something is completed, it’s on to the next unit.  Yet reflection is vital for growth and is essential for true agency. Cooper offers these questions to help students reflect on their work:

  • What additional questions do you have about this topic?
  • What strengths can you identify in your work?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • How could you improve your work?
  • What would you do differently next time?

The publishing aspect is also important. Students need to publicly share what they have created. Find ways to feature their work as much as possible.

Agency is a buzzword, but I think it’s more discussed than done. It needs to become the norm, and you can help achieve that in the library.

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