Empowering Students Through Agency

Susanna Stossel, Middle School Math Teacher and Advisor

Providing an environment that allows students to take charge of their own learning is a central tenet to a Field education. Middle School Math Teacher Susanna Stossel explores how student agency helps her students thrive in college and beyond.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in twenty-five years as an educator is how critical it is that students feel a sense of ownership in their learning. When students display a lack of engagement or effort, that often stems from children feeling that school is being done to them, not by them or with them. This view has been reinforced in watching my two children (now in 10th grade and a college freshman) navigate their schooling: in supportive settings, and with teachers who felt like partners in their learning, they flourished. My observations were reinforced by the fabulous book The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson. If you have not yet read it, I highly recommend it; it's one of the most relevant books I have found for parenting school-aged kids. The book focuses on “agency,” the feeling that we have some control over our lives.  

“Over the last sixty years, study after study has found that a healthy sense of control goes hand in hand with virtually all of the positive outcomes we want for our children. Perceived control - the confidence that we can direct the course of our life through our own efforts - is associated with better physical health, less use of drugs and alcohol, and greater longevity, as well as with lower stress, positive emotional well-being, greater internal motivation and ability to control one’s own behavior, improved academic performance, and enhanced career success.” (p11)

I can’t imagine working in a school that does not value student agency or that fails to empower students as agents in their own learning—one of the most important pieces of a program that prepares students to make good decisions and thrive in college and beyond. I was delighted to find a focus on nurturing student agency at Field.  

Examples of this focus in action abound here. The core values (Creative + Connected, Inquisitive + Inclusive, Reflective + Resilient) imply active student engagement in their learning. In the Middle School, we spend a good amount of our advisory time working with advisees on understanding the core values and building the skills necessary to fully enact them. When we gather as a community, either as a whole school or just the middle school, students are largely the ones leading, facilitating, and sharing. Even Field’s use of teachers’ first names—while meaningless by itself (there could be a school devoid of student agency that still used a first-name convention)—contributes, in the context of a program aimed at building student agency, to the sense that teachers are supportive partners in the learning journey. Students regularly reach out with clarifying questions and take the initiative to set up extra help sessions or ask for extra challenges.

Taking an active role in one’s own learning requires self-awareness from the student and higher levels of vulnerability. We have collectively worked hard to build an environment where it feels safe to venture answers and make mistakes, secure in the knowledge that mistake-making illuminates our thinking and will help the whole class understand a concept better.  

The IONS (Integers, Operations, and Number Sense) and Algebra A math classes are engaged in a yearlong project on math identity, rooted in research showing that a strong “math identity” (that is, an understanding of how they see themselves, and how others might perceive them, as mathematicians). This leads to a stronger sense of agency regarding math, as well as greater proficiency and confidence in it. We began the year with our “I am…” project, examining and sharing our personal identities. More recently, we revisited those personal identities to see what, if anything, had changed over the first semester. We then investigated how we see ourselves as mathematicians, including strengths and growing edges, past math experiences, and any biases. After we return from spring vacation, our focus will be on defining the math identity we want, and exploring how that may differ from the math identity we have. Throughout the rest of the year, we will check in on progress toward that goal of achieving our desired math identities—and at the end of the year the students will reflect on their growth, and plan for what they want to bring with them into next year’s math classes.

Another important aspect of self-awareness in service of agency is that the students begin to rely on self-assessment of understanding, skill development, and effort rather than looking to the teacher to define that for them. Most classes end with an “exit ticket,” a mini assignment that helps the students and me to consolidate the day’s learning and check for understanding.  We have intentionally moved away from the idea of “hard” or “easy” problems and toward the idea that within a range of problems will be ones that are a good match for a student’s current level of understanding and energy. Both problem sets in class and for homework generally involve some degree of choice, and our online practice through Delta math is similarly set up as a menu so that students can choose the right lesson for them at a given moment. As we finish units of study, students complete a self-assessment of their proficiency at the skills and concepts they have just learned. They then meet with me individually and we compare their assessment with mine, and discuss how their grade for the unit reflects their learning.

It is important to an educator’s mental health to work in a school that’s aligned with one’s own values. Field’s support of the development of student agency also helps me to make sure my teaching consistently matches my values.  By this point in the year, students know that when they ask me if an answer is right, I will point them back to their own evidence to decide. At the beginning of the year, when students would say they didn’t understand something I would always add “yet—you don’t understand it yet.” Now when they tell me they don’t understand something, they add the “yet” themselves (quietly, and sometimes with rolled eyes, but they do it.) And they’ve come to expect a celebration from me when they note that an answer doesn’t seem right because that shows they are actively making sense of their work as they go, and not just mindlessly plugging numbers into formulas or algorithms.  

Middle school can be a particularly difficult time to be vulnerable, examine identity, and trust oneself. I am grateful to our middle school students, who willingly engage in this challenging work together, and to be at a school that supports us in that endeavor.