The concept of agency relates to the ways that individual engages actively in a given environment. For this research summary, the environment of a middle grades school will be the context for the consideration of student agency. Agency is related to ideas like student voice, choice, interest, meaning, effort, and control.
Central to the concept of student agency is personal influence. Bandura stated that “To be an agent is to influence intentionally one’s functioning and life circumstances” (2006, p. 164). Intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness (related to self-regulation), and self-reflectiveness are four properties of agency in his model: individuals need to act with purpose, to act with a plan, to exhibit self-regulation, and to examine and reflect on their own efficacy. Vaughn (2018) defined agency as referring to “a student’s desire, ability, and power to determine their own course of action” (p. 63) in different ways. This succinct definition can organize many ideas related to agency, ways that teachers can support agency, and ways that students can cultivate their own agency. Vaughn also noted that there are many ways that scholars have addressed agency; she organized ideas surrounding agency into three categories: dispositional, positional, and motivational. Dispositional aspects include ways to describe students as, for example, curious, imaginative, hard-working, or reserved. Motivational aspects link to Bandura’s (e.g., 1986, 1997) work on self-efficacy and self-regulation. Positional aspects see students and how they interact in groups, classes, and other environments. Lasky (2005) similarly observed that human agency is “people doing things together in social settings with the cultural tools available to them” (p. 900).
Agency, however, is not a fixed quality, and it is not something that students do or do not have (Greeno, 2006). Nagaoka and colleagues, in their report on a developmental framework for young adult success (2015), stated that a person may demonstrate solid agency in one setting and yet be unable to transfer such robust agency to another setting. Rather, agency can vary from context to context, and from time to time: agency is something that people do in social practice. This nature of agency can help teachers understand how a student may practice agency in one situation but not in another (Biesta & Tedder, 2007). As Gresalfi and others pointed out (Gresalfi, Martin, Hand, & Greeno, 2009): “A person’s agency in a brief episode of interaction is, in part, whether he or she initiates an idea, agrees with, elaborates on, questions, or disagrees with what someone else initiated, or refrains from responding. It also depends on whether her or his action is accepted, elaborated, questioned, challenged, or ignored” (p. 53).
Through these properties and categories, we can see different elements of agency in order to make links to classroom practices, curriculum and instruction, learning environment, and other factors. Links can be made to characteristics of This We Believe (NMSA, 2010). Specifically, the concept of agency relates to these characteristics:
- Students and teachers are engaged in active, purposeful learning.
- Curriculum is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant.
- Educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches.
- Every student’s academic and personal development is guided by an adult advocate.
Agency and Young Adolescents
Early adolescence is a time of rapid development (NMSA, 2010), and the idea of student agency is linked to aspects of young adolescents’ intellectual and cognitive development, as well as to their social and emotional development. Students in this age group are gaining the capacities for metacognition and abstract thought (Caskey & Anfara, 2014). They also are growing more aware of their own interests and topics that are relevant and meaningful for them.
Doda and Knowles, understanding that young adolescents are increasingly reflective and metacognitive, asked several middle grades students the question, “What should middle school teachers know about middle school students?” (2008, p. 26). They thought it important that students “have a voice” and that they “ought to have a say in what happens in their schools” (p. 26). After analyzing responses, Doda and Knowles identified two main categories of responses: quality of relationships and quality of learning. Young adolescents hoped to have quality relationships characterized by respect and fellowship, among other attributes. In terms of their learning, young adolescents “wanted to be actively engaged, doing what real learners do—researching, writing, analyzing, presenting, collaborating, thinking, and so on” (p. 30). Both categories overlap with aspects of student agency.
Middleton, Leavy, and Leader (2013) investigated the relationship between achievement in math and different motivational variables among more than 300 middle school students who took part in a reform-oriented math curriculum. The researchers tested fifth, sixth, and seventh graders before and after two years of this math curriculum, and then did a path analysis of motivational variables (such as interest and utility) and achievement in math. The math curriculum emphasized areas of utility and connectedness of concepts and engaged students in critical thinking. The researchers found that the students’ abilities to engage in problem-solving made mathematical tasks meaningful and interesting. While this study does not address agency directly, the notions of interest, meaningfulness, and engaging in complex academic work relate to the dispositional and motivational aspects of agency described by Vaughn (2018).
Reeve and Tseng (2011) examined agency, or agentic engagement, as an aspect of student engagement. They studied different aspects of engagement—behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and agentic—through a survey taken by 369 high school students in Taiwan. They defined agentic engagement as, “students’ constructive contribution to the flow of instruction they receive” and studied the process through which “students intentionally and somewhat proactively try to personalize and otherwise enrich both what is to be learned and the conditions and circumstances under which it is to be learned” (p. 258). More than 350 high school students in Taiwan completed a self-report questionnaire with items linked to various aspects. Example items that assessed agency include “I let my teacher know what I’m interested in” and “During class, I ask questions” (p. 259). The researchers found that agentic engagement correlated with motivation, and that agentic engagement independently predicted student achievement. The findings of this study support the idea of teachers structuring aspects of learning so that students are able to “intentionally and somewhat proactively try to personalize” (p. 258) their learning.
Akos (2004) also focused on student data in his study of agency in the transition to middle school. He collected and analyzed a sample of eighth graders’ responses to a state writing assessment prompt to write a letter of advice to a sixth grader about to start middle school; the sample included 350 responses from fifteen middle schools in seven districts representing rural, suburban, and urban communities in Virginia. The contents of each sample were coded into meaning units according to three core areas of organizational, academic, or personal and social needs. Akos noted a “strong sense of personal agency” (p. 5) across samples, including advice to students to make good choices, have a positive attitude, make friends, and “be yourself.” The advice in these samples emphasized ways students could enact agency in different domains of school.
In another study, Walls and Little (2005) examined the interactions among middle grades students’ motivational profiles and agency beliefs, and “how one calls on them to regulate academic actions related to school adjustment” (p. 24). Students evaluated themselves on two sets of statements related to agency: Agency for Effort and Agency for Ability. A sample Agency for Effort statement was, “When it comes to learning new things in school, I can put in the effort to do it,” and a sample Agency for Ability was, “When it comes to figuring out a new lesson, I am smart enough to figure it out” (p. 25). Students who reported stronger Agency for Effort also reported more positive school adjustment.
These studies provide teachers with reasons for supporting student agency that are linked to academic achievement, personalized learning, personal and social developmental needs, and interactions among agency beliefs and motivational profiles. Given the findings from these studies, teachers can take steps to support student agency in a variety of ways.
Teachers’ Support for Student Agency
Teachers can foster student agency through curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and through the overall classroom environment and student-teacher relationships. In their study of agency as a component of student engagement, Reeve and Tseng wrote that it “makes sense to put student agency at the center of the student-teacher dialectic” (2011, p. 264) and related that idea to tenets of self-determination theory (e.g., Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). When teachers develop a teaching style that supports student autonomy, belonging, and competence, students in turn have space to develop and exercise agency. Several studies provide insights and ideas for teachers who would like to encourage student agency in the classroom.
The ways teachers approach curriculum design can support student agency. Models like curriculum integration, a principle of middle level education, relate to student agency in that these approaches support authentic learning, student voice and choice, and relevant and meaningful academic tasks. Beane (1993, 1997, 2005) has advocated for curriculum integration, a framing of curriculum around topics and themes that are important to students and teachers. Principles of curriculum integration are grounded in the ideas that middle level curriculum be general, and that curriculum should be helpful for young adolescents exploring self and social meanings (Beane, 1997). In Soundings, Mark Springer (2006) offered guidelines that framed his approach to curriculum integration in a Pennsylvania middle school. While Springer cautioned that his “description is not intended to be a prescription” (p. 19), teachers can see questions that students generated for inquiry and adapt sample elements of Soundings for their own contexts. These approaches to curriculum can support student agency. Bishop, Allen-Malley, and Brinegar (2007) interviewed students in a curriculum integration setting about their perceptions of this model of learning. Overall, students had positive perceptions of curriculum integration and reported that it offered them chances to “shine.”
Eccles and Roeser (2011) reviewed research on the cultural context of school and highlighted findings on ways that young adolescent development is influenced by teachers and curriculum, school organization, and district policies and procedures. They noted that “The nature of the academic work students are asked to do can affect not only what students come to know about themselves and their world, but also their capacities to pay attention, their interests and passions, and their morals and ethics.” (p. 226) and emphasized the content of the curriculum—that it be meaningful and rigorous—and approaches to instruction that “cultivate interest, meaningfulness, and challenge as well as deep cognitive, emotional, and behavioral engagement with the material” (p. 226).
Teachers’ frameworks for the classroom learning environment also influence student agency. The concepts of student voice and choice in these approaches relate to the way Bandura explained being an agent as intentionally influencing one circumstance. Many teachers draw on Dweck’s (2006) concept of mindsets and have practices in place to support growth mindsets among students as part of their instructional practices. In their developmental framework, Nagaoka and colleagues (2015) identified mindsets as a foundational component underlying three “key factors” to success. For early adolescence, which they define as ages 11-14, these key factors are competencies, group-based identity, and agency. Mindsets, the lenses through which people view their experiences, provide a groundwork for strong agency in this model.
There is increasing emphasis on personalized learning in some areas (DeMink-Carthew, Olofson, LeGeros, Netcoh, & Hennessey, 2017; Olofson, Downes, Petrick-Smith, LeGeros, & Bishop, 2018), and approaches to personalized learning can provide avenues for supporting student agency. In one study on personalized learning, researchers outlined four design elements for personalized learning, including student ownership and agency. DeMink-Carthew and colleagues (2017) analyzed middle grades teachers’ approaches to students’ goal setting in personalized learning environments and identified five approaches based on three elements in Bray and McClaskey (2005): students’ involvement in learning connected to their interests and abilities, students’ active participation in learning, and students’ responsibility for their learning (including voice and choice). The five approaches were: independent design (highlighting student autonomy), interest-driven co-design, interest and skill driven co-design, skill- driven co-design, and selection (teachers selected goals for students). Two of the approaches—interest-driven co-design, and interest- and skill-driven co-design—addressed the three elements in Bray and McClaskey. These approaches do not specifically refer to student agency, but this concept undergirds focus on learning that connects to student interests, actively involves students, and supports student voice and choice.
Research also points out some cautions in how educators conceptualize student agency. Some researchers have investigated how teacher beliefs relate to agency. Priestley, Edwards, Miller, and Priestley (2012) posed the question, “Agency for what?” and analyzed teachers’ responses. Some teachers responded in terms of agency for student achievement on different measurements, which the authors do not consider to be agency due to the narrow application to these measurements. Biesta, Priestley, and Robinson (2015) conducted a study in which they saw mismatches for some teachers between their individual beliefs and the wider culture of their institutions. They noted that, “a relative lack of a clear and robust professional vision of the purposes of education indicate that the promotion of teacher agency does not just rely on the beliefs that individual teachers bring to their practice, but also requires collective development and consideration” (p. 624). Teachers can move beyond their own practices and discuss their visions for student agency with other teachers on their teams and throughout their schools.
Finally, student agency cannot happen without collective support and a shared understanding of agency. Biesta, Priestley, and Robinson (2015) concluded that the promotion of individual agency may do little good if the larger community, such as a school or district, does not share the belief that agency is positive and productive. That is, simply urging individuals to act in agentic ways without collective valuing of agency, as well as systems that support agency, can be detrimental. Further, Priestley, Edwards, Miller, and Priestley (2012) noted that agency was not synonymous with a particular focus. That is, some teachers believe raising test scores is critical and providing students with the tools to raise scores is a way of promoting agency, while other teachers view working to raise test scores as stifling agency, again emphasizing the importance of localized collective understanding of what agency is and how it can be supported. While this research summary focuses on student agency, these studies also point to the need for teachers to experience and exercise agency.
In sum, teachers can support student agency in a variety of domains. How teachers plan, teach, structure, and assess student learning can impact student agency.
Student agency relates to ways that students can intentionally influence their own circumstances (Bandura, 2006). Agency can also be defined as a “student’s desire, ability, and power to determine their own course of action” (Vaughn, 2018, p. 63). Agency depends on “intentionality and forethought to derive a course of action and adjust course as needed to reflect one’s identity, competencies, knowledge and skills, mindsets, and values” (Nagaoka et al., 2015, p. 6). These elements suggest areas within which teachers can support student agency: through curriculum, instruction, assessment, and the ways in which they structure learning opportunities. As we suggest in this summary, teachers are instrumental in cultivating student agency. Practical suggestions include opportunities in the curriculum where students can make choices about their learning (e.g., choosing the types of texts they want to read, or choosing how they want to display knowledge learned), to decision-making opportunities where students can decide on an inquiry project, for example, based on their interest and abilities. With the concept of agency in mind, educators can provide space for students to recognize and cultivate their own agency. Different characteristics of This We Believe (NMSA, 2010) connect with the concept of student agency as well, and attention to student agency is consistent with developmentally responsive teaching and learning at the middle level.
Akos, P. (2004). Advice and student agency in the transition to middle school. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 27(2), 1-11.
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: Freeman.
Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 164-180.
Beane, J.A. (1993). A middle school curriculum: From rhetoric to reality (2nd ed.). Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
Beane, J. A. (1997). Curriculum integration: Designing the core of democratic education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Beane, J. (2005). A reason to teach: Creating classrooms of dignity and hope—The power of the democratic way. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Biesta, G., Priestley, M., & Robinson, S. (2015). The role of beliefs in teacher agency. Teachers and Teaching, 21(6), 624-640.
Biesta, G.J.J. & Tedder, M. (2007). Agency and learning in the lifecourse: Towards an ecological perspective. Studies in the Education of Adults, 39, 132-149.
Bishop, P., Allen-Malley, G., & Brinegar, K. (2007). Student perceptions of curriculum integration and community: “Always give me a chance to shine.” In S.B. Mertens, V.A. Anfara, Jr., & M.M. Caskey, (Eds.), The young adolescent and the middle school (pp. 91-120). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.
Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2015). Make learning personal: The what, who, WOW, where, and why. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Caskey, M., & Anfara, V.A. (2014). Developmental characteristics of young adolescents: Research summary. Retrieved from: https://www.amle.org/BrowsebyTopic/WhatsNew/WNDet/
Deci, E.L., Vallerand, R.J., Pelletier, L.G., & Ryan, R.M. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26, 325-346.
DeMink-Carthew, J., Olofson, M.K., LeGeros, L., Netcoh, S., & Hennessey, S. (2017) An analysis of approaches to goal setting in middle grades personalized learning environments. RMLE Online, 40(10), 1-11, DOI: 10.1080/19404476.2017.1392689.
Doda, N., & Knowles, T. (2008). Listening to the voices of young adolescents. Middle School Journal, 39(3), 26-33.
Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine.
Eccles, J.S., & Roeser, R.W. (2011). Schools as developmental contexts during adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(1), 225-241.
Greeno, J.G. (2006). Learning in activity. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 79–96). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gresalfi, M., Martin, T., Hand, V., & Greeno, J. (2009). Constructing competence: an analysis of student participation in the activity systems of mathematics classrooms. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 70(1), 49-70.
Jackson, A., & Davis, G. A. (2000). Turning points 2000: Educating adolescents in the 21st century. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Lasky, S. (2005). A sociocultural approach to understanding teacher identity, agency and professional vulnerability in a context of secondary school reform. Teaching and Teacher Education, 21(8), 899-916.
Middleton, J.A., Leavy, A., & Leader, L. (2013). A path analysis of the relationship among critical motivational variables and achievement in reform-oriented mathematics curriculum. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 36(8) 1-10.
Nagaoka, J., Farrington, C.A., Ehrlich, S.B., & Heath, R.D., with Johnson, D.W., Dickson, S., Turner, A.C., Mayo, A., & Hayes, K. (2015). Foundations for young adult success: A developmental framework. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
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Olofson, M.W., Downes, J.M., Petrick Smith, C., LeGeros, L., & Bishop, P.A. (2018). An instrument to measure teacher practices to support personalized learning in the middle grades. RMLE Online, 41(7), 1-21. doi: 10.1080/19404476.2018.1493858
Priestley, M., Edwards, R., Miller, K., & Priestley, A. (2012). Teacher agency in curriculum making: agents of change and spaces for manoeuvre. Curriculum Inquiry, 42(2), 191-214.
Reeve, J., & Tseng, C.-M. (2011). Agency as a Fourth Aspect of Students’ Engagement During Learning Activities. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36(4), 257-267. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2011.05.002
Springer, M. (2006). Soundings: A democratic student-centered education. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
Vaughn, M. (2018). Making sense of student agency in the early grades. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(7), 62-66.
Walls, T.A., & Little, T.D. (2005). Relations among personal agency, motivation, and school adjustment in early adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(1), 23-31.
Akos, P. (2004). Advice and student agency in the transition to middle school. RMLE Online, 27(2), 1-11.
In this study, the author conducted a content analysis of 350 eighth graders’ written responses to a Virginia state writing prompt. The writing prompt that students responded to was, “Imagine that the school counselor has asked your class to write a letter to a student who will soon begin middle school. What advice would you give to a new middle school student? Be sure to be specific.” The author identified three core areas of responses: organizational themes, academic themes, and personal themes. The author concluded that a strong sense of agency emerged across each of the core areas, but especially within the theme of personal responses (e.g., being yourself, trying new things, and not giving up). The advice the eighth graders gave to those coming into middle school presented an agentic orientation that encouraged younger students to not let the transition happen to them but to assume they could influence the transition for themselves.
Although the author collected data from 15 schools with differing contexts, the three categories of organizational themes, academic themes, and personal themes reflected the concerns of students in all settings. However, Akos acknowledged that each school setting has local concerns related to factors like curricular offerings or extra-curricular options.
Teachers can adapt the findings of this study by asking middle level students to give advice to younger students, particularly related to school transitions. Students in their first year of middle school could write short letters of welcome and advice to peers in their final year of elementary school. Students in their final year of middle school could write short letters of advice to younger middle grades students. Students in this study gave overall advice about middle school, but teachers could also ask students to provide advice after specific topics of study, for example, or about specific aspects of school, especially when middle school varies from elementary school. This study used written material, but teachers could also support student agency by asking students to give short talks to other students, or to give tours to incoming students. Asking students for their ideas offers them voice and supports their sense of agency.
Gallagher, K., & Kittle, P. (2018). 180 days: Two teachers and the quest to engage and empower adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Two veteran English teachers, Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, spent a year planning together, teaching, and reflecting on their instruction. They wrote about their conversations, videoed discussions, and added video tours of their classrooms in 180 Days, accompanied by video material. The result is a book that encourages teachers to work in agentic ways, while also acknowledging the challenges of navigating school and district mandates. The book also showcases students’ thinking and writing as it describes the ways in which students demonstrate agency, respond to and shape instruction, and transform their own learning.
Gallagher and Kittle’s text offers concrete suggestions for supporting student agency within a language arts classroom. Foundational to all student agency from these authors is choice—students have multiple (though not exclusive) opportunities to select their own texts, their own writing topics, their own cooperative groups, and their own ways of sharing information. For example, students can be allowed to choose to draw instead of write narrative to communicate certain ideas. Additionally, student agency is supported when the teacher shifts his/her role from being the expert and the evaluator to being a co-learner. Not every piece of work is evaluated by the teacher and the teacher showcases his/her own reading and writing lives as a model and instructive case for students. This allows students to give feedback to the teacher in a constructive feedback loop.
Ivey, G., & Johnston, P. H. (2013). Engagement with young adult literature: Outcomes and processes. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(3), 255-275.
In this article, Ivey and Johnston describe how engaged reading and agency are cultivated through the use of classroom structures and the young adult literature provided in middle school grades. The piece focuses on the importance of providing choice and autonomy during literacy instruction specifically in the types of opportunities teachers provide in their planning of engaged reading opportunities. Drawing on the work of Wigfield and colleagues, Ivey and Johnston recap practices associated with engaged reading, including: strategy instruction, interesting texts, autonomy support (i.e., choices in what to read), and opportunities to collaborate. The notion of agentic engagement was found as students were able to use deliberate forms of scaffolding (e.g., their peers), and developed a strong sense of agency with regards to their reading engagement.
This article provides a compelling case of how to discuss agency within the context of classroom literacy practices within middle grades. There are elements of the study that teachers can adapt to their own practices. This study took place two years after the four eighth-grade language arts teacher in a middle school “decided to focus on student engagement by supporting autonomy and personal relevance” (p. 258). Teachers provided a collection of reading materials from which students made choices about what to read; these self-selected texts replaced whole-class novels. Teachers also followed students’ inquiries into the texts rather than assigning quizzes and other traditional assessments. To provide access to a wide variety of texts, teachers rotated collections of books among their classrooms each nine weeks.
From student interviews, Ivey and Johnston identified several trends in students’ responses to this approach to the reading curriculum. Specifically, more students began to identify themselves as readers—and they were aware of and had agency regarding this shift. One student commented, “I got up early today to read. I woke up, got right in the shower, ate, so then I’d have time to read [my book] before I came to school. It’s good. I’ve never done anything like that before” (p. 262). The researchers also documented types of agency that students developed, from agency in reading (such as asking a parent to take them to the library), to social agency (such as recommending a book to a friend), to moral agency (such as developing a stance against bullying after reading a book with a character who is bullied), to agency in self-regulation (such as when a student said, “Reading has really brought me out to be another person, to be someone that I used to not be” (p. 264). The authors related the sense of agency to outcomes like students becoming more engaged in their learning and taking on more challenging tasks. Other teachers can follow the lead of the four teachers in this study through practices like teacher collaboration, sharing texts, selecting texts of interest to students, and providing students with choices about what they read.
Amanda Wall, Georgia Southern University
Dr. Dixie Massey is the director of the reading endorsement at the University of Washington where she also teaches courses in the Department of Language, Literacy, and Culture. She is the author of several articles published in such journals as The Reading Teacher, The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, and Social Studies and the Young Learner. She is author and co-author of the curriculum series, Comprehension Strategies for World History and U.S. History in the Social Studies; Targeted Vocabulary Instruction, and the Seeds of Inquiry series published by Social Studies School Services.
Dr. Margaret Vaughn is associate professor in the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences at the University of Idaho. She has published in journals such as Phi Delta Kappan, Language Arts, The Reading Teacher, Theory Into Practice, and Journal of Early Childhood Literacy. Her research explores how educators can create collaborative spaces with their students. She directs the Guided Reading Library, a free, digital collection of published books created by elementary students, practicing classroom teachers, and undergraduate and graduate students.
Wall, A., Massey, D., & Vaughn, M. (2018). Research summary: Student agency. Retrieved [date] from http://www.amle.org/BrowsebyTopic/WhatsNew/WNDet/