Voice, Choice, and Ownership: Agency in the Primary Years Programme

Student Agency is an important component of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Programme, and in contemporary education overall. Student Agency means that students are actively involved in their education and in the school community. This can range from students choosing their own projects and influencing what direction a unit takes to collaborating with teachers on essential classroom agreements. Demonstrating agency also means that students reflect on their learning, develop a growth mindset, and set academic goals as well as goals for improving their Approaches to Learning skills (ATL’s). Fostering student agency is particularly important for language learning, as it helps move the learning from a static list of grammar and vocabulary to a living integration of activities.

pyp-structure-graphic-illustration-enThis graphic from the IB shows that learners with agency have a voice and choice in their education, and take ownership in this journey. The learner is part of the community and gets actively involved in it. The idea is that students who know what they are learning and why will intrinsically be more motivated and involved. 

At Silicon Valley International School (INTL), students find various ways to demonstrate agency. It can be as simple as bringing in objects or books that are related to a current unit. Here are a few examples from different grades in the German program: 

During the unit on “How the world works”, the 2nd grade students inquired into how simple experiments are conducted. Coincidentally, their daily classroom calendar asked the question: “How can you peel an egg without touching it?” The students spontaneously decided to plan an experiment with the guidance of Frau Kohler to find the answer. 

In 4th grade, students initiated an activity to draw graffiti with meaningful messages on their classroom partition wall when they learned about the Berlin wall during the unit on migration.REVISED-Berlin-Wall-IMG_5385A few months into the school year, the 5th grade students began leading morning circles and wellness activities. They also hold class meetings in order to solve classroom or recess problems. The teacher is the facilitator and observer while the students lead the meetings. Recently, the students advocated for more room to play during recess. They stated the problem and came up with creative solutions which they presented to the dean of students and her team. 

The way that we provide feedback to our students is equally vital to fostering agency. In German culture, we are often direct in our communication and believe that specific feedback has a greater positive impact than general praise. In German, there is not really a cultural translation for the term “good job”. At the same time, we want to avoid being overly critical and will ask the student for their opinion of their work. There is a place for praise as well; we say things more like, "I can see that you tried hard here. You are on your way." or "You learned from this mistake." and "You put a lot of effort into making this beautiful. You colored everything in so precisely." This helps students to develop an understanding that they are learning for themselves and that they are responsible for their learning. Giving the children ways to reflect on their work combined with constructive feedback assists in establishing the growth mindset associated with student agency. 

For example, when a kindergarten student asks how a teacher likes their picture, the teacher would ask them to explain their choices: Was hältst du von deinem Bild? Warum hast du diese Farbe gewählt? (How do you like your picture? Why did you use this color?) 

Another example would be a 1st grade student writing a line of capital B’s to practice letter formation and asking the teacher if they did well. The teacher would ask the student to find the most beautiful B in the line themselves and mark it with a smiley face. This helps the children to identify their best work.

The numerous benefits of giving students a voice and an opportunity to be in the driver’s seat of their learning journey doesn’t manifest overnight. It takes patience, a willingness to take some risks, and an open mind on the teacher’s side. Naturally, it also requires a student-centered approach. Fostering agency can begin at an early age with various degrees of teacher support and guidance. These are just a few examples and we continually look for new opportunities for students to become active, independent, and responsible learners.