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Student Agency

Student: “Mr. Lee, can you help me?”
Teacher: “Sure, what can I help you with?”
Student: “I can’t open my snack, can you open it for me?”
Teacher: “Of course I can. Let me open it for you.”

Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it? This is a daily conversation I had at recess with children at the beginning of every year. When a child asked for help, my reaction was to help them right away.

Until one day, I noticed a long line of children waiting for me to open their snacks. At that moment, I realized what I had done. I taught them to depend on me to help them solve their problems.

I knew what I had to do next, empower them to take agency when faced with challenges.

The following day, the conversation went a bit differently with the student. 

Student: “Mr. Lee, can you help me?”
Teacher: “Sure, what can I help you with?”
Student: “Can you help me open my snack?”
Teacher: “I have an idea, why don’t you give it a try?”
Student “But I did try and I can’t, It’s too hard.” (Attempts to tear the package apart)
Teacher: “Ok, what else could you try to open your snack?”
Student: “I can try to tear down instead of across.”
Teacher: “Great, why don’t you give it a try?”
(Tears down and the package opens)
Student: “I DID IT!! I opened my snack!”

High fives, fist bumps, and dancing followed and the student was onto the next challenge, feeling a great sense of pride.

Student agency is powerful. It provides them with the opportunity to face challenges with confidence. Students choose to try their own solutions first before looking for help.

We can support student agency by:

  • Allowing children to experience productive struggle. Productive struggle is working towards a solution while experiencing some setbacks. These setbacks push children to rethink their approaches and persevere. 
  • Allowing children time to practice the skills they are taught. By providing children more time, they feel safe when they need to try a task multiple times.
  • Being patient. We need to work on being patient when we watch our children work. Our world’s pace has quickened dramatically causing us to feel overloaded and overwhelmed. Therefore, we sometimes feel that children need help to speed up the pace so we can accomplish our tasks.

Helping children become agents in their learning is a wonderful gift. Agency will help our children become successful problem solvers, communicators, and innovators. They will have the passion and drive to overcome challenges and learn new skills. Most of all, our children will change the world with the gift of agency.

“The brain that does the thinking, does the learning.”

— Kim Yaris, “Who’s Doing the Work?”

Allen Lee is a Grade 3 teacher at American International School. Allen has been teaching primary school children for 13 years with the last six at AIS. A native from New York, he is an avid ice hockey fan, sports fisherman, and foodie. Allen has been writing articles for AIS the past 3 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @MrLee427 or follow his podcast, AIS Voices, on Spotify and iTunes.