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'Agency' -- A Noun That Translates Into Success

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Helping Students Find Relevance and Motivation in Learning

When we think of the skills students need to be successful in school and in life, the word "agency" doesn't usually pop into mind. But maybe it's time...

Through the tenets of "agency," we can help students see effort and practice in a new light and associate both as growth paths and, ultimately, success. We can provide students with the skills to rebound from setbacks and build confidence as they welcome new challenges. Instilling the principles of "agency" helps students find personal relevance in their work and motivates them to participate actively, build relationships and understand how they impact themselves and their communities.

We use "agency" to mean developing an academic mindset and taking ownership over one's own learning. Carol Dweck defines a growth mindset to mean: "I can grow my intelligence and skills through effort, patience and challenge." (See Carol Dweck and Paul Tough for research and writing -- Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books; and Paul Tough (2012) How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)

Over the past year, we have spent considerable time developing new School Success Measures and New Tech Learning Outcomes as part of our college and career ready aspirations for each and every student who graduates from a New Tech School. When we unveiled "agency" as one of the New Tech Learning Outcomes, our coaches had deep and constructive dialog about what the term meant and how to present it to teachers and administrators.

"We spent a good deal of time talking about it and comparing our reactions," explained Megan Pacheco, New Tech Senior Director of School Design and Implementation. "After much discussion, we've come to embrace it because it's a term that defines support and enhancement of success. We use it to describe teaching students resilience and persistence."

Pacheco presented a session on Agency at the recent New School Training (NST) held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "Teachers wanted to learn more about 'agency'," explained Pacheco. "There was a definite 'need to know' about this term and a lot of questions about how to assess 'agency' within Project-Based Learning."

The research here is compelling. It has caused me to think differently about a number of times I quit trying to learn because I couldn't master something immediately, thinking that I was just not good at chemistry or drawing. I've never been drawn to games or puzzles, but now I'm playing "Unblock Me," "Angry Birds" and "Candy Crush" because I see in each of these games that I can learn from my failures and get better the next time. I'm not ready, however, to go back to chemistry just yet.

For students to succeed in today's complex world, they need to be prepared with the skills that will help them face difficulties. Relishing hard challenges as opportunities to learn rather than feeling inadequate when things don't come fast or easy can make a tremendous difference. By teaching "agency," we are also helping students become responsible for their own learning --teaching them to understand that they can 'learn how to learn' and that practice and persistence are keys to becoming smarter.

"Agency" does touch upon the concept of "work ethic." A broader view of "work ethic" understands that turning work in on time is a small part of overall student success. Teaching students to persevere when faced with obstacles -- and helping them gain the confidence to know that earning an "A" for perfect answers is not the only measure of success, that in fact failing is an opportunity to learn and risk-taking is advantageous to their overall growth.

We believe one of the keys to success is to help students discover their own motivation to want to learn rather than to please others or comply with instructions. We've seen many times that students who are unsuccessful do not believe they can be successful. The question becomes: "How do we put students on a path to success early on in the educational process while still maintaining high expectations?"

New Tech utilizes a pervasive Project-Based Learning (PBL) pedagogy and has found this to lead to great success in engaging students in their own learning. In a PBL environment, an academic or growth mindset is critical. Students need to know and understand that effort and practice lead to success -- that perseverance and trying new things can contribute to their academic success.

At the recent New Schools Training, I spoke about "agency" with Josh Cable, a geography and integrated business applications teacher at Cougar New Tech High in Walterboro, South Carolina. As Josh explained, "We learned that with a growth mindset, students understand that the harder they have to work at something and the more effort they put into it, the better they will be at it. This is the opposite of a 'fixed mindset' that says 'when I have to work really hard in a subject, I don't feel very smart.'"

Josh continued: "We learned that mastery takes time and requires revision and iteration. Also, we learned that it's important for us as teachers to help students reflect on and celebrate growth, to praise effort over intelligence and that mistakes are part of learning -- we should emphasize process over product."

"Agency" -- in the way we are thinking about it at New Tech schools -- may be a new way to describe what educators know intrinsically. By naming "agency" as an explicit New Tech Learning Outcome, we believe this will pave the way for deeper and more powerful connections for students and parents as they think about a future beyond high school. As one of the teachers declared at NST, "It's the glue that holds it all together."