Agency In the Classroom: Choice and Personalization | Jessica Cavallaro | 7 Min Read

Every parent knows their child has a unique personality and needs. We know as children develop, their main goal is to have agency in their lives. For example, toddlers will have a meltdown if their milk is served in the wrong color cup. Elementary-aged children expand upon their likes and dislikes, exploring the world through questions and finding ways that they are unique. By middle school, our students are in outright rebellion, desperate for control over their decisions as their brain begins to develop maturity, through trial and error. When students make their way through high school they are taking the baby steps into adulthood, trying to figure out the path they will follow into college and career. 

As children struggle to have more control over their lives, at home, parents scaffold these experiences to develop the skills of self-reliance, responsibility, and organization. These are not skills that can be developed in a vacuum but slowly learned through opportunities to explore the world and develop agency. 

Educators can embrace the human development stages in their students’ lives by giving them the safe space to exercise agency in their learning. By opening up the classroom to choice, educators increase engagement and empower students to own their learning. The curriculum transforms from a list of items that must be done to a series of pathways that explore possibilities and build connections to their own life. 

Introducing choice to the classroom is a small task that results in huge rewards for the teacher and students. Let’s explore some ways to move through content and standards, but allow opportunities for choice and personalization. 

Choice Boards

A new educational buzzword that you have no doubt heard over the past year is Choice Boards, but what does this really mean and how does it lead to better understanding?

A choice board is best used with a teacher knowing what their learning goals and big ideas will be for the lesson. When the end goal is clear, the teacher can structure tasks that will accomplish this goal. Usually, we see this as the assignments and activities in class that all students participate in or work on for a grade. 

Using a choice board, students are given options about how they work. We all know that our students are unique and process information in different ways. The choice board will allow all of our students access to information in a way that is compatible with their learning. Choice boards vary from teacher to teacher and unit to unit. Some examples of use in order of increased agency are:

  • Create a choice board of 12 assignments and have students choose 9 to complete. Teachers curate the assignments like they normally would, but students pick which assignments meet their learning needs. 
  • Students may also have to submit all 12 assignments, but get to choose the order in which they complete them.  
  • Once students are used to this type of assignment they can even create their own choice boards to provide to each other. That way they are curating material, prioritizing knowledge based on the goals, and engaging in empathic design strategies as they think about what assignments would appeal to their peers. 

For teachers that are unsure of how agency would work in their classroom or school culture, choice boards are an excellent way to experiment. They keep the class focused on curriculum goals and standards, but offer students a choice of how they pursue those goals. Choice boards scaffold good decision-making skills, allowing educators to stay on task, but allowing students to feel agency in their learning. Starting in increments also helps the students learn how to use their agency in an effective way. 

Application Opportunities

In many classrooms we get absorbed by our scope and sequence, constantly delivering new information without giving students the time to apply their knowledge and really cement their learning. Ideally, there must always be time for students to take the knowledge that they have learned about the content, and manipulate and apply it in a way that gives them a deep understanding of that content. Many times educators structure this activity of synthesis to ensure that students are learning and manipulating exactly what they need to learn. Students are given activities that are not open-ended and do not require critical thinking skills. They are given procedural step-by-step instructions, with the end product pre-determined. In these kinds of activities, students are given the chance to work with the content they are learning, but they have no agency in their learning and therefore it lacks a deeper level of understanding and the experience that will help them remember it in the future. 

Unit Application 

To provide opportunities for agency, students can choose their product in learning activities. It does not mean that we abandon our learning goals and standards. For example, after my students read the U.S. Constitution they have the choice to create a music video, an infomercial to encourage or discourage ratification of the states, or design a propaganda campaign. For all of these choices, there is ONE rubric. That is because the rubric is based on learning outcomes and not the product itself. The rubric assesses the content and the skills utilized but does not define the outcome of the project. Included at the bottom of the rubric is a single category about readiness to publish. This outlines that the project should be completed in a professional manner and is ready to be published to a wider audience upon submission. This allows for the rubric to focus on the learning goals and connections that are the focus of evaluation. 

If the rubric is based on content acquisition, students have the choice to produce a product that is meaningful for them. If they love music, they can put the required elements into a song. If they love graphic design they can produce a propaganda campaign. All of these choices show synthesis and teaching on acquired knowledge, which is the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. 

When students are done collaborating and creating they must check their work against the rubric to ensure that they are really done. If they meet the criteria, they have manipulated the required knowledge and mastered the content. A rubric based solely on learning goals allows students to show their knowledge in several ways. By having the agency to choose how to do so, students are empowered and engaged in a way that they may not, if the project product is predetermined. 

Daily Application 

This type of application can be done daily as well. After a mini-lesson students can apply their new knowledge in a 10- or 20-minute window. Traditionally students would prove their learning on a worksheet or another close-ended activity.  After learning fractions, students can increase and decrease the measurements on their favorite recipe. In science, they can identify and explore the compounds found in everyday materials. In history, they can draw comparisons between other time periods. The activities can easily fit within class periods where a worksheet may be given. However, instead of regurgitating information from notes to a worksheet they have the opportunity to own their learning and personalize it by bringing it into alignment with their interests. 

Essential Questions

When essential questions are well crafted they automatically give students agency. A great essential question deals with the content that must be mastered but also leaves the application open-ended. There is typically no right or wrong answer, but to develop any answer, students must employ critical thinking skills and manipulate the content. 

An open-ended essential question allows for students to see themselves in the classroom. When answering the question they will see that there is no “right” or “wrong” answer and therefore their own thoughts and interpretations of content must be used to answer it. This takes a standard question and personalizes it. Crafting open-ended essential questions makes each student feel valued because their insight is necessary to find the answer. They still must employ their critical thinking skills and apply the content in multiple ways to make the connections, but now they have tied it to something they have an independent interest in that makes the learning experience rich. 

The open-ended essential question engages agency in the classroom, by allowing each student to see themselves in the content and learning process. They have a say in how to answer the question since there is no “right” or “wrong”.  

When students own their learning, the understanding of content becomes much deeper. The relationship with their teacher improves and they develop a different kind of self-confidence that is only achieved by knowing that you can accomplish a goal.  Small changes in the delivery of information and expectations of outcomes can change the culture of a classroom from one in which the students evolve from passive students to highly engaged, empowered learners.

Jessica Cavallaro

Jessica Cavallaro is the co-founder of The Agile Mind, which interweaves Agile frameworks into K-12 education. She is passionate about the benefits of project based learning and creating purposeful education to drive innovation through inquiry. She is an advocate for developing systems that give students agency. Jessica earned her Bachelor’s degree at Pace University and Master’s in Education from Mercy College.

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