Agency and Ownership

Last week I attended uLearn15, an epic conference in Auckland with 1700 teachers and 250 sponsors and exhibitors. On the first day I ran a Breakout session called Agency and Ownership: Why the How? Initially planned as a smallish interactive workshop, it proved very popular as people chose their sessions so it grew into a large presentation to around 250 people with a lot more of me talking from the front.

Core Education filmed this presentation and streamed it live from their conference website. You can watch it here (jump to 11.50 where it actually starts):

Or, if you don’t have an hour and a half spare, this post will cover the highlights.

We have all heard the terms Learner Agency and Student Ownership of Learning. We all have the same vague understandings of what these are about. This presentation was focused on working out they actually look like in the classroom. What the practices are that we as teachers can implement to enable and empower students to truly own their learning.

Core Education have Learner Agency as one of their Ten Trends this year and this has highlighted the term to many. In Grant Lichtman’s uLearn Keynote he showed this slide of the What If questions generated in discussions with teachers across the US:

Grant What Ifs

The 2nd highest category is around student ownership of learning. One of my big bugbears around this idea is how many teachers just expect students of a certain age (in my experience it refers to Year 13 students in NZ High Schools) to be able to self direct their own learning when they haven’t had the chance to do so before. This also came through in Grant Lichtman’s book #EdJourney:


Quote from page 115 of #EdJourney by Grant Lichtman

I surveyed the people who had signed up for this workshop at uLearn and their understandings come through in the wordle below:


So if we all know what it is about, how can we get it happening in our classrooms?

The practices I believe increase learner agency are influenced by these 2 core educational beliefs:

  • Curiosity enables students to find their own learning paths
  • Creativity empowers you to create change in the world around you

I openly approach education from a social justice perspective and believe strongly that students are not citizens of the future, they are citizens now. Yet, they cannot take action to create the future they want, if they spend their school lives having their natural curiosity dampened.

I have written previously on catalysts for curiosity but in this workshop I introduced the ideas of Wonder Walls and Curiosity Tables.

Wonder Walls capture student wonderings as class progresses. Whether you have large glass windows, post its, or large sheets of paper on the wall doesn’t matter. It just allows students to share the questions that are coming up for them as class progresses. Often the initial students to share are the more confident, then the less confident will open up as they see that others are wondering about a variety of things as well. In 1 class I colour coded the post it wonderings – pink being things I am interested in pursuing further, blue for what I didn’t understand and orange for any other wonderings occurring. This allows the teacher and other students to see, share, build upon the wonderings.

Curiosity tables start as teacher prompts for curiosity. A range of objects linked to a current topic/issue being studied on display for students to look at and play with, hopefully prompting some curious questions. This can also be extended so that students bring in objects that they feel link with the topic/issue of study.

These curiosity prompts lead naturally into what I believe is the holy grail of student ownership – developing students questioning ability. I have posted about this recently but in this workshop I expanded it to show a whole process that I have used successfully in class.

Questionstorming is just what it sounds like. Writing down as many questions as you can about a topic/photo/question/idea. Essentially brainstorming questions, the aim of this is to generate as many questions as possible. Doing this stretches your questioning ability as you think how else can you frame your questions but it also forces you to look at things from different perspectives so that you can find elements to question. The first 20-30 questions are usually the really obvious ones so I normally set a target of 50 questions. Almost without fail, the deepest questions are among the last 15 written down. Recently I have used the number 50 as the requirement to actually move on to the next step. This means that some group of students will finish in around 15 minutes while some may take an hour to get there. This is ok, as it is about developing each student’s questioning ability no matter where their capability currently is. We want all of them to be able to generate deeper questions.

Questionstorming the medical uses of Artificial Intelligence

Questionstorming the medical uses of Artificial Intelligence

Once students have reached this level of 50 questions, they then get to start judging them. What are the 8 best questions you have on your sheet? When doing this in groups, the first 5 or 6 are normally easy to decide upon and then they have to argue the case for which questions make the cut (ooh, some critical thinking sliding in under cover!).

Refining Questions

At this point, students happily exclaim “we have our 8 questions!” thinking they are ready to start exploring their questions. Not the case!

Next, I reintroduce them to the ideas of open and closed questions. With their 8 chosen questions they have to reword them so the closed questions are now open and vice versa. This gives them a final list of 16 questions – and more importantly in the long run has re-emphasised the power of 1 or 2 words in shaping a question.

Now, students can finally choose their 4 most important questions to inquire into further.

This process works well for most of our students as they have experience at generating questions regularly in our school. Some students, however, still struggle with this. To assist them in generating the questions, many of us at Hobsonville Point Secondary School use a Question Grid shared with us by our SCT Cindy Wynn.

Question Grid

I really like this grid for showing students the power of the 2nd word in a question. For example any question using SHOULD as the 2nd word will bring in elements of perspectives, ethics and critical thinking.

Questioning naturally leads the discussion into inquiry learning. Inquiry is an approach that many tout as the way to increase student agency and autonomy in their learning due to it’s ability to integrate student choice and voice into the learning.


Many teachers’ first steps towards introducing more student ownership of their learning is to give elements of choice. These choices can take many different forms:

  • context, topic or issue
  • presentation method
  • note taking/ processing learning method
  • how and where they learn

These choices definitely increase student engagement and start to give some ownership over aspects of their learning. It is not, however, enough to offer some choices and believe you are developing ownership of learning. Most of these choices are decided upon by the teacher and students just get the limited choice within – not exactly agentic.

So, the next level of this is to incorporate student voice. This isn’t the end of year student voice either. Teachers are experts at gathering student voice about their courses and teaching as the year ends. Supposedly to help influence planning the next year – but how does that help the students whose voice you are collecting? Why are you not including their voice in the learning throughout the year?

What are the choices that they would like to have in the class? What are their interests and how can they be brought into the classroom? What are the learning activities that students feel help them to understand the information? What class layout do your students like or need? Google forms, surveys or conversations about this type of information should be happening regularly throughout the year rather than when it is too late to take any action on it for these learners.

One strategy I use for bringing student voice into our inquiries is to utilise Design Thinking. This process allows for Problem Finding to occur before the problem solving starts. Most problems in class are defined by the teacher then students set out to create solutions for that problem. What if that is not the most meaningful problem for all students? How can 1 set problem actually be meaningful for all in the class? By immersing in lots of information and experiences related to a topic or issue, students can then find what they believe the core issue is (see a post on my students doing this). This means that students may define the issue differently to their peers but this is ok – they will find the problem that is meaningful to them. And that is taking far more ownership of their learning than choosing from a list of 3 problems that the teacher has devised.


The next step in this control, choice, voice continuum is extending it beyond voice to actually codesigning learning with your students. Now, this is not easy and I can’t claim to be doing this amazingly. What I have worked out in my attempts over the past few years though, is that you need to know your curriculum inside out. If you can distill your curriculum aims for the term down to a post it (some core concepts or skills, maybe a driving question) it then allows you to share this with students and start discussing what would be meaningful learning for them based upon that core curriculum stuff that you as a teacher know they need to develop.

NZC Learning Area Post its

At Hobsonville Point Secondary School we deconstructed the New Zealand Curriculum to work out what the core concepts and skills were for each Learning Area. As we plan modules, Learning Areas meet to discuss their focus, student voice is gathered as to what they would like to learn about in regards to the term focus and these are mapped together to create the course choices offered to students. Within these modules I am also trying to work with students to design the learning occurring. Most of the design has been lead by myself and whomever my coteacher is for that module and we have incorporated student voice within through problem finding etc.

The closest to codesign has been in Age of Ultron (about the possible future impacts of technology like Artificial Intelligence) with Danielle where students regularly email us with resources (videos, articles etc.) that they feel could be useful or interesting for others in the class. Some pop up workshops have also been based upon what students have suggested we look at next (one workshop at the end of last term was purely around students providing ideas of how our Term 4 concepts could be delivered in a way that deepens what they have learned and enjoyed last term). We are planning to extend that this term with student led workshops as well.

This is not easy (not much in teaching and learning actually is). To operate this way you need to have a very clear understanding of your curriculum and what you are looking for students to understand. You also need to be prepared to not know exactly what students will be investigating. This requires you to be very responsive. I find myself sprinting in some classes from group to group to group as students inquire into different aspects and need different types of help. Just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it though – this is about developing student agency and ownership over their learning so I will put in the different effort.

Agency for me also links strongly with the idea of citizenship – agency in learning, agency in life. I get frustrated when people talk about future focused education as preparing students to be flexible. This is too passive for me. I don’t see students as just being flexible to adapt to whatever happens in the future – I want them to create the future they want to have. And I don’t mean creating it in the future, they are capable of it now. Students are capable of amazing social action right now. Here’s 2 examples of social action being undertaken by Hobsonville Point Secondary School students last term:


Our students designing and testing PE activities on each other, then running PE classes for the Arohanui Special School students who are located in our building as well. This has led to far more inclusiveness being shown and relationships being built between our students through the rest of the school week as well.


Inspired by That Sugar Film a group of students has created That Sugar Project. Aimed at raising awareness and changing eating behaviours, they are using social media (twitter, facebook and instagram) to share facts and weekly challenges.

As we move more towards collaborative tasks we need to develop students abilities to truly collaborate – that is to critique and challenge as well as just work together. To do this we need to develop students abilities to give each other quality feedback.

“Feedback quality may have more impact on student achievement than any other factor.” Hattie 2012

The following 2 strategies are the ones that I have used regularly over the last 2 years and found that students have used them to great effect.


Our students have become great at using Rose, Bud, Thorn feedback with each other. I got the idea from Lisa Palmieri and her 2 minute PD video on this strategy. What I really like about Rose, Bud, Thorn is the Bud stage. Students are usually very good at doing the positive Rose comments and the barrier Thorn comments. This strategy gets them giving better quality feedback as they also have to include the potential/opportunity type Bud comments.

A really common mantra teachers hear to do with feedback is Helpful, Kind, Specific. I like this HAKRS model which scales it up:


I came across this feedback strategy through Tom Barrett and Hamish Curry at GTASYD last year. My more capable students have really found it a strategy that makes them think deeply about the feedback they are giving to their peers.

Hattie also includes explicit rubrics as part of feedback as it gives students explicit information about what they need to work on to improve their learning. I personally have struggled with rubrics as I find they often constrain creativity and possibilities about where the learning may head but have started to see the power in the use of SOLO Taxonomy for aiding student thinking.


The structure of starting by showing you know 1 then multiple pieces of information, relating these together into a coherent whole and finally extending this to other situations or a more abstract level is incredibly useful for students to see what they need to do next to deepen their understanding.

I finished the workshop by setting participants a challenge. What is the next step you are going to take to increase student ownership of learning in your classroom this term? I encouraged them to share these plans online or with the person beside them. It has been great to hear from people this week over twitter as they have then put this plan into action!

More importantly than my perspective on all this though is what students are saying about having more autonomy in their learning. I leave the final word in this post to Katherine Jones, an inspiring student from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, Georgia:


I really encourage you to read her full post, it is incredible.

p.s. slides from the presentation can be found here.


6 thoughts on “Agency and Ownership

  1. I have just used your ideas for question generation with year 9 when preparing for an expert guest speaker. It worked well. Next time I might think about explaining the whole process and intent as when they realised only a few of their 50 questions were going to be used they were a bit disappointed. I really like the concrete example you give for creating agency, curiosity and creativity in the classroom and feed really well into how I want to structure my class next year. The things I am going to try out are the wonder wall, questionstorming, quality feedback, distilling my curriculum aims, codesiging of curriculum and assessment. All great stuff. We are using Solo’s Taxonomy at our school too and the more I understand it the more power I see in student generated rubrics that are then self assessed so I will be doing that too. Check out this example of a rubric generated by a small group of year 9 students for a an emergency news broadcast they will be creating.
    Thanks for this post!

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