Teacher Expertise and Experience

Bringing the Children’s Ideas to Life – What Student Agency in the Early Years Looks Like

Heard your child’s teacher talking about student agency and didn’t dare to ask what they mean by that? We have spoken to Jewel McMillan, Pre-K teacher, to find out what this actually means for your little ones’ learning in the Early Years.

Student agency is about having students take on some of the heavy lifting of learning by encouraging children to have more control over their learning and providing them with opportunities to contribute to and provide feedback on key classroom decisions.

Learning becomes a partnership between the teacher and the student. Students have a genuine voice in the class, and it helps us co-design and co-construct the learning experiences together. Although teachers have clear expectations for student behaviour, these expectations are brainstormed together with our learners to establish essential classroom agreements.

By nurturing independent learning skills and encouraging every student to take responsibility for their learning, we aim to develop students’ academic, social, and emotional well-being while simultaneously focusing on international-mindedness and strong personal values. Wondering how we do that? Let me share a few examples of learning environments that stimulate your child’s well-rounded development and allow them to showcase student agency.

Recently, we have asked our Pre-K students to share their ideas on how we could improve the Learning Pod area in our kindergarten building, and they came back to us with a myriad of brilliant ideas! We got together to discuss what possible materials we could use for improvements, and then we all got to work! We rolled tires into an area, used big boxes to build a train, set up a weaving station, designed a drawing area and many more. One of our students decided to set up a “Glamping” area, with two tents filled with pillows, fake grass, coffee table with chairs around it- and then, for his finishing touch, he ran to find a small plant to put on the table. He then proclaimed, “I love designing! I want to design more!” This student-came up with the best design of the learning pod we have ever had. It has been amazing to see the excitement in children’s eyes and the desire to create and innovate.

In KG1, our learners are given a choice to share their understanding through formative and summative assessments. For example, to answer the question, “What does scientist mean?” children may choose to draw a scientist, explain verbally, or show what a scientist can do. Throughout each unit, we create various learning engagements that the children have to complete. These are called “Must Do” activities, and other activities that allow the children a range of choices are called “Can Do” activities.

In KG2, our classroom set up allows children to have agency in terms of their choice of centres. We cultivate an environment for learners to move purposefully and freely within the classroom to enhance imagination, collaboration and peer support. Not long ago, we were learning about numbers and money. One of the classes came up with the idea of transforming their classroom corner into a little store. Children organised all the items for sale (food, toys, etc.), came up with their pricing strategy, labels and even chose various drawings as their currency. They also came up with the design of the façade and created a sign for their shop.

These are just a few recent examples of how we transform our learning environment into one driven by students. Student agency is at the heart of our lessons planning and classroom design. We are always listening carefully to what the children are interested in and what new ideas they may have to help them bring their ideas to life.

When students are agents in their learning, when they play an active role in deciding what and how they will learn, they tend to show greater motivation to learn and are more likely to define their learning objectives. These students are also more likely to have “learned how to learn” – an invaluable skill that they can and will use throughout their lives.

The most authentic form of inquiry starts with a child’s personal interest or wondering. What follows is an unwavering commitment to find the answers to their own questions. Sometimes children share their inquiry with others and a “snowball” effect takes place, bringing with it a multitude of questions, ideas and theories. Teachers do not plan for these inquiries and they may not always connect with what’s taking place in the classroom, but they are borne of genuine interest and authentic curiosity. They are truly student-driven, with teachers playing the role of facilitators.

By Jewel McMillan, Pre-K teacher

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