Spotlight on: Placing agency at the heart of learning

17 June 2022


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 17 June, 2022

In Canberra recently, the Year 6 students learnt how to vote, ‘wrote’ new Bills, debated contemporary issues in the ‘Senate’, engaged in role-play as Members of Parliament and Government Officials, investigated the extraordinary lives of scientists, artists, architects, and heroes of war and interacted with each other and people they had not previously met – with utmost confidence that they were equipped to participate in these activities. They were, without doubt, demonstrating agency. 

Developing student agency is central to the purpose of education. Leadbeater defines agency as showing that you can work with others to combine and use your knowledge to create change that will generate better outcomes for people and the planet, while doing what you consider to be the right thing. In the most recent review, the proposed new NSW Curriculum reiterates that students must receive an education that provides them with a solid foundation for life – preparing young people to make a productive contribution to our society. In Generation Alpha: Understanding Our Children and Helping Them to Thrive (2021), McCrindle and Fell argue that for Generation Alpha (born between 2010 and 2024), the emphasis of schools should not be on what the students are learning but on who they’re becoming. As the world of work changes, it is the qualities of adaptability, initiative and personal resolve that help to futureproof the students of today.

How do these views inform our approach to promoting agency in school?

Learning on purpose
We establish learning intentions, the reason why we are focusing on skills and/or concepts and reflect on these experiences: what we’ve learnt and the action(s) we can take.

Integrating knowledge across disciplines
Our inquiry units involve multiple areas of learning.

Platform for learning
We engage our students with real-world problems in familiar and new contexts, as individuals, interdependently and collectively. We learning from primary resources and in the field (incursions/excursions/networking with other schools). We tap into expertise and resources within and beyond the School to do larger projects, e.g., Engineering Day, our Solar Island project and exploring simulated space travel.

We don’t just test knowledge at the end of a unit of work (known as formal, summative assessment). We continually seek feedback from students through a variety of means to ascertain how much they understand and adjust our teaching in response (known as formative assessment).  

Living our values
The values (Truth, Courage and Service) and the educational pillars of our School (Liberal Education, Independence, Perspective, Contribution) are evident in our daily practices. Our motto (Per Aspera ad Astra, Through struggles to the stars) offers the wisdom that builds resilience and ultimately leads to success. These are integrated into reflection and goal-setting and are used to establish next steps in learning.

Student voice and leadership
Students are encouraged to have their say, to debate, to persuade through writing and to speak up about how we can make the world a better place. Our girls thrive on leadership; they lead Assemblies, meetings, teams, and musical groups; they are role models for their buddies. Our broad co-curricular program provides opportunities for character building. Students in Years 2 – 6 make Commendations and Recommendations through the QuAG (Queenwood Action Group) about their learning and School life. Even the youngest students devise guidelines, ensuring their learning and recreation spaces are safe and productive areas. They are encouraged to be active in the community as agents of change and compassion – whether fund-raising or involvement in community projects.

Teachers as agents
Teachers craft and design learning with the students and bear their feedback in mind. School leadership promotes leadership as learning across the School, creating conditions to enable people to find better ways to achieve what’s important to them.

Student agency is not new to Queenwood. Almost one hundred years ago, our founding Principals acknowledged the necessary qualities of adaptability, initiative, and personal resolve to make a productive contribution to society. Our School narrative remains compelling: in their personal and intellectual development, we both support and stretch our girls, encouraging increasing engagement with the wider world. Our aim is to develop in our students the character, disposition, and skills they will need to flourish in and contribute to a world of complexity and change.