How to Build a Foundation of Agency in Young Learners

The Importance of Agency

As a young learner, I was a bit of a mess. I didn’t have the skills to know how to organize my learning or track my growth. Oftentimes I found myself stressing over the grades I was getting, but I couldn’t identify what my next steps should be to get to mastery if I was struggling. As I got older, it became harder for my parents to help me as well because a lot of what I was learning looked different than when my parents were my age. I relied heavily on my teachers to tell me what my goals were, what I should be doing, and how to keep up with my work. 

For the most part, this ended up being fine because I was able to keep up with grade-level expectations, but it was frustrating. It was frustrating when I didn’t understand something because I didn’t know where I had started or where I was going with my learning. It was also frustrating when I was meeting expectations, but had to hang back and move at the pace that the class was going. I found that most of my K-12 years were spent either feeling overwhelmed or bored. It wasn’t until I graduated and found myself in college that I realized I needed to have the capacity to take purposeful initiative over my learning.

Learners Need Agency

After graduating, I was in my own classroom with my own students, and I found myself frustrated again but for a different reason: my students didn’t have agency. I was focusing completely on academics, but not taking time to put systems into place to build agency in my students. Instead of setting goals for our students, we should guide them on how to set goals and make informed choices when learning. Educators can do this through providing students with actionable feedback and giving students voice by asking for their feedback. Most importantly, we have to believe they can and will make the right decisions when given the opportunity by giving students responsibilities and keeping them accountable, plus celebrating and recognizing their successes, while also giving them the space where they can make mistakes and learn from them.

In the last year, education couldn’t have survived without the right learning management systems and digital tools. Technology has steadily grown, and it’s becoming more and more important to adjust our classroom systems to include it. Technology can also be a tool used to design systems that will not only enhance learning when used purposefully, but build learner agency. Luckily, these are all things we knew teachers would need in their classrooms, so we wanted to build in systems within indipath to help educators and students. Starting with the design process, the design work teachers do within indipath’s teacher interface will add the content students need to know, and the app will provide systems and tools to support learner agency.

indipath’s Learner Agency Systems

The design process teachers go through when creating units includes teaching best practices that align to formative assessment, goal setting and autonomy, differentiation and scaffolding, and, of course, standard alignment. Teachers start with the standards and scaffold the learning so there is a clear pathway to mastery for both students and teachers. Assessments are added by the teacher and leveraged to inform students on where they are starting and when they’re ready to move forward. This opportunity gives students autonomy to set their own goals and, through their to-do lists as well as the visual learning pathway, they are supported in tracking their own learning. Teachers add resources and activities to their design, and this provides students with the opportunity to have choice while they’re learning. Since these systems are supported in the learner app, this gives the teacher the opportunity to spend more time supporting the learning and learner agency.


Learner progress and agency are also automatically celebrated as students work through their learning. When students level up, they earn badges. As students complete work, the app celebrates their progress and prompts students to take a quick brain break or gives them an opportunity to reflect on their learning thus far.


The app also offers accessibility features to add an extra level of support for any young learners who are non-readers, or students who are English Language Learners. The text-to-speech feature supports students by reading text within the app to them if they click on the speaker icon next to any text. Using the Language Settings within the iPad can translate English to Spanish, or any other languages listed within the Language Settings. Students also can be supported through sharing their learning with video rather than type responses!


Building Agency from the Start

Learners with high levels of agency actively respond to their circumstances. They tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves. Examples of agency would be learners using available resources and seeking out additional resources to support their learning, recognizing and implementing systems to organize their learning, demonstrating grit when facing challenges, taking advantage of learning opportunities, reflecting on their progress to track growth towards the goals they’ve set for themselves, understanding their assessment data to make informed decisions about their learning, and making relevant connections to their learning. 

Luckily, I had a student advisor in college that really helped me build agency and be successful. It makes me wonder how my experience would have been different in school. What about other students who didn’t have the support to build agency? What transformation would we see in students if educators built a foundation of agency right from the start? I imagine the transformation would be inspiring for all.