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Week 3C (Oct. 11-Oct. 17)- Word Choice that Leads to Building Agency

The researcher and author Peter Johnston, who wrote Choice Words, develops a strong argument in his book in regards to the importance of teachers using words and language that build "agency" in children.  The sort of agency to which he refers is demonstrated by children who take initiative, believe in their abilities, persist through challenging tasks, and have-a-go even when they are not sure of success.  I believe this idea of agency applies powerfully to the concept of engagement. 

Here is an article by educational speaker Gary Stager on the subject of building agency in children.

And here you may read one chapter of Choice Words , courtesy of Stenhouse Publishing. Select the “Preview” button above the book cover to read the first chapter from Peter Johnston's book.

Discuss in the comments section a teacher's role in building agency in children.  When and how can we do such a thing?  Is it our role to help students build agency? What are the words we say and the actions we do that help to build this quality in students?

Task Discussion

  • Amanda   Oct. 17, 2011, 3:08 p.m.

    At the middle school level, students come to me with a preconception of school.  Their first questions are "How much homework will we have?  Is this class hard?"  I think this is simple proof that agency has not been built with these students in their previous years.  It is our responsibility to build agency with our kids.  To show them that no matter what the system says, they have ownership of their learning.  In both the article and the book selection language is seen as a creative force to challenge, encourage, and motivate our students.  It defines our relationships and our goals within the classroom.  If we continue to use phrases such as classwork and homework, it's no wonder students are burnt out early on.  Aren't we too when we have a lot of "work" to do?  By rephrasing into expeditions, adventures, inquiries, students take ownership and are not constrained by the walls of our classrooms.

  • Bonita DeAmicis, Ed. D.   Oct. 17, 2011, 11 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Amanda   Oct. 17, 2011, 3:08 p.m.

    Love these ideas, Amanda.  Of course, if a teacher calls it an "expedition" and it turns out to be a worksheet filled with fill in the blank ideas, well, children will become disenchanted pretty quickly.  But if a teacher aims to make the learning experiences adventurous, I think it would encourage engagement of a sort. I have noticed that children definitely have the agency removed rather than encouraged in most school environments.  How do we build that agency starting from the youngest of grades?

  • Amanda   Oct. 24, 2011, 1:34 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Bonita DeAmicis, Ed. D.   Oct. 17, 2011, 11 p.m.

    I absolutely agree that students will become dis-engaged when an "expedition" is a worksheet! Building agency in the younger grades begins with creating a learning environment around problem solving and critical thinking.  I've never taught anything below the middle school level, so I'm definitely out of my depth here, but I feel that if the worksheets revolving around rote memorization were reduced, this may help.  At the same time, there are certain facts that students still need to memorize.  Not really sure of the best way to go about this.

  • Tracy Q   Oct. 17, 2011, 2:58 p.m.

    The title of the article by Gary Stangler says it all

    Less us-More them

    I believe that students in the 21st Century will need to self advocate and be independent in many ways.  We push many of these skills in our online courses where the student is the driver of the course and needs to be able to understand that they are taking control over their own education and choices whether to engage in the curriculum or not.

  • Tracy Q   Oct. 17, 2011, 2:59 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Tracy Q   Oct. 17, 2011, 2:58 p.m.

    Sorry Gary Stager-I meantsad

  • Bonita DeAmicis, Ed. D.   Oct. 17, 2011, 11:01 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Tracy Q   Oct. 17, 2011, 2:59 p.m.

    You are so right about less of us more of them.  It is the crux of it.  Why do we not do it?  What holds us back?

  • Jessica Powell   Oct. 16, 2011, 11:38 p.m.

    One of the things I love telling me students after they swear they don’t know the answer is, “See? You knew the answer. You just didn’t know you knew.” It is a process for any teacher to provide the right kind of scaffolding to students when they cannot find an answer, but helping them to discover the answer is far more rewarding on both my end and on the student’s end. Students sometimes just want the answer, and in several situations, I can honestly say that I wanted to just give it to them because it was “easier.” Realistically just talking at the students creates an environment that is not truly engaging. We wonder why students don’t seem engaged, and yet it is our fault for not providing any opportunities. When I was younger and my grandmother would call, my mom would say, “Here’s your grandmother. Let her talk *at* you.” It was frequently a one-sided conversation on my grandmother’s end, and it was rare that she would talk *with* me. I wouldn’t really have to participate. All I had to do was sit with the phone at my ear and make non-committal noises at random points. Teachers need to take the time create opportunities where students are responsible for their own learning, thus engaging them.

    As teachers, the things we say to students can hold great weight. If we do not interest them, or if we alienate them by acting negatively toward them, we will lose their engagement, and thus their desire to actively participate.

  • Bonita DeAmicis, Ed. D.   Oct. 16, 2011, 11:47 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Jessica Powell   Oct. 16, 2011, 11:38 p.m.


    This idea you describe of saying to a student, "see, you just didn't know that you knew it," fits beautifully with what Johnston talks about in Choice Words. He says highly effective teachers scaffold the learning until the student "arrives" at the proper place, and then the teacher congratulates the student for arriving there (which gives the student a sense of self-efficacy and agency for the next time). The teacher will review with the student what the student did (even if the teacher did much of it for them) and then ask questions of the student as if he/she were the expert at arriving there.  Thus, "You just didn;t know you knew" becomes a sort of mantra for the effective teacher.

    I love this idea of building agency in students.  I think it is a vitally important teaching skill.


  • Grant   Oct. 11, 2011, 9:59 a.m.

    I think one thing we can do is more discovery learning opportunities.  These are the types of lessons that offer me the most stress however because they usually take up the most time however the students are supposed to remember the concepts better when they are able to "discover" the concepts themselves.

    As a student I hated these lessons because I just wanted the information and was able to remember what I needed to based off what the teacher presented.  I know students who love this because it means that I am talking less and they have to take the reins and are in control of their own learning.

    I know as a teacher this is also very dangerous for my kids who are highly unmotivated.  I have to make sure to choose the right words and use my voice in a different manner.  I sometimes get frustrated with these students because they tell me they don't care and don't see the big picture. 

    I believe that people do learn best when they are given the reigns and almost learn on the job.  I think this concept is also great when teaching/guiding students to learn different concepts, it just takes a well developed lesson and time. :)

  • Bonita DeAmicis, Ed. D.   Oct. 11, 2011, 10:57 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Grant   Oct. 11, 2011, 9:59 a.m.


    You are singing my song!  I have been in both roles, that of teacher teaching material, and that of faciliator of student learning.  There are challenges to both ends of that spectrum and you describe those challenges well.  I do not have an answer.  I have been reading Drive and it explains a bit to me about why project-based can sometimes backfire with certain students and certain groups. It is as if we have, as a society, have built into student expectation that the learning will be delivered to their ears, rather than percolated through their hands into their hearts and minds.  Only some students come prepared to take on their own learning.

    I loved the book Choice Words because he does get into the words teachers use that change this student lack of initiative into real agency.  I am re-reading it and will post things as they seem pertinent.




    I have always felt we in education need to hear more