Having a Real Say

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The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit https://edvisions.org/the-edvision/mstp/ and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


In the Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP), EdVisions is supporting their partner schools in changing how school looks, feels, and functions for students and teachers. One way they are doing this is by fostering student agency and empowerment.  

What is student agency?

Though definitions may vary, at its core student agency is about giving students a voice in their learning, a chance for them to take full ownership of their educational journey. The desired outcome is a self-directed life-long learner with a strong sense of self-efficacy. There are a variety of ways to give students voice, but an important one is giving them the opportunity to make choices regarding their learning. When students’ interests, talents, and passions are allowed to help steer the curriculum, students are more likely to engage in learning that is personally meaningful. 

EdVisions has developed a useful roadmap for promoting Student Agency and Empowerment. In most schools, learning is driven by the organization. Student agency and empowerment shifts control to the learner. In a learner-driven model, students find purpose in school through increased autonomy. When students have a real say in what they learn and how they learn, they are more likely to acquire a love for learning. They become inspired to find solutions to challenging problems and begin to have a sense of how they can make a difference in the world.

Unfortunately, this type of student empowerment is rare in most schools. Yet autonomy, a sense of personal independence, is exactly what students need at this time in their life if they are to experience healthy development. According to the late psychosocial theorist Erik Erikson, children and adolescents’ school years coincide with a period when they naturally want to feel a sense of accomplishment and industry. They seek to exert control and have a strong desire to make their own decisions. If not allowed to do so, they may develop feelings of inadequacy and or inferiority as they naturally struggle to fit in and discover their own identity. This can lead to academic, behavioral, and social difficulties, making the case that paying attention to and support students’ social-emotional learning is as important as their academic development.¹ In fact, one cannot happen without the other. In January 2019 the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, & Academic Achievement stated in their report that, “the promotion of social, emotional, and academic learning is…the substance of education itself. It is not a distraction from the ‘real work’ of math and English instruction; it is how instruction can succeed” (p.6).²

What would it take to make student agency and empowerment the norm rather than the exception, especially now when education in America has become so regulated? Good intentions have driven legislative efforts since the 1980s, but many teachers feel a focus on the whole child has been lost. Long lists of required standards consume much of the school day, making covering content the primary objective. Teachers intuitively know this comes at the expense of supporting the social-emotional needs of their students, yet often feel a lack of autonomy to refocus the learning environment to be grounded in the students’ needs and passion for learning.

According to Paul Tweed, a coach for the MSTP, external control runs counter to human nature – for teachers and for students. Tweed, who is also a teacher at Wildlands Charter School in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, and co-author of An Improbable School argues that the current education system is programmed for compliance when the reality is human beings are programmed to think. In his view, the reason student agency and empowerment is not more common in schools goes back a long way.  “We have a cultural hangover,” he says. “We haven’t shifted out of the industrial revolution that began when we started mass public education in the late 1800s.”   

Tweed has a point. Traditional models for learning in the first quarter of the 21st century more closely resemble that which you would expect to find in any community at the turn of the 20th century. Extricating ourselves from the industrial model could be simple, says Tweed. He learned early on his career that schools underestimate kids. That needs to change, but not in the way we may think. “We don’t need to empower students as much as we need to remove control by adults. The current [traditional] system isn’t designed to allow kids to think for themselves and teachers are programmed to think their job is to control students. If we want to promote student agency, we need to be willing to trust students. When we trust students, it completely changes the relationship between the teacher and the student to one in which learning is the basis for the relationship, not compliance.”

In a learner-driven model, there is still a focus, Tweed insists, on developing skills and content knowledge required by policymakers and other forms of external control. But the focus is on individual students’ plans, which are driven by students’ interests and passions. Tweed acknowledges entering a different mindset about what students are able to accomplish if given more control is hard. “Teachers haven’t really seen what empowerment looks like. They’ve only seen how traditional systems work.” 

But at schools like Wildlands, educators have found a way to upend the status quo and release the driving force for learning to the students. “We want to help kids find their niche, their core,” says Tweed, “then build a space for them to own their learning within that. But first, you have to trust students. When you do, a different kind of relationship is formed.”  

While Wildlands is a charter school, there are also good examples of schools in traditional systems that have escaped the cultural hangover to which Tweed so aptly referred. Impact Academy in Lakeville, Minnesota is an elementary school that successfully operates outside of but within the traditional district model. According to Michelle Johnson, a third-grade teacher at Impact Academy since its inception and a coach with the MSTP, the transformation began with empowering teacher voice. To her and a handful of other teachers, state and district mandates felt stifling. These teachers wanted more say in shaping their practice. “If teachers don’t feel empowered,” she says, “they can’t empower students.” 

Impact Academy’s journey began by giving teachers space to redesign and rethink systems around learning. They created a common understanding around student agency and articulated shared beliefs about student voice, then identified what they wanted it to look like in their school. Personalized learning emerged as the primary vehicle by which they wanted to empower students along with service-learning as a way for students to connect their passions with real community needs. 

Student voice, Johnson stresses, makes kids feel like they matter. “It motivates them to take ownership of their learning; they see more value, more purpose in school.” What teachers have noticed is that students’ entire mindset shifts. “Kids set even higher expectations for themselves than when teachers were setting the expectations,” she points out. In addition, the adults have seen students’ self-confidence flourish, which carries into other parts of their life, not just academics. According to Johnson, “They [students] don’t feel like school is being done to them. They are better at advocating for their personal needs too.” Johnson notes that parents also observe changes at home, indicating they no longer feel like they have to push their kids to do homework or attend to other school matters. Instead, kids take it upon themselves to be responsible stewards of their learning. That sounds pretty exciting!

Any transformation begins with creating a shared vision. MTSP coaches like Tweed and Johnson will guide partner schools in obtaining a collective commitment to making student agency and empowerment a reality by first creating clarity around purpose, then articulating a compelling why around their efforts. A plan for sustaining the effort over time will follow. 

Partner schools in the MSTP have said they plan to cultivate and stimulate student agency by empowering students in ways that are new and different from their current practice. One obvious way is by giving students greater voice in making decisions that impact them. School governance is one area where this will occur. The other is regarding the curriculum. Teachers intend to tap into students’ strengths and interests. Some plan to make more direct connections to career readiness and post-secondary planning. Goal setting will also get considerable attention, as will project-based and problem-based learning.  Many plan to link with community resources in more intentional ways than before. Changes are planned for adults too. Professional development will help staff see how to shift the focus from the organization’s agenda to the students’ personal agendas. Helping parents understand the shift will be key. As these changes unfold, school won’t look like it did when they attended. 

If you’re not a partner school, both Tweed and Johnson offer good advice for those wishing to do more to empower students and promote student agency:

  • Don’t over-rely on what you know. Avoid structuring learning around boxes (i.e., schedules and rigid periods). Set aside your current mindset and be open to new ways of thinking about teaching and learning.
  • Identify where teachers and students currently have autonomy. Start there. Engage in deep dialogue around student agency and expand outward.
  • Start small. Pick one or two elements from which to begin, then move forward one step at a time. Keep challenging your practice and consistently ask, “Is this best for kids? Where can I empower students more?” 
  • Listen to the child. Have a way to invite him or her into a dialogue about learning. Ask about his or her goals, passions, and interests.
  • Embrace failure – yours and your students. Teach resilience. Be resilient.  

It can seem overwhelming to try to reverse the educational tide in America that is over a century old and was founded on educational practices that existed for centuries before that in Europe. But it is not impossible. Transformation is happening at Wildlands and Impact Academy, and now the partner schools in the MSTP, as well as thousands of other schools across the country, proving a different kind of school is within reach. 

Where would you place your school on the Student Agency and Empowerment Continuum? Is learning driven by the organization, or is it driven by the learner? Are your students fully engaged in their learning? Are they motivated? Do they own their learning? How do your students contribute to school governance? 


  1.  Erikson’s Stages of Development. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.learning-theories.com/eriksons-stages-of-development.html.
  2.  From A Nation at Risk to A Nation at Hope. (January 2019). Retrieved from http://nationathope.org/report-from-the-nation-download/