Recently, I couldn’t help but be drawn into the space of work between my third grader, Jayden, and his dad as they were elbows deep in daily math homework. The intensity and voice pitch erupting from the other room is what caught my attention. “Dad! I know what I’m doing,” Jayden exclaimed. “You have to line the numbers up before you add them. Look, watch me,” his dad responded. But Jayden continued, “I already did that part and I have the answers!”
It was at that point that I prompted Jayden to read the homework like a mathematician would and say aloud what his job was. To which he responded, “Mark the equations that have an answer greater than 50.” He then paused, and with completely different energy, began to speak a stream of consciousness that propelled him through the assignment with no other interaction with or direction from us—he said, “Wait a minute. I marked this answer and it is 50, but it doesn’t match the directions so I have to fix it. Let me look at the next one. The answer is 49 so I know I cannot mark it!”
Why would Jayden react differently to me even though neither of us provided him the answer? Because Jayden wanted to talk about how he was thinking rather than about if he was right or wrong. His reaction is quite similar to students I encounter in many classrooms across the country, and interestingly, I have found that coaching teachers has the same result. I continuously find that both students and teachers offer ideas more freely if the focus is not solely on accuracy, but the thinking that occurs toward finding a solution.
In the book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, this phenomenon is explained through the concept of agency, which is defined as a “perception that the environment is responsive to our actions.” The decision making required to reason through a task builds agency in a person to weigh decisions and actions in order to feel confident in a response—or to go back and revise. Teachers who engage in exploring ideas help students gain a sense of who they are as learners and how their thinking intentionally impacts learning. Jayden’s agency, for instance, increased as he willingly analyzed the impact of his thinking on his homework problems.
Though, this approach to agency is not just limited to students—the exact same can be said of coaches and teachers. Teacher agency is just as critical in the sense that educators who have the opportunity to examine their environment and response will make more precise decisions based on increased awareness and understanding. The following prompts can be helpful in both the classroom and in talking with educator peers, when examining your own work, or in developing your staff:
- What are you noticing about your work today?
- How did you decide to rethink that idea?
- Which part makes sense and which part needs more time?
- How will you know you’re on the right track?
Based on how teachers or students respond to any of these questions there will be multiple avenues to respond, resulting in a greater awareness of individual learning processes. Just as Jayden did with his homework—taking ownership of his thinking to arrive at more accurate solutions—greater agency empowers others to reason through their ideas in order to have better ways of achieving better solutions.
So, engage in the decision making process and lift those voices of reason!