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Engaging with learner agency as a community

Mahboobeh Hajizadeh is the PYP coordinator at Shahid Mahdavi Educational Foundation in Tehran, Iran.

If you are struggling with giving your students the authority to decide for and plan the path of their own learning journey or if you are in two minds whether student agency will throw your classroom discipline and your well-designed lesson plans into question, then keep reading to the end!

It’s totally understandable that shifting focus towards giving ownership of learning to children might sound scary to some, especially if you are obsessed with planning every bit and part of the inquiry cycle yourself and avoiding anything that would lead to deviation from your plans and lead to chaos. But shedding some light on different aspects of agency might turn the page on your concern.

I remember when I first came across “agency” in the released IB documents. I was devouring “From Principles into Practice” when in the first few pages of “The Learner”, I was stopped and was baffled by the term “agency”. It’s ironic how a language which is supposed to facilitate communication won’t sometimes let you digest some basic ideas. In my case, the absence of a direct equivalent for the word “agency” in Persian was impeding me from grasping the idea and challenging me to work out the meaning for a while. Not until I had gone through the chapter several times and with the help of these three amazing key words i.e. voice, choice, ownership, did I manage to finally decode the meaning. However, then, a bigger problem came up; I found myself not having the faintest idea how to put agency into practice. As a result, I started digging into the topic through listening to related podcasts, watching available webinars, and discussing and sharing my understandings with other members of our leadership team in order to unpack the concept.

I was once doubtful as some of you might be right now. I wasn’t sure whether agency would work in our context. However, having worked in the IB system for years, I have learned very well not to let the fear of failure and doubts hinder me from approaching and exercising new ideas.

Therefore, during our summer workshops, as the PYP coordinator, I allocated an entire workshop day to the introduction of agency to members of our learning community. We started the session with working on an agency table which was based on the design of the “Examining Learner Agency In Your Setting” document.

The table was like a pre-assessment with the help of which the participants could assess their performance in three areas including: What is the learner doing? What is the facilitator doing? What’s happening in the environment? This table was a great help to the participants especially the teachers as they realized that they’ve been unconsciously implementing agency in their classrooms, to some extent. Then we perused the “Agency In a Primary School Context” document and discussed the questions for further understanding. Later, the participants looked at agency from different conceptual lenses such as, Function and Responsibility, asked a set of questions (e.g. What is agency like? What is the purpose and how does it work? What are some ways to give students responsibilities? ) and exhibited their understandings using a diagram of their choice. Last but not least, the participants were encouraged to rethink the way they are with children and their teaching convictions since our thinking framework as teachers defines our relationships with students and the level of influence we impose on them. Finally, they paired and shared their ideas about possible ways of exercising and embedding agency in our own school.

As the follow up of the workshop, in all our collaborative meetings, we allocate a good deal of our session to reflect on things we have done so far in order to give students the chance to be responsible for their own learning. We debate the possible meaningful and intentional actions that students may take in each unit. We also share our ideas about ways of documenting our progress. These sessions have helped us go deeper into agency, and make more connections with our teaching framework. Now, we look at agency as an opportunity to reinforce the implementation of inquiry-based education, constructivism, and a path to help our students reach their full potential as they grow physically, mentally and spiritually.

In our ongoing journey to foster agency, there were a few points which facilitated its implementation for us. Therefore, I decided to share our experience with you and encourage you to read the tips below. I hope they will help you promote students agency in your learning community, as well.

  1. Start with reading ‘Examining Learner Agency in your setting’.This will give you a clear view of where you and your students are standing right now. It also helps you understand that as an IB teacher you may have already set agency in motion without being aware of it. Questions like what is it that we believe about learners? How are learners actively responsible for their own learning? Or Where are students exercising their agency? Will help you set your mind on the areas where you and your students need working towards.
  2. Start small. Take some baby steps towards agency. Agency can be as small as gathering your students’ opinions in setting their classroom or it can be as broad as supporting them to plan, modify and discuss your lesson plan or unit. Starting with simple tasks will facilitate the process and will give you and your students the confidence to move on.
  3. Ask other learning community members for support. The coordinator and principal can play a great role in paving the way for you through advocating for agency and there are also lots of PYP teachers who are willing to share their experience with you. Use the IB platform to get connected with them (Programme communities)
  4. Be a risk-taker and have faith in your students and in yourself. Don’t be scared of the results or the fact that your influence may be reduced. Your students’ creativity and their potential in leading their own learning will surprise you.
  5. Set goals. Try to set SMART* goals at the beginning of each theme with your students to engage your students cognitively and emotionally. Let them know that they can affect their learning process and that their voice and choice are important. Enjoy and celebrate each and every achievement with them.
  6. Remember, agency isn’t only for students. All the staff needs to be heard and engaged in the learning process. We require agency for our personal development as each of us is a unique asset to add to the learning community.

*SMART is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time- bound goals. The idea was first introduced by George T. Doran in 1981.


Mahboobeh Hajizadeh is the PYP coordinator at Shahid Mahdavi Educational Foundation in Tehran, Iran. During her 9 years’ experience in the PYP, she has worked as an English homeroom teacher and subject leader. She is passionate about holistic education, connecting mind, body, soul, and nature, and bringing joy and creativity to her learning community.

3 Responses to Engaging with learner agency as a community

  1. Worth Bishop 12 June 2020 at 2:44 pm #

    This is a test comment.

  2. Matt 12 June 2020 at 3:54 pm #

    Great article!

  3. Shilpi Sharma 23 June 2021 at 5:16 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this blog. It was indeed helpful in understanding Agency a bit better. I completely agree that tables will not turn overnight. We need to start with baby steps.:) And every step counts.

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