What happens when you give students agency?

Agency can be understood as the ability to choose and act, and to determine one’s own life outcomes with forethought and intentionality. One school is trying to determine how we can empower the next generation of students.

It’s often said that it is at university where students are taught how to think, not what to think, where students become adults and begin to take control of their learning and lives. But perhaps it’s too late by then, and by the time our students are old enough to vote and work there are certain life lessons they should already have under their belt.

One school, Westbourne Grammar School, has agency at the very core of its philosophy and has partnered with the University of Queensland to study how to develop and expand student agency while still at school. Launched in February 2023, the study will explore how agency can be encouraged and developed across all year groups from prep to year 12.

Adrian Camm is Principal at Westbourne Grammar and believes it is important that students “are agents of their own schooling; that schooling is not just happening ‘to’ them, but also ‘with’ them.”

“Agency at Westbourne is about having the ability to take ownership of one’s own learning, set meaningful and challenging goals, and to actively pursue them.” Adrian Camm, Principal

Robust and collaborative research

“It is important that our approach to student agency is informed by the latest and most robust research,” said Principal Camm. “That’s why we are participants in the research partnership with the University of Queensland study. The study is underpinned by a wealth of literature, including the milestone study: Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective (2001) by Albert Bandura.”

But as would be expected with a study on agency, it’s not being dictated by an external research team, but is driven by Westbourne staff teaching across all faculties and year levels. Students from years 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 will be involved with focus groups, with the focus group questions designed by year 11 students, who will also assist in analysing the qualitative and quantitative data.

“When our students complete their learning at Westbourne Grammar School, they are equipped with the skills and knowledge to shape, challenge and change the world in meaningful and impactful ways,” explains Principal Camm. “Involving students in decision-making processes has had a positive impact on their sense of ownership and engagement in their education, as well as assist in their understanding of how schools function and work.”

But it is not just students who have agency. Westbourne Grammar is a Research-Invested School (RISn) and “challenges the common notion that teachers merely ‘deliver the curriculum’ developed by experts elsewhere” says Principal Camm. The school is charting a new course for the future of innovation and leadership in education.

Camm said, “The University of Queensland partnership is an important example of teachers actioning purposeful research in their own context to improve classroom outcomes. Our teachers are very excited to be actual architects of important change. From a Westbourne Grammar perspective, this is just the beginning of our teacher-led research journey.”

Schoolwide commitment

The study supplements Westbourne Grammar School’s commitment to student agency, where several initiatives already exist offering students practical experience of both leadership and responsibility. For example, student leaders are included in the panel which advises on executive appointments as well as leading social action groups such as Westbourne Grammar’s Pride Group.

“Giving students a voice and an opportunity to provide input into important decisions has promoted a culture of transparency and accountability within our school community,” explains Principal Camm about the groundbreaking initiative to include students on the appointment panel. “Executive members that have joined our team spoke about how this was a highlight of the recruitment experience. The experience for the students is invaluable and exposes them to something that they have never done before.”

Through the school’s leadership development program, both junior and senior students at Westbourne Grammar are provided with opportunities to take on formal leadership roles and responsibilities within the school community. The program allows students to experience different styles of leadership and management, public speaking, chairing effective meetings, having difficult conversations, developing strategy and managing projects. “Then they get to put what they learn into practice in various ways,” adds Principal Camm.

What happens when you give teenagers agency?

Principal Camm believes that if students have agency, and they are equipped with a broad range of skills, attributes, tools, and dispositions, they can go out into the world and achieve anything they set their minds to.

“When teenagers are given agency, they are empowered to take more ownership and control over their learning experiences, which can lead to a range of positive outcomes,” he says.

“Making sure that our next generation of young people head into the world with a lived experience of knowing who they are, how to reflect on how they are doing and how to make meaningful choices about their own futures is arguably the most important work of all.” Adrian Camm

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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