Dim 4: Agency, Ownership, Identity

dim4Dimension 4 focuses on the extent to which students have the opportunity to generate and share ideas, both in whole class and small group settings; the extent to which student contributions are encouraged, recognized and supported as part of regular classroom activity; and the extent to which student ideas are built upon as the classroom constructs its collective understandings.

People’s dispositions and identities – e.g., “I am a reader,” or “I’m just not a history person,” – are derived from experiences with the discipline. Such dispositions and identities, often formed in the classroom, shape the ways in which people relate to the discipline for the rest of their lives. Many students develop counterproductive beliefs about themselves and a discipline, e.g., that they are “bad at science,” or that history has nothing to do with contemporary events, or that only geniuses can create mathematics. But it need not be this way.

One fundamental aspect of disciplinary identity is agency – an individual’s willingness to engage in the discipline, which comes from the perception that she or he make can progress on challenging issues by working away at them, and trust in the conclusions that he or she draws. Engle (2011) writes,

Learners have intellectual agency when they … share what they actually think about the problem in focus rather than feeling the need to come up with a response that they may or may not believe in, but that matches what some other authority like a teacher or textbook would say is correct.

Ownership refers to the sense that one has control of disciplinary ideas, rather than parroting or memorizing those of others. It is the difference between saying “I’ve reasoned this through and I’m confident it makes sense” and relying on external authority.

A key issue is the extent to which a learning environment provides students with opportunities to develop these aspects of their disciplinary and personal identities. Effective teachers recognize and capitalize on the strengths of each student, finding ways to help individual students enter into the learning community when they do not easily enter it on their own (Boaler, 2008; Cohen & Lotan, 1997). There are multiple ways to do this. Teachers can create opportunities for public recognition of students’ contributions to disciplinary discussions, help students work together in small groups, and attend to students who are struggling by building on the strengths in their thinking. For example, Resnick, O’Connor, and Michaels (2007) identify powerful talk moves by teachers such as revoicing (repeating, paraphrasing, or summarizing a student contribution for the whole class to react), asking students to restate others’ reasoning, to build on what other students have said, and prompting for explanations.

Above and beyond teacher moves, however, is the very nature of the classroom environment. Do students feel safe making contributions to classroom conversations? Have norms been established for making contributions? For building on contributions from others? For validating and critiquing contributions from others?

There is a large literature on “accountable talk,” the kind of classroom discourse that supports students in responsibly and respectfully co-constructing ideas. For a large portfolio of resources, see, Institute for Learning (2016).

To give one example, a technique for shaping classroom discourse productively is the use of “sentence stems” aimed at promoting accountable talk:

  • I disagree (or agree) with that, because ______
  • I still have questions about ______
  • This is the same, because ______
  • I observed ______
  • I’m confused by ______
  • To expand on what ______ said ______

Only in climates where students feel comfortable contributing to the development of disciplinary ideas will they have opportunities to develop a sense of academic and disciplinary agency, ownership of the ideas discussed, and positive disciplinary and personal identities.

See the tools sections for a deeper discussion and pointers to further resources.

Next page: Dimension 5, Formative Assessment