Implementing Student Agency in the IB PYP

When I first started writing this post, my intention was to jump straight into ideas for implementing student agency in our PYP classrooms. Then I got to thinking that maybe not everyone is wholly familiar with the PYP’s enhancements to be released this year. (2018) And so, I thought I’d take a step back, try to clarify the term “student agency” and go from there.  So, bear with me if you’re up to date with the shifting and changing going on. The ideas follow the chat.  Otherwise, grab a cup of tea and read on.


Form: What is agency in the enhanced PYP?

Even though the term “student agency” is the new buzz word regarding our learners in the PYP, it really isn’t altogether new. It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not a brand new change but rather a shift towards a greater emphasis of providing more deliberate autonomy for our students, thus developing leadership. This form of leadership can be viewed as deliberate, independent decision making for one’s own success or leading synergistically within a group.

Agency is basically when our students have ownership of their own learning and action that comes from that learning.  Our job is to facilitate opportunities with their learning that enable more active participation for the kids.

“Agency is the power to take meaningful and intentional action, and acknowledges the rights and responsibilities of the individual, supporting voice, choice and ownership…”      IBO November 2017

This image shows the continuum, shifting from teacher led classroom to finally learner driven classroom with growing student agency throughout the process.

Function: What is its purpose and how does it work?

Within a learner-centred environment there is a lot more student participation with reflection and responsibility than in a teacher-centred environment. The  children identify and set their own goals, help to choose their own differentiated activities and reflect upon how well they have met their goals. It becomes more of a partnership with the teacher when the students are helping to design the projects and activities along the lines of inquiry, which is driven by their curiosity and interest. With a learner-centred classroom the teacher becomes the facilitator of the learning and assessment, monitoring the action, the progress and checking in with the kids.

Phoebe, completely in charge of planning, designing & demonstrating her model based on her knowledge of vocabulary of how the human voice works.

It  has been an explicit expectation of the PYP for a while, that successful inquiry will lead to student initiated action as a direct result of the learning process, which in turn, extends the students’ learning. Which, when you think about it, how can it NOT extend their learning? Student action looks like:

  • independent thinking
  • decision making
  • taking a risk
  • making mistakes
  • problem solving
  • fixing mistakes
  • researching
  • cooperation
  • communication
  • lots of reflection
  • responsibility
  • commitment
  • etc.

It is no accident that the attributes of the Learner Profile are repeatedly showing up within this process. As the Learner Profile has always been the centre of the PYP, so must the Learner become the centre of our classroom.

Responsibility: Giving the Kids A Voice

Download this reflection sheet free, right here.

There are many ways that we can start to bring more responsibility into the hands of our pupils. As we begin to plan for this however, we have to really get to know our learners as well as bring a heightened awareness to the children of their role as active learners rather than just kids passively showing up in class day after day. This reflection sheet is a good start when it comes to analysing ourselves as learners, according to the Learner Profile. I like to model it for the children first, using myself as the subject. You can download it for free right here or by clicking on the image.   

Once the children reflect upon their strengths and challenges as a learner, the Create Your Own bunting below is  a great focus activity where they can select a few profile traits and attitudes and explain more about how they see themselves within THAT profile trait. It makes a great display too. 🙂

Create Your Own Posters- a handy packet for all grade levels.

Creating this mind-set early on is a win-win for all involved. (There is another blog post that goes into more depth about actively engaging learners with a growth mind-set here.)


Probably the simplest way to get your kiddos thinking like active and important members of the classroom community is to involve them in making some of the decisions for their classroom. This immediately gives them a voice. These things can be introduced as slowly or as  quickly as you feel your group of learners can cope. It really all depends on your group of kids and how much autonomy they may have been exposed to prior. It is of course an on-going process.

  •  Essential Agreements – These seem like the most obvious start to me. Right at the beginning of the school year but can be revisited with each term. You can learn a wee bit more about those in this previous post.
  • Flexible seating gives them your trust together with their integrity, to choose where to sit freely AND with the added responsibility to focus on tasks in hand.
  • Develop a class voting system for class decisions novel study options, class rewards ( E.g. popcorn party vs. extra recess?), drama on Monday or Tuesday?
  • Classroom layout – Have some input from the children as to what goes where. This is so empowering for the kids at the beginning of a brand new school year, not to mention feels really grown up. 🙂  It doesn’t suit everyone, but I do like to change the furniture around a bit each term.
  • Self grouping – Have students put themselves into collaborative groups with your guidance. ( E.g. mix it up from last time, same sex groups, work with someone you’ve not worked with before, choose someone you communicate well with,  etc. ) Depending on your group of kids, it can take some time to get it down. Persevere.
  • Planning the schedule or a part of your daily/weekly schedule, where possible. We would do this on a Friday afternoon, reflecting upon our week and adding additional time with maths if necessary or writing etc., setting goals for APL skills and planning a reward if we meet them. ( Example: Greater communication within group work, using our question stems with the reward of ten minutes extra recess or a class game.)

Kids trip out when you first have them help plan their own learning!  But they absolutely love it! Using success criteria and self-assessment helps them to make informed choices.

  • Daily learning objectives is an easy one for both teacher and students to get used to the concept. Great to do either on a Monday morning planning session or a Friday afternoon as a reflection of the week, in preparation for the following week.
  • Literature Inquiry Circles – Many of us are familiar with this fabulous way to allow students to independently direct their learning. I highly recommend Harvey Daniels book show above for those who’d like to learn more about Lit Circles. It has very useable ideas that area easy to implement. Click on the image and it’ll take you to Amazon where you can read more about it.
  • Differentiation stations – This is another form of self assessment. As you prepare differentiated activities, group the materials (I use labels such as ” I am improving with this skill”, “I can do this independently, with some help”, “I can teach this skill to others”) and set each station with the label, around the room)  and then give the children the choice of which differentiated task they will work through. This is actually easier than it sounds.
  • The first time I introduce this to my class, I will take time to explain the expectations, making it clear that we all have different strengths and challenges and that just because your best pal chooses one station doesn’t mean that it is the right station for you too. I also like to make it clear that the children can begin with one station and, if they find it too difficult or not challenging enough, then they can move onto another station. I have done this successfully with reading, science and math inquiries. The reflection afterwards is quite powerful indeed.  It takes a wee bit more preparation on the teacher’s part but it is well worth it, I promise.
  • Choice boards – as they state, they give the kids the opportunity to
    independent student decision making with choice boards.

    independently choose which inquiry based activities they will do. These are always popular. I have a Tic Tac Toe version for all transdisciplinary themes, geared for 3rd-5th grades that you check out here as well as choice boards for math standards.  So easy to print and go. You can try it out for free if you like, here. 

  • Peer Learning – The famous quote by Benjamin Franklin sums up this aspect of student agency perfectly.
  • “Tell me and I forget.
  • Teach me and I remember.
  • Involve me and I learn.”
  • Involvement is peer learning at it’s finest with children working together to learn something, teaching each other a skill or a strategy. I have found that works best in one-to-one pairings. However, small groups can collaborate to teach another small group a skill that we have been learning. It is also a brilliant homework task –  choose something that you have learned this month and prepare a lesson for the class. Kids LOVE standing up and being the teacher. As the facilitator, it is easy to jump in and help as necessary. And it covers so many of the APL skills! Win-win!
  • Self-assessment & Peer Assessment –
  • 1.The good old rubric never goes wrong with self assessment and peer assessement. I like to take it a step further and involve the children in the creation of such rubrics. It is a terrific way to reflect upon the expecatations, setting  goals at the same time. Easy to implement, put a blank rubric chart under the document camera or on your Smart board, enter the data that must be met ( key concepts, skills, subject knowledge etc) and then set 2-4 expectations per goal.
  • With peer assessment, be sure that the kids know to give positive and constructive criticism. We had to practice this in the beginning with a mini lesson on empathy and caring. 🙂
  • 2. Traffic Lights – this is a quick and easy way for the children to self assess themselves and for you to gauge their understanding and confidence of the topic. I ask them to add a coloured circle in the top corner of their page so that it is easy for me to see as I walk around the room or when marking their work. These classroom posters are free to download here if you’d like.


  • Scheduling Teacher Conferences – Monitoring progress has always been an on-going process and it becomes more meaningful when the child is actually involved and aware of their growth.  Students LOVE to schedule themselves for our once a week one-on-one conference. I keep a sign up sheet on a clip board hanging at a convenient point for everyone to reach.
  • We discuss the data that I have tracked, their questions and concerns and together we set goals for the following week. This is kept in our Reflection Journals, which each child brings with them to our conference. Tracking progress can be done with a simple rubric, chart, graph or a software programme such as Accelerated Reader/Math.  There is always a few kiddos that you have to chase down but for the most part, the kids enjoy the independent aspect of the conference. This takes about 60-75 minutes to complete a class in one sitting and I schedule it at the same time as our independent reading time, where the kids are working quietly on reading and related activities.
  • Personal Learning Plans (PLPs) – these tie in well with the above conferences.  There is a simple form that I use and the children  and I reflect and set goals for the coming week, keeping them in our Reflection Journals.  (You can grab a copy of this form by clicking this link. )These can be shared with other staff
    Our PLP’s are recorded on a simple form where we can reflect on the progress.

    as well ( specials teachers, SPED etc) and parents, making for a wonderful communication tool between all parties involved.

  • In addition to the PLPs, we take time each term to set goals for our own learning and I like to keep those goals on display so that they are easy to refer to and right under ittle noses, thus keeping everyone accountable. These Goal Setting activities are simple to print,  go and display.
  • Scheduled Workshops –  these are where I will have a focus group for a particular skill that needs reviewed or for kids who need to be challenged with certain skills. The kids can add their names to this schedule, when we review our weekly learning goals on Mondays.  I do discuss this in our weekly conference too, just in case I feel that someone is slipping through the net. It isn’t too unlike guided math/reading groups except that it’s far more flexible. If there are too many in one group, then I get the message that I need to review the skill as a whole class lesson and plan for that. You can see how this allows the children to control the pace.

What? –

-our questions, activities that we do, conversations that stuck with us, noting our mistakes & our discoveries, making connections etc.

Where? –

-reflection journals – as bullet notes, sketch notes, short paragraphs, graphic organisers ( focusing on teacher-guided specifics or free choice), sticky notes, pictures glued onto pages with thoughts/questions

-inquiry banks – a white board or large sheet of poster paper that can be used as a “bank” to note down our questions. There are many different ways to do this. Some people prefer to use sticky notes, I prefer dry erase markers on a whiteboard.

The inquiry bank is a communal area where the children are encouraged to read others’ inquiries and answer them too. The answers are written beside ( or sticky note added beside) the inquiry. If there is a particularly popular question, then I will add it to our lines of inquiry. The last 10-15 minutes at the  end of the day is our reflection time, where we discuss and share our new knowledge, our reflection journals and look at the inquiry bank.

-PLPs –These can kept in the back of our Reflection journals and then added to our Portfolios for each unit. If I am using them as a Knowledge Focus(specifically focusing on math, writing skills or reading) then I keep them in our working binders until the unit is completed.

-Portfolios – I still prefer to use the good old fashioned binder for our main portfolios and therefore we can keep a record of our learning from each UOI within. I know many are using digital portfolios and, of course, these can be used as a record of learning too.

Having read all of the above, you are no doubt thinking to yourself, ” Well, hey, I already do a lot of this.” And I would have to agree. The difference with the current shift towards greater student agency is that the emphasis is on the word “greater”. We, as the teachers, have to develop a greater awareness of what agency in our classroom looks like so that we are conscientiously implementing that shift towards supporting and developing even further ownership of learning amongst our children by giving them greater opportunities for voice and choice.

Please feel free to comment below and add any other suggestions and ideas that you may have. Til next time…..


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