Student Agency, Engagement & Independent Inquiry in your IB PYP Classroom

Well, let's talk (again) about student agency and how to increase it within your classroom. Keeping in mind that it is far more than flexible seating and independently gathering resources, and more about giving the children voice, choice and action in their own learning, I'm heading straight to student engagement and developing independent inquiry. And there's a FREE sample for you too.

Student Engagement: So, What Does It Really Mean?

Student engagement is a challenge that each of us has encountered at some point within every year. It’s a lot to expect children to devote their full attention to school for eight hours straight. It is natural that they will lose focus at times, but there are strategies we can use to help them to increase this Self-Mangement skill of maintaining their focus.  It’s also important to remember that engagement also involves interest, curiosity, and motivation. Are you familiar with Phillip Schlechty's five levels of engagement? His research has delineated five specific levels and engagement and what you can expect from them. You can read more about his theory here. For the sake of this post, I want to focus on engagement in relation to agency. ENGAGEMENT & AGENCY • The student sees the activity as personally meaningful. • The student’s level of interest is sufficiently high that he persists in the face of difficulty. • The student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it. • The student’s emphasis is on optimum performance and on “getting it right.”

Motivating Students to Learn

Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation are the two main ways that students can feel a sense of motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within – it does not require any outside factors to motivate, and the drive is personal, coming from within our students.  Some children naturally come with this type of motivation whilst with others it must be cultivated. Extrinsic motivation involves some type of external motivation - a reward or return for completing the task in hand. I believe it’s important to create a healthy balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for students. Here are some of  my tried and tested tips for creating an engaged classroom full of motivated students.

1. A Culture of Community

This is probably the holy grail of advice when it comes to classroom management and student engagement. While a comfortable and safe relationship with students isn’t going to solve every problem, it’s a great base point to start from.

  • Having time planned for coming together as a class to reflect and share is a key part of my routine. It is so important to have that morning meeting or end of the day pow-wow. It brings us together again as reinforces our sense of community as we discuss everything from our classroom challenges and success to Billy's new puppy and my daughter's driving test! Children open up when they feel safe. And they want to show you what they can do with a sense of pride when they feel valued.
  • Angela Watson from Truth for Teachers shares the 2 x 10 strategy for relationship building.  Basically, spending two minutes a day for ten days in a row talking to at-risk students brought a stronger feeling of connection from those children who were most disengaged.  Think about those students who are struggling with behaviour and having trouble engaging. Through this strategy, you are able to build a connection with students who may otherwise get lost in the crowd.
  • My kiddos developed a love for bookmark rewards and our star student tickets. I wanted to find a way to tap into that extrinsic reward they were seeking, so I implemented star student tickets and Learner Profile bookmark rewards. In short, it involved part of our on-going feedback with the focus on success. My students would come and chat with me for just a minute each week (usually as part of our weekly reflection time) and tell me a success. It’s an AMAZING relationship builder.2 

Editable IBPYP Learner Profile 

2. Student Choice - Ownership & Accountability

There are lots of ways you can incorporate student choice into the classroom. And a key suggestion to lead into independent inquiry is through choice boards. These are super easy to create. You can download the free choice board I made for How We Express Ourselves to get an idea so you can create your own. Essentially, you create a chart and fill in each box with a different activity students’ can complete. This allows you to add what you think needs to be included as well as having the children fill in some boxes with their own ideas too.

You can read more about differentiating the inquiry process in this article, Developing Student Led Inquiry.

Form: What IS an independent inquiry board?

Independent inquiry board for every celebration throughout the year.[/caption] You may know them as choice boards, tic tac toe etc They are a collection of guided options to encourage the children to make their own selections and can be used within any subject area, theme or concept. Function: Inquiry boards encourage the children to use their Approaches to Learning Skills(Research, Self Management, Thinking, Social & Communication) whilst showing their knowledge of skills that YOU as the facilitator, are directing. They act as a tool for formative assessment to integrate into any subject or a selection of subjects based around your unit of inquiry. I have multiple options already created for grades 3-5 that you look at below:

Inclusive Assessment & Increasing Student Agency

I have an informative read all about getting the children involved in the assessment process here.  With the intention of giving them more of a voice, I have asked the children to help build our Tic Tac Toe boards. I prefer to do this with single subjects or one line of inquiry that we have been focusing on recently. For example, if I am focusing on fractions, then I will ask the children to work together in small groups to come up with a fun activity or inquiry that will show specific learning outcomes. Depending on the level of independence of your class, there are two ways to do this:

  1. you can either list the outcomes for the children OR
  2. ask them to think about the skills that they feel need more review and practice and have them decide upon the outcomes.

Regarding student agency, the children become the very part of planning which in itself enables critical thinking, communication and creativity! (You can read more about co-planning the inquiry here, if you wish. )They love to swap out their inquiry boards with other groups. I have also photocopied them and used them as a weekly review at a later time for the class.  It's FABULOUS! It is an easy way to make the shift towards co-planning with the children. Try it out for yourself and let me know how it goes. 🤗 You can try it out for FREE right here, from my TpT store. 

FREE sample.



50% Complete

Be sure to subscribe to for practical strategies, hands on ideas and classroom ready tools for your inquiry-based classroom.