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Building Agency in Schools

Dr Phil Cummins summarises how schools can build agency in today’s learning for tomorrow’s world.


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What is the role of agency in today’s learning for tomorrow’s world? An education that truly prepares our students for their world is not only future-fit in approach and future-ready in disposition, it is one in which the students themselves play an active role in co-constructing their learning. After all, an education that is done to you is very different from one which is done with you and (in due course) done by you. Ultimately, it is agency which equips, empowers and enables students to test what’s possible and act with an increased sense of purpose that can guide them to thrive in their world.

How can schools build agency?


Great schools are able to assemble the ingredients of the high-performance learning culture that builds agency. They can identify the "secret sauce" that blends aspiration, a sense of kinship, and pathways to success, and apply this to the flow of relationships of character apprenticeship between experts and novices that inspire, challenge, and support them by keeping them in their groove and holding them to their purpose. 

This increases the propensity for transformational high-performance learning that fosters both the sense of belonging to and engagement in school by young people of character and their pursuit of excellence as they seek to find their voice and exercise their agency.

As Adriano and I argue in our recent book*, all of this needs to emanate from a shared purpose of helping learners to demonstrate those graduate outcomes that indicate that they are prepared with the character, competency and wellness needed to thrive in their world. This has implications for us as leaders in schools:

We need to be committed to connecting students, teachers, leaders and school teams to these values and value propositions and the purpose of creating better outcomes for more learners so that they can grow, make progress and succeed on their pathway to excellence.”

Ref: Cummins, Philip and Di Prato, Adriano, Game Changers: Leading Today's Learning for Tomorrow's World (Hawker Brownlow Education 2022) p. 11

So how will you as a leader know if you are building the agency required for today’s learning for tomorrow’s world? You can use the following as a guide for your work:

Culture: Schools can build agency through a culture in which everything is directed towards shared goals for the whole education of whole people. In doing so, a community can forge a commitment to help learners find and claim the agency of their own personal learning journey with integrity and optimism. While a school must agree on its collective sense of purpose and how this plays out in the development of its learning community, there is also a need for this community to cherish and protect the individual relationships of character apprenticeship to help learners to find and claim the agency of their own personal learning journey.

Leadership: Schools can build agency through leadership grounded in communication that builds the ongoing case for growth and change through a story of yesterday, today and tomorrow. In doing so, leaders support the emerging agency of learners by navigating complexity and validation. The clarity of the things that matter the most must be at the forefront of thinking in the daily work of a school for tomorrow.

LearningSchools can build agency through creating and striving towards a vision for high standards in learning while learning about themselves as they do so. In doing so, leaders support the emerging agency of learners by promoting growth through clarity. The way a school learns about itself needs to connect first with both the process and the specific outcomes of building agency in learning; both of these need to be directly related to understanding the evolving value of the learning for the students themselves.

Performance: Schools can build agency through consistent performance in student experience and outcomes that nurtures the growth of the character, competency and wellness of its learners with direction and discernment. So much of the value of a school’s performance can be found and measured in the success of its graduates in using their adaptive expertise and self-efficacy to find answers to complex questions in context.

Strategy: Schools can build agency through a strategy whose choices bring confidence and develop student agency with perspective and context. The essence of strategy is an abiding sense of hope that tests possibility in agency on behalf of all in a learning community.

Systems and Operations: Schools can build agency through systems and operations that bring people together with both relationality and structure. The agency of the most critical system of a school – the knowledge engine of the teacher community of inquiry and practice – must itself be both rigorous and relevant.

With voice and agency embedded in the educational and operational DNA of a school, the impact of a school’s purpose can be observed and measured most fully in the quality of advocacy offered by its students and other community members.

It is this concept of advocacy that we will consider in the final trimester of 2023.

Let’s go!


* You can purchase your copy of Game Changers: Leading Today’s Learning For Tomorrow’s World  here:

Dr Phil Cummins FRSA FACEL FIML is the Managing Partner of a School for tomorrow, Managing Director at CIRCLE – The Centre for Innovation, Research, Creativity & Leadership in Education, Associate Professor of Education & Enterprise at Alphacrucis University College, and co-host of the Game Changers podcast series.

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