It may seem counterintuitive to hand any portion of the learning experience over to your students. After all, you’re the teacher. You need to set the pace and plan for the class to follow.

That said, increasing student agency has been demonstrated to improve student engagement by a considerable amount. The simple fact is that students are more engaged — and more interested in learning — where they are encouraged to make decisions and share ideas among peers.

Having a sense of agency in the classroom can encourage confident, assertive behaviors in your students. This will manifest in a lot of different ways. You can see greater interest in the curriculum and a feeling of community among fellow students. Plus, confidence is a trait that will serve your students well, even years after graduation.

To put this into perspective, let’s take a look at three specific practices you can implement to empower students.

#1: Empower Students to Set Class Norms

Classroom norms are at the heart of the community we’re attempting to craft. Each classroom is going to be different, and those norms are likely to change between each group, and again year to year. This is why it’s important to decide class norms and practices communally for each group, and codify them early on. 

Instead of imposing hard rules as their teacher, ask your students to contribute answers to the following questions:

  • What does respectful communication mean?
  • What equipment and materials does everyone need, and how should that be prepared?
  • What does it mean to be fully prepared?
  • How would you like to be treated by your classmates?
  • What does personal freedom mean, and how can we protect that for everyone?

This list of questions isn’t necessarily exhaustive. Still, you should get the general gist of what we’re proposing for students. We’re talking about establishing norms regarding ethics, integrity, collaboration, and effective preparedness. But, for this to work, you will need to establish firm ground rules. For example:

  1. Language must always remain respectful; avoid insults or putdowns.
  2. Be clear and concise. 
  3. Encourage active listening. This means listening intently, rather than tuning out others while waiting for their turn to speak. 
  4. Presume good faith. Encourage students to give others the benefit of the doubt when opinions conflict. 
  5. Ensure students hold themselves accountable for the decisions they make. 

#2: Empower Students to Define Collective Values

Ask questions that prod students to drill down to discover what they value. Here are some ideas of questions you can ask:

  • What do you care about most?
  • Who do you want to be, and how would you think they would reach their goals?
  • What do you love most about your friends?
  • What are manners, and why do you think they’re important?

Next, engage in discussion about students’ answers to these questions. Students should be teamed up with a partner or small group to compare their answers. Ask them to highlight where their responses match up, and where they differ. 

Finally, the written portion. Once everyone has their responses down and comparisons drawn up, have them write out 2-4 sentences answering the following prompts:

  • In our class we care about __________.
  • We all agree that __________ is most important to our class
  • Our shared values are __________, __________, and __________

#3: Empower Students to Set Procedures

You’ve started from a place of empathy by asking your students to create systems that suit their values rather than imposing your own. You’ve encouraged students to claim a sense of ownership for their learning environment, which in turn increases a sense of belonging and community. You’ve also identified and resolved potential conflicts early on by encouraging discussion and negotiation rather than hard rulesets that establish punishment dynamics.

Now that the classroom value sets are explored, negotiated, and decided upon, the final step is implementation. This is where you facilitate your students’ community culture value sets and procedures.

Students should engage in open, good-faith dialogue about setting the terms of classroom interaction. Encourage students to hear situations through more democratic processes which instill a sense of cooperation and resolution early on.

You want to create actionable, rational value sets that are relatable for each student, rather than arbitrary rules that constrain independent thought. Of course, you also need buy in. This means ensuring that everyone affirms that they’re willing to abide by the procedures, even if they’re not entirely reflective of their own personal preferences.

Working Toward an Open, Empathic Society

Whatever your approach to classroom values, encouraging students to get involved is a dynamic way to promote shared ethics among younger generations.

Thinking about ways to get students involved doesn’t have to be just through artistic and creative endeavors. By allowing students to assume agency over their learning environment, you are leading them to critical thought, improved collaboration, and active participation long before you introduce your lesson plan.