The Importance of Student Agency in Creative Schools

June 24, 2021
Michael Abercromby
Rachel Cusack


School: Wembley Primary School

Year Group: 5/6

Teacher: Rachel Cusack & Hannah Cox

Creative Practitioner: Michael Abercromy

Creative Practice: Theatre


My reflection on previous years in Creative Schools had identified student agency as being the lynch pin to the success of the program for the students, teachers and myself. This comes as no surprise given the criteria for a high functioning classroom, but it does not mean that this is by any means an easy thing to do. Time pressures to push through curriculum, tolerance of the original uncertainty student agency creates, the letting go of expectations and the urge to save students from failing what is often perceived as something which should be ‘fun’, are all barriers to allowing this important aspect of the program to take root. I have experienced and been responsible for both ends of the spectrum - free flowing student agency, and entirely prescriptive lessons where the teacher and I have made decisions on the student’s behalf. It has proven to be quite an elusive part of the program which can initially seem at best, overly time consuming and at worst, entirely futile. This year at Wembley, I feel the teachers and I were able to overcome these barriers and tap into student agency successfully, to create a true learning experience for the students.

Rather than starting with the positive aspects, I want to highlight the obstacles, as these are the things that cause both teachers and creatives to pause. In the initial meetings with Rachel and Hannah, I had to make some uncomfortable assertions. One particular phrase became particularly uncomfortable - “I don’t know, we’ll have to see.” This may seem innocent, but to time poor teachers who are used to creating and then enacting a plan, being informed that you have no idea what the culmination of 16 weeks or 24-36 hrs of precious class time is going to look like, can be a hard pill to swallow. Additionally, as a creative who is trying to prove their benefit to the classroom, admitting that your plan is essentially no-plan, pencilled in and subject to change, can be a challenging admission. Ultimately, committing to the plan of no-plan, works when this is clearly communicated and reiterated. The creative process, no matter what discipline is always fluid and that comfort within fluidity and change is a skill we possess as creatives, even though we might not recognise it as such. A plan of no-plan didn’t mean we didn’t have goals and ideas, but it left enough room within it to ask the students where they wanted to go next.

Rachel and Hannah’s teaching styles and the ethos at Wembley meant the students were already familiar with agency. That being said, the level we wanted still had to be introduced slowly. Mobility, free range, group work and choice can initially lead to silliness. However, once this way of working becomes the new normal, the excitement wears off and the work begins. That first lesson or two though can be a bit difficult to endure. 15 minute warm-ups became 30 minutes, little exercises became whole lessons and I probably gave instructions out 20 times before they were understood. However, I trusted in the process and had the support of the teachers. After a session or two this new normal became completely comfortable. We often forget that agency, autonomy and self-guided work is a learned behaviour. If I had given up on agency at peak chaos in preference of order, we would have never had the high functioning classroom we ended up with. 

To make sure the students had agency and choice about the project, we had to spend a lot of time introducing what the project could be. They could also only make informed choices if they were informed about their choices. This ended up being about 4 sessions. A QUARTER of the time was spent not doing the project, but preparing the students to make a choice about how they wanted to do a project. This meant informing the students about all possibilities before finally asking them how they wanted to proceed. Needless to say this took time, the ever present enemy in the classroom. Ours was a media project, so it meant we had to introduce and inform them about different types of media, consult them about how we could organise groups, ask about delivery, how they wanted to reflect and how they wanted to present. As we got closer to a framework endorsed by the students, we even did two mock projects over two sessions - a randomised topic, medium and grouping, and another where the students chose all aspects. Even though we witnessed much greater work output in the randomised mock project, and the students echoed this in their reflection, they still chose to commit to the real project choosing their own groups, topics and media. This was a slight disappointment to the teachers and I, particularly as only one group was mixed gendered, but we gave them the choice, and we had to respect it. You definitely have to wear the good with the bad and trust that the learning will come in the reflection.

The positives that came out of it, and the students ability to work with agency by the end was incredible. Discipline and focus starts taking care of itself not through authoritative control, but through natural competitiveness. As groups saw others progress, or make something wonderful, they then tried harder to progress, catch up or innovate something just as impressive. Well structured peer feedback motivates as much, if not more than teacher grades. Groups with communication breakdowns came forwards for help of their own volition as they noticed they were falling behind. Jokers and slackers quickly realised by themselves that the small reward of time off or a quick laugh meant they had to present something they weren’t proud of and changed direction. For the students that excel at school, this project offered a genuine challenge. They realised their own shortcomings in communication, collaboration and the ability to be flexible. Interestingly enough, it was these students that struggled the most. Whereas the kids in the middle and bottom, when grouped together, are greater than the sum of their parts and had the opportunity to rise and make something really incredible. Either way, because the choices were entirely their own, the project became an incredible learning experience, rather than the result.

Paul Gorman wrote an email during one of our Zoom meetings talking about how he worked hard to do nothing, and I felt like I experienced that concept this year. We put in a lot of work and consideration for the project, a lot of talks and a lot of extra work so we could sit back and let students get on with it. Rachel made surveys and feedback, organised other classes to watch the videos and booked rooms and resources. I made project packs, edited scripts, found links to examples and provided resources. All that work, so we could just wander and check in with students during the session. I knew I had achieved my goal when I got asked by one group during a check in if I could stop interrupting so that they could get back to work. In previous years, lack of courage from myself, and a reluctance to weather the initial storm of uncertainty, meant that these obstacles became barriers. This year, with support and trust from the teachers as well as a steadfast resolve to preference student voice and choice, meant we were able to truly promote student agency and achieve a higher functioning classroom, more so than I had in previous years.