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Tapping into Student Agency

The importance of student agency and how educators can teach students to be more engaged in their own learning.
Unconscious Bias in Schools

Educational sociologist Anindya Kundu recognizes that students need more than grit to succeed in school.

A senior fellow of research at Labor Market Information Service at the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, Kundu studies the role of student agency and how focusing on student potential can lead to growth and success in life, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Agency kind of forces a teacher to try as much as possible to recognize the individuality of their students,” Kundu says.  “If we're thinking about equity and the different kinds of opportunity gaps that we have right now in society, it's to also invite the teacher to understand that each child is at a different level of potential and to think about what it will take to inspire them as being different, to understand that they may have different challenges and things related to their identity that come from outside the classroom.”

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Kundu explains the importance of student agency and how educators can teach students to be more engaged in their own learning.


  • Celebrate small wins and showcase student work.
  • Have students give each other feedback and learn collaboration.
  • Give students autonomy, have them set goals for themselves at the beginning of the class or unit, then check in with them on how they are meeting their own goals.
  • Support from a standpoint of warm but also demanding.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Anindya Kundu knows students need far more than grit to succeed in school. He's an educational sociologist who studies agency and how when students learn to help themselves, this can change their lives, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are plenty of ways educators can tap into student agency even in today's challenging times. I asked Anindya to tell me what we need to know about agency.

Anindya Kundu

 Agency fundamentally to me is all about belief in a student's potential, and it's kind of trying to understand that this young person in your classroom or your online classroom has a whole life outside of that classroom that really determines their ability to succeed and dig into learning that also determines what they're interested in and how much effort they can put into certain lessons or subject areas. And so, agency kind of forces a teacher to try as much as possible to recognize the individuality of their students. And if we're thinking about equity and the different kinds of opportunity gaps that we have right now in society, it's to also invite the teacher to understand that each child is at a different level of potential and to think about what it will take to inspire them as being different, to understand that they may have different challenges and things related to their identity that come from outside the classroom but that will indefinitely affect their ability to learn and thrive in the classroom.

Jill Anderson: Your work has been somewhat critical of grit, and I know that was a huge buzzword just a few years back in education, and agency kind of has a similar buzzy feel to it. Can you kind of talk a little bit about the differences between agency and grit and how they could be related or if they're not related?

Anindya Kundu: Agency is not something I could take credit for even if I wanted to, and I don't. It's one of the most foundational concepts in sociology and social sciences. The way in which we think of agency is in contrast to social structures, right? So, sociology asks, what's more powerful, is it the social structures in a person's life, like poverty, neighborhood, social networks, or is it the amount of agency that someone has or free will to kind of direct the outcome of their life?

And honestly, I come at this question as it's not an either or, but rather, it's like a both. In education, teachers are very aware that the structures really matter. Funding is directly tied to where a school is situated in a neighborhood. In the pandemic, we see that there's a clear technology gap that's leading to some students not having internet access and being able to learn in these new contexts as thoroughly as others.

And so, that was kind of my initial impulse and critique of grit is that there's all this social context. And if we just kind of say that it's grit that a student needs to succeed, then what we're really doing is kind of absolving the social context and saying that student A is achieving because they're gritty, they're resilient, they're talented, what have you. It's their individualism and merit. And student B, if they're not achieving, maybe it's because they're uninterested or they're lazy.

And so, as a sociologist, that agency structures dynamic that I'm constantly thinking about, grit was kind of an oversimplification. The massive movement to put and implement grit in schools was kind of scary because what ends up happening is that you kind of end up weaponizing this concept against low-income students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And so, that was the initial critique that myself and Dr. Pedro Noguera kind of brought to the topic when we started writing op-eds back in the day. One was called Why Students Need More Than Grit that came out I think in MSNBC.

And what ended up happening was that Angela Duckworth, I started dialoguing with her, and she's such a great person. She's a really nice person who really does care about how children can thrive and learn best. We just became kind of co-collaborators. And she'll be the first to tell you that she thinks kind of like a sociologist now. She knows that opportunity matters just as much and is kind of the first step before a student can develop the interest that they're going to then go headfirst and follow.

Jill Anderson: One of the things I found myself wondering about was whether agency is something you're predisposed to have or something you need to hone.

Anindya Kundu: If we think about what makes a vibrant learning environment, I would say it's fostering students' inquisitiveness, their desire to ask questions, their desires to plan and research, how to answer those questions on their own, kind of this holistic liberal arts education. And if you think about it, there's a smaller subset of society where children are afforded that kind of learning at an earlier age, like Montessori schools and schools that bring play forward and allow the child to be their whole person. And sometimes, schools that are kind of feeling the pressures of top-down accountability where assessment drives funding, they don't really have that much of a freedom to allow the child to just be a kid. So sometimes, I would say that, yeah, more privileged areas do allow children to kind of follow their passions at an earlier age and foster that agency whereas other schools might not be able to be as free to do so.

Jill Anderson: I was thinking about the disadvantaged students and how agency looks for them, knowing that there's all these different factors playing into their lived experience and their experience in school.

Anindya Kundu: That's the thing is that there's a ton of research out there that says that all students have this abstract idea of education, that education will work for them, and that it's going to lead to better opportunities in their lives. But there's also this concrete idea of education that's more closely tied to their empirical realities. Did my parents go to college? Are my friends staying in school, or are they dropping out? And that's the one that actually is more closely correlated to their abilities to thrive and succeed in a classroom setting.

I always say to people who want to think about agency of students who might have more challenges is to kind of recognize the challenges and think about what you can do. Recognize that giftedness looks different for different students and invite that to have a place in your classroom. There's a lot of research on bias, that if a black student asks a lot of questions or may accidentally interrupt a teacher to kind of pose a question, that can be then used against the student in a punitive manner, whereas in a white student, that might be rewarded.

So, how can we kind of challenge our own selves to think about, again, those social contexts that can have a role in the classroom? Sometimes, a student may be fidgety because they had a ton of sugar for breakfast, or they may be disengaged in a class because their parents are having a fight that day or they had to help a ton of siblings get ready for school on the way to their school too. So, that's a part of the challenge on agency about locating hidden forms of giftedness and thinking about all students' potential is that it's a challenge. But if we do it right, the opportunities are boundless.

Jill Anderson: I'm wondering a little bit about the teachers. And I think you've kind of been saying this, that there maybe is a little bit of a disconnect. Because when I hear you talk about agency, it seems like something that should just happen, fostering it, but is there a disconnect for teachers and actually doing this work?

Anindya Kundu: That's a tough question, right? Nobody becomes a teacher without having an interest to kind of want to help students become their best and fullest selves. But the challenge is, is that sometimes, all of the other things creep in and kind of lend themselves towards these implicit biases. One example is that teachers who often teach in more impoverished neighborhoods, they may not live in that neighborhood. They may drive there. And so when the bell rings, they kind of get in their car, and they maybe drive home. And what happens is that maybe they feel disconnected from that community, and they don't necessarily kind of understand things that that community is grappling with. And so, the first thing I'll say is that it's a social challenge and responsibility, I think, to kind of allow educators to teach to their strengths and teach in a community-minded fashion. But until we kind of get there, a lot of the onus is on the teacher to try to break down those silos.

And so, the example that I just said of teachers getting in their cars and going home, I mention that one because there's a story that my mentor, Pedro Noguera told me of a novice teacher somewhere I think around Oakland, California, that kind of talked to him when he was visiting their school and mentioned that I'm having struggles connecting with my students. They don't seem very engaged. And she was like an Earth science teacher.

And so, he asked her, he was like, "Well, what do you know about their home lives?" And then he kind of spent some time with her. And what she did was she kind of surveyed her students. And from kind of taking a more in-depth look at their lives, she saw that a lot of their homes, they had gardens in their front yards, in their backyards. And so, what she did was she created a lead in the soil activity for her science students to kind of measure how much lead was in their soil over the course of a unit. And then they found that the lead levels were actually kind of dangerously high. And so, they created a map of where the lead levels were the highest in the neighborhood, and they were able to present this work to a local plant that may have been kind of the cause of some of the pollution. The plant was really impressed, changed a lot of their regulations, and even hired students for some internships.

And so, it's a small story about how one unit can have an influence on a larger structural issue, but that's what agency is able to do when we actually kind of focus on the agency of our students and celebrating where they come from. The opportunities, again, I think are really boundless when we think of education in that perspective.

Jill Anderson: I have to imagine there are schools that make this part of their culture and are on it. And then there's other schools where this is not anywhere in the conversation. So, I'm wondering what schools can be doing to help support the development of student agency.

Anindya Kundu: That's a question that I appreciate because I think it also allows us to think in terms of what's possible. There are a lot of limits out there, but there's always room for a lot of possibilities. And so, I like to study schools that are "beating the odds against them". And so, in my research, I've profiled a number of schools. And what it really does take is kind of this all hands on deck approach. It starts with visionary leadership sometimes, and then it requires a unified group of educators and staff that are willing to foster agency.

One school I'll just mention that I profile is the James Baldwin transfer high school in Chelsea, New York. It's a transfer high school so students have aged out of the traditional DOE age range. They're often going to James Baldwin for a second chance, getting their high school diploma. And it's a Title 1 school where 99% of the students are students of color, and they qualify for free and reduced lunch. The school is doing great at graduating their students and sending them to college through kind of this agency culture, I would say.

So, what happens is they have this principal, his name is Brady Smith. He's often in the hallway kind of calling out students in the classes they're supposed to be in. He knows all of their names and their schedules. And so, it kind of starts with him. And then what happens is that he's also given his teachers the freedom to teach classes that they want to teach, that the students also want to take. A couple of the classes include Islamic art and mathematics, the abolition of racial slavery, and then my favorite, Dracula and gender identity. And then these students, they're actually supposed to do these colloquium projects instead of taking the standardized Regents exams. So, they kind of put together these very in-depth research papers across content areas, and then they revise and resubmit processes. There's peer review with their fellow students and boards of teachers. And that kind of allows them to take their learning into their own hands.

And then these students are older, so they're not really reprimanded for having their phones out. They're treated like they're older students. There's student work all over the hallway. And then again, the name of the school is the James Baldwin School, so there's this idea of racial pride. Those are little things that allow students to be themselves that kind of break the traditional lecture style learning environment that a lot of us are used to.

Jill Anderson: Knowing that there's a lot of schools that exist and do not, it's not even on their radar maybe, what do you think are some of the easiest and best ways for teachers to tap into students' agency?

Anindya Kundu: Celebrating small wins is really important. Learning in a real classroom environment, celebrating and showcasing student work is really great. I also think collaboration is key. Having students be able to kind of give each other feedback and help each other is going to also help them develop those skills that they'll need after school, collaboration. I also think giving students a little bit of autonomy is really useful, to have students set goals for themselves at the beginning of class or the beginning of a unit, and then check in with them about how they are doing in terms of meeting their own goals. So then again, they're in the driver's seat, this kind of Venn diagram between autonomy and goals. And then what the teacher can do is support that from a standpoint that is warm but also demanding. If you've had your students set their own goals, you can feel the onus of making sure that they're living up to them because they're the ones who set them in the first place.

And so that last one, the warm but demanding approach, I think is a really key one. But again, it benefits from a dose of cultural competency. So, try to know who your students are and the things that really matter to them. In my research, one kid, his alias, I call him Joe, he moved to a suburb neighborhood after he was kind of homeless in New York City with his mom. He went to Edison, New Jersey to live with his aunt. And immediately, his school was improved drastically, and he had housing stability, and he had food and all of these amazing things.

But one of the things that he remembers from his middle school after the move was that anytime anything came up about Hispanic culture in his new class, one teacher would always kind of call on him. And this was something that maybe the teacher did from a place of good intent to connect with this new student in her class, but she kind of ended up alienating him along the way. As a person of color, I can tell you this kind of tokenization does happen in schools and maybe the intention was good, but it ended up not serving the interest of the teacher to help the student become more engaged because she didn't actually know him. She didn't know that he didn't have family mealtime because he used to have housing insecurity before she got to his class.

And so, just kind of know who your students are. The more they invite you to learn about them, if you can, take them up on that, and then you can also be warm and demanding to help make sure that they're living up to their potential.

Jill Anderson: I can just see a room full of teenagers, and that's going to be difficult gaining some traction with this. And does it take time, I mean, to really kind of get in there?

Anindya Kundu: Yeah. It's almost not fair to ask the teacher to do this when we have this weird accountability system around education where teachers aren't able to teach to their strengths because we have so many other things that tie their hands together. But maybe in this new learning environment, the pandemic has really grabbed things and shook them around, but maybe it's an opportunity for us to kind of reimagine learning and put students again in that driver's seat to kind of ask the questions that they're interested in.

And now that we're not even in schools necessarily, it's the invitation to realize that the world is a classroom. So, what kinds of questions can students ask related to stuff going on in the kitchen? Maybe they could cook something, or maybe they could go to the park and do some kind of exploratory activity out there. And how can we have them kind of work together and share work in small groups?

So if the teacher can find a way to kind of step forward but step back at the same time, maybe they will be less pulled in different directions. For older students, that's kind of what they're looking for, right? I think they're looking for the ability to kind of express their voice and be given some reigns to kind of take charge with something. But again, only if there are very clear parameters and guidelines about what they should be doing.

Jill Anderson: I'm glad you brought up the pandemic. I did want to ask about how COVID and online schooling has kind of changed that conversation about student agency and resiliency.

Anindya Kundu: In a good way, it's really brought the idea of agency to the forefront because teachers can't be there in the classroom with their students because now, there is so much learning going on through this screen where we're learning that students do have to, to an extent, take learning into their own hands. That's what's exciting at this moment is that I think we can really think about, this is a buzzword, but personalized learning, this mix between interest driven education and challenged driven education where technology plays a clear role. Learning online or with technology resources and tools allows students to kind of learn at this pace that's good for them. That's the challenge driven part. But the interest driven part will require that human to human, teacher-student teaching and learning relationship because you'll have to kind of pay attention to what students are interested in and try to allow an environment where each student can kind of pursue their own interests.
And so, what's kind of exciting is that hopefully, the pandemic is kind of shaking up our constant testing and assessment culture and kind of allowing students to present work that can be valued and assessed in different ways. I think the more we can do that, the more we have education that looks more vibrant. And so, there is also Zoom fatigue, and it's hard to inspire agency when a student is only sitting in place and interacting with the teacher through the computer, but how can we then have the student get up and move around and be invited to go outside and do things that will be somehow useful to the overall goals of the learning environment? I think the less boundaries we have, the more we're catering towards student agency.

Jill Anderson: Anindya Kundu is a senior fellow at the City University of New York and the Center for Urban Research. He's the author of The Power of Student Agency: Looking Beyond Grit to Close the Achievement Gap. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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