The Student Agency: Nurturing purpose and passion in ISKL's Middle School

Grade 8 students Arthur Dorleans and James Herold were grinning from ear to ear as they waited for their ride on a recent sunny day after school.

"We're off to learn how to weld," said a visibly proud Arthur. "Yeah, we have no idea how to do it, but we're excited to learn," added his pal, James.

No, welding isn't ISKL's newest after-school activity, nor was it a unique part-time job for these two middle schoolers. Rather, the visit was part of the Middle School's (MS) student-led Agency initiative, where students were able to create, develop and execute an entire project based on their interests.

While Arthur and James decided to design and build a half-pipe for skating and biking, the other 362 MS students embarked on projects varying from an original dance routine, to building computers and mobile apps from scratch, to organizing a community partnership with a local refugee school - just to name a few.

Even though all the projects didn't end up with a finished product like Arthur and James's soon-to-be welded halfpipe, they all successfully flexed the agency muscle of every single MS student at ISKL.


What is agency?

Simply put, agency is the drive and capacity to take purposeful initiative - or even simpler - the exact opposite of helplessness.

Based on research from leading educational think-tanks like the Buck Institute of Education in the U.S., student agency builds the critical thinking and problem-solving skills children need to thrive. Studies have also shown that young people with high levels of agency don't respond passively to their circumstances, but instead seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others' lives.

In fact, a 2015 Harvard study, sponsored by the Raikes Foundation, suggested that student agency may be as important an outcome of schooling as developing basic skills.

"Offering students more voice and choice in their education has been found to be the most effective way to prepare children for the 21st-century workforce," said Middle School Vice-Principal, Doug Woodward. "The research overwhelmingly shows that students with agency seek learning opportunities that are driven by their interests and are relevant to life experiences - and that's what we wanted to foster as part of our Student Agency. We wanted our students to go through the process of blending their skills and motivation to meet a specific need in their life or the lives of others."

To do that, teachers took students through five different phases over 11 hours of instruction time in three separate groupings - Media, Arts and Communication (MAC), Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and Community Leadership and Service (CLAS). For every student and grouping, the phases included: preparation, questioning, research, creation, and reflection.

"It was really rewarding to see the students progress through every phase of the process," said Grade 7 Learning Resource Teacher, Jane Thompson, who co-mentored a group that started a community partnership with a local refugee school in Kuala Lumpur. "They were all so excited and invested in developing a real relationship with students from the other school that they didn't worry at all about the extra work or any setbacks that came up along the way. It was fun to see them follow their passions to do something good for others."

The project was also hugely successful - raising over RM2,000 and donating hundreds of books to the school's library. The partnership was further solidified when ISKL students welcomed 95 students from the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI) refugee school for an afternoon of shared activities and learning.

Grade 8 student Pauline De Vos was a part of the refugee community partnership team. She loved the freedom of exploring her own ideas and working as a team to do something meaningful.

"The whole project was really fun and different," said Pauline. "My favorite part was the activity day where we got to get to know the other kids and make connections with them. We learned a lot from them and, I think they learned a lot from us too."

Pauline's positive and engaging experience was reflected in much of the feedback received from students at the end of the project:

  • "I really appreciate the time we have had to work on our Agency projects, and think it was a wonderful experience of trial and error, and also a hint of what we could be doing with our jobs in the near future, and how the hustle and bustle of it all works."

  • "I had lots of fun trying something new with a group of people that I don't usually interact with. I enjoyed experimenting and seeing what worked to improve our robot. I think Agency for me was a success as I learned a ton of new things and have really enjoyed the experience."

  • "I worked on feeding homeless people and last night I gave RM492 to the leader of a soup kitchen. She was very happy, and I was happy that I was able to help her, so if I get to do Agency again, I would like to work on a community project and make things that help people."

According to Doug, MS students will get the chance to take part in The Agency again next year and will also be encouraged to apply the skills they learned in all of their work for the remainder of the year.

"We saw success in 364 different ways - some projects resulting in spectacular end products and others resulting in dead ends, which had even more valuable learning on the other side," said Doug. "The real magic came about when a student found the perfect symmetry between their passion and filling a real need in the community. And that's what we want to encourage our students to strive for every day. That's the type of global citizen we want to nurture at ISKL."