Shared Decision-Making and Ownership of Learning: An Overview of Agency in Four North Dakota Districts

Topics: Building Capacity

By Emily Vislosky

Agency is one of the 12 conditions identified by KnowledgeWorks as essential for scaling personalized, competency-based learning and it has been an important focus of the work for schools and districts in the North Dakota Personalized, Competency-Based Learning (NDPCBL) initiative. Agency is a valuable condition because it fosters a culture of trust and creates a unified community.

But what is agency, exactly?

  • Learner agency specifically involves giving learners voice and choice in decision-making at the classroom and school levels, allowing learners to set personal and academic goals, and learners believing in the value of their own ideas
  • Educator agency involves having a voice and choice in decision-making at the district, school and classroom levels, sharing responsibility and accountability in a larger community, and setting one’s individual goals

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WestEd, an external evaluator of the NDPCBL initiative, conducted a baseline survey of educators, leaders, staff and learners in the fall of 2020 to understand the extent to which the 12 conditions were in practice in the four NDPCBL districts. Overall, the data about agency show that it is not yet a widespread practice for learners and educators across the districts and is an area for growth.

About half of the educators reported that their students were able to move through their classes at their own pace and a third of all educators allow students to set their own due dates for assignments. The majority of educators indicated that they gathered learner feedback to adjust their teaching, which demonstrates that most educators are giving their learners some agency in the classroom by allowing them a voice in how they are learning.

I regularly get student feedback to adjust my teaching.

Most elementary learners reported that they could move through their classwork at their own pace, but only about a quarter of secondary learners shared that they were involved in choosing what and how they learn.


I can do my work at my own speed.
Students work with the teacher to make decisions about what we will learn.
Students have choices about how they want to learn.
Legend: Green - All of the time. Blue - Most of the Time. Yellow - Some of the time. Red - None of the time.

While the survey allowed for insights into agency across the districts, educators and learners also shared with the WestEd evaluators their perspectives surrounding agency at their individual schools during interviews and focus groups. These data indicate that the extent of agency varies greatly across the districts. Learners in one district, for example, experience many opportunities for voice and choice in their classrooms, including deciding how they want to show their learning for assessments, such as through a test or project. Choice boards provide learners autonomy through opportunities to choose their learning activities after completing mandatory work.

While educators shared that restrictions due to COVID-19 impacted learner flexibility and voice and choice, the return to in-person education made it possible to include more opportunities for learner agency in decision-making. Throughout the four districts involved in the NDPCBL initiative, efforts to integrate agency are growing as educators and learners are returning to school this year.

There is still room for growth in agency as educators can tolerate less structure in their classrooms and give students more opportunity for input in their learning. Agency isn’t something that can be achieved immediately. Instead, it is important to support growth by building the agency of learners and educators over time. WestEd will be conducting the survey again to examine trends and change in implementation of the 12 conditions, including agency.

Emily Vislosky is a research assistant and joined WestEd in 2019. Emily’s work focuses on research and evaluation of education programs across the country using both qualitative and quantitative methods.

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