Critical Reflectivity and Student Agency

This blog article will focus on bridging the work of Bautista et. al (2013) and Liou et. al (2009) with Howard’s (2003) rubric for self-reflection; beyond the ability to recognize your individual biases and agency, it is also important for research and researchers to recognize power built from student experience and the wider community.

Howard (2003) described a very personal rubric to aid educators in reflecting inward: upon their current racial or cultural biases, as well as major (personal) historical influences upon them. Bautisa et. al, expand upon this practice of cultural reflection, but move the focus outward; using a youth participatory research program (YPAR) as an example, the authors situate the power of student experience and student voice in educational research. The authors’ goal was to explore which “traditional tools of research” (pp. 2) students appropriated to evaluate their program—the Council of Youth Research. As part of a wider discussion, they also note the absence of student experience from educational research as a whole.

Liou et. al, likewise, expand upon the theme of critical reflexivity by focusing upon the agency that exists outside of a traditional school. How do local communities empower students to succeed–or, in this case, to seek out relevant resources and materials to apply for college–in the absence of such assistance from an underperforming school? The authors note that often, when services do not exist in underperforming schools–or when those services are not readily available to all students–students instead look to their community. This creates an interesting paradigm for school improvement; focusing upon the resources a wider community provides to students (as well as their quality) gives a school a new understanding of the services students need, as well as “improv[ing] the quality of relationships between school adults and the students they serve” (pp. 551).

These readings made me reflect upon one personal and very applicable example of the power of student agency, and how difficult it can be to build. During my time with the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), I worked to build and sustain a coalition for youth anti-tobacco advocacy, made of disparate school-based and community-based youth organizations from across the state. Historically, anti-tobacco work with youth in Arizona had heavily focused upon what we called in shorthand the “DARE model:” in-classroom lectures, featuring a figure of authority from the school or greater community who gave a very fact-based presentation. In focus groups with middle and high school students, however, we learned that this model was effective in passing along those facts–that cigarettes are deadly and addictive–but it did not personalize the subject, nor give students a sense of involvement in the cause. The goal of this new advocacy-based coalition was to empower students to understand what policy is, how it affects them and how they could affect it.

This was a radical change in the student-educator relationship, and one of the most difficult pieces to put into play was to demonstrate to these student leaders that they had agency–within their homes, their schools and their communities–and to support them in developing their confidence. Many, at the outset, simply asked for a list of acceptable club activities, without giving much thought to their local environment or personal interests. Definitely putting Howard’s rubric into play, adult educators were a vital piece of building confidence among students to tackle issues of importance to themselves and their peers; these adults, who could be anything from a homeroom teacher to someone working in outreach at the county health office to a volunteer with a community youth program, approached “advocacy” and “student agency” in very different ways; we helped all parties, including ourselves, to reflect upon our own biases, and our own communities, in order to formulate a better way to speak to coalition student leaders. Likewise, as Bautista suggests, we guided these students in the same process, asking them to identify their individual agency, as well as the agency of their local club, and to use that to find projects that were meaningful on both a personal and community level. This conversation was essential; without the wealth of student voices and experience added to the conversation, this coalition would never have risen past the lecture–a figure of authority telling the students what they should do.


Bautista, M.A. et al. (2013). Participatory action research and city youth: Methodological insights from the Council of Youth Research. Teachers College Record, 115, 1-23.

Liou, D.D., Antrop-Gonzalez, R.A. & R. Cooper. (2009). Unveiling the promise of community cultural wealth to sustaining Latina/o students’ college-going networks. Educational Series, 45, 534-555.

Howard, T.C. (2003). Culturally relevant pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflections. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 195-202.

1 comment — post a comment

Dr. Cueponcaxochitl

Critical reflexivity is essential for leadership in education. What might be some challenges for thinking critically about one’s positionality in relation to others we engage with in our practice?

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