The building blocks of success: Laying the foundations for increased learner agency through mindset and metacognition


Jamie Archambault


Whole child

University Park Elementary (UPark)

Increase learner agency by teaching students how to be self-sufficient through lessons on growth mindset, metacognitive strategies, and what it means to have agency in and out of the classroom 

Foundational Practices: Mindset and Metacognition

Classroom Practice


Jamie is working with UPark’s personalized learning coach, Sarah Holdeman, to lay the foundations for building learner agency in her classroom. Through a series of “focus lessons”, they have been teaching Jamie’s second grade class about growth mindset, metacognition, and learner agency. These lessons are then extended throughout the week into other subjects that the class is working on. Jamie hopes to help students become agents of their own learning by providing them with the tools to independently problem solve and advocate for themselves.

How it works

Lesson 1: Establishing a baseline

Students were given a pre-survey to see how much they knew about growth mindset. Jamie rated student responses on a scale from 0 (no knowledge of growth mindset) to 3 (very knowledgeable about growth mindset) with a total possible score of 9. She found that students generally knew very little about growth mindset, as the average score was 1.5. Several weeks later, she gave students the same survey to see how they had improved. The average score had increased to 5.5.

Lesson 2: Introducing growth mindset

Growth mindset was introduced through a video about famous figures who had persevered to success. Students were given a “note catcher” to record their thinking for later discussion and wrote about their own experiences persevering.

Lesson 3: Discovering growth mindset together

On “Discovery Day” students were provided with a playlist of activities to move through. This included watching a short film, reading a book about perseverance, taking a quiz about grit, completing the 100 second challenge, and learning about ”famous failures”. Students were given a variety of different activites, with some requiring physical activity and others allowing for group work. Students reflected on their learning on a note card and chose something they wanted to teach another student about. 

Lesson 4: Moving from fixed to growth mindset

Students were taught about the damaging effects of fixed mindset by PL coach Sarah Holdeman. This was illustrated by tearing pieces off of an illustration of a brain. The class then had a “fishbowl discussion” in which an inner circle of students discussed the differences between growth and fixed mindset while an outer circle of students observed and took notes. 

Lesson 5: Intro to metacognition

Jamie introduced metacognition by modeling her thinking about how to cut a heart out of paper. She captured her thinking in a worksheet and then gave students a new task: making ants on a log. Jamie provided students with the necessary materials and a worksheet to record their thinking, but no instructions on how to do the task. Students recorded how they had planned for the task, and how they had assessed and monitored themselves along the way. 

Lesson 6: Thinking out loud

Jamie and Sarah modeled how to complete an activity that required vocalization of thinking, planning, monitoring, and assessing by creating mirrored drawings using both hands. After seeing the example, students worked in small groups to complete the activity and film each other’s thinking process. Students then watched the video together to reflect on their thinking and record their thoughts in a worksheet. 

Lesson 7: Intro to learner agency

Jamie provided students with a definition of learner agency and walked students through what learner agency might look like in math. Students then worked in groups to fill out large posters about agency in different arenas, such as agency during writing, agency on the playground, and agency during specials. A week later, she followed this up by doing a whole group discussion to refine some of the ideas that students had and deepen the students’ understanding of learner agency.

Lesson 8: Too much, too little, just right

Jamie wanted students to experience the extreme ends of learner agency. First, she gave students an overarching goal and allowed them to complete the assignment however they wanted. She gave them no instructions other than the general objective for the lesson. Second, she did an entirely teacher-directed lesson during which students had strict instructions about how to complete their assignment and no flexibility around this. Afterward, students were asked how they felt about the different lesson formats and they created a chart as a class comparing the two scenarios.

After completing the focus lessons, the students created a personalized learning book together. This page shows how a student can use metacognition to self-assess.

This page of the PL book shows how students understand learner agency. The full book can be found under the resources tab below titled "Student-Created PL Book".

  • Provide structure and scaffolds.
    • Give learners enough direction to be successful, but don’t micromanage.
    • Check in along the way to make sure information is clear and learners are staying on task.
  • Try to anticipate difficulties.
    • For Jamie this sometimes meant assigning groups to preempt off task behaviors or including specific instructions like “use headphones” to cut down on distractions.
  • Facilitate and guide discussions.
    • Jamie gives learners the space to share reflections and talk about their learning.
  • Provide students with the language to talk about higher level concepts.
    • Sentence stems can help give learners more ways to adequately express their feelings.
  • Make the space belong to the learners.
    • Letting students move throughout the classroom and rearrange furniture how they’d like can help in building feelings of agency and autonomy.
  • Adapt lessons to fit students.
    • Evaluate where your students are before moving on. Do they understand the lesson? What would help them understand? Shift your lesson plan to accommodate their needs.
  • Teach each other.
    • Learners guide each other in the process by sharing thinking, providing assistance, or repeating instructions when necessary.
  • Share with each other.
    • Whether in front of the whole class or with a partner, learners are given many opportunities to talk about their ideas with one another.
  • Reflect on learning.
    • For Jamie, giving students the space to reflect on what they’ve learned is an important part of the learning process.
  • Give input on understanding.
    • If students don’t understand a concept, they’re encouraged to speak up for themselves. 
    • Jamie also provides opportunities for students to weigh in on their understanding with nonverbal gestures so she can check in on overall understanding.
  • Advocate for their learning.
    • In learning about metacognition, mindset, and learner agency, students are given the tools to speak up for themselves. With these new tools, students have the ability to advocate for what they need to be successful.

“Overall I’ve come to realize that everything we’re doing is bringing about agency. We’re looking for agency. No matter what we’re doing with our students, the agency is really important and having kids be able to do things on their own and speak up for themselves and externally or internally solve problems. I think everything leads to agency."

-Jamie Archambault

Visualizing Success: Shots from around the classroom

A student's answers to the growth mindset pre-assessment. 

A student's answers to the growth mindset post-assessment. 

Jamie created a chart for students to reference to help them change their fixed mindset language to growth mindset. Providing students with the language they need to understand these concepts is an important step in the process.

For the fishbowl on mindset, students were given a general outline of the flow of their discussion.

During the first metacognition lesson, Jamie demonstrated how to cut out a heart and modeled her thinking during the process. She recorded her thinking here and left it for students to use as a guide.

This student (joined by several excited friends) shows off her notes on metacognition. 

Jamie created a chart to help students understand learner agency by bringing together many of the pieces they'd been studying.


For the learner-led lesson, students created drawings to meet the goal of "creating and labeling various geographic features". Some students enjoyed the creativity and freedom they had, but some students felt more confused.

For the teacher-led lesson, students were given strict guidelines for how to meet their goal and complete their drawings. Some students enjoyed feeling like they were going at the same pace as the rest of the class, while others felt more stifled.

Jamie and Sarah helped students compare and contrast lessons with a lot of agency and little agency and captured thinking here. Charts like this will then hang up in the classroom for students to later reference.

Video Interviews

Initial Teacher Interview: The 'What' and the 'Why'

Jamie discusses her focus lessons on metacognition and mindset and explains why she wanted to create lessons around these concepts.

Classroom in Action: Metacognition

Students define metacognition and walk us through their thinking during several activities.

Classroom in Action: Learner Agency

Students define learner agency and reflect on how it felt to have unlimited learner agency. Some students felt confused or frustrated while others enjoyed the freedom and liked having the opportunity to work how they wanted.

Student Impact

Jamie shares how the changes she has made in her classroom have impacted her students.

Final Thoughts: Advice for Other Teachers

Jamie discusses the challenges that have emerged along the way and the lessons she has learned. She shares her advice for how other teachers can implement something similar in their own classrooms.

If you want to try this….


Collaborate! Jamie worked with other teachers as well as the school counselor to create lessons and mentioned that it was an important part of the brainstorming and implementation processes

Expect it to take time. While resources are available for some of the lessons she did, there wasn’t much support for lessons related to learner agency so it required her to build some of her materials.

Vary your lessons. Make sure you’re creating varied lessons that provide students with the opportunity to draw upon their learning preferences.

Take it “tiny piece by tiny piece”. It will take time for students to grasp some of these concepts, so give them time and repeated practice to be able to do so. Don’t move on until understanding is reached, as this will confuse students further.


Adapt lessons based on where students are. Most of Jamie’s lessons were created after checking in on student understanding, as she adapted what she was teaching based on how students were feeling.

Step back. One of the observations that Jamie made about her classroom was that students were checking on each other and reminding each other to stay on task. Give students the opportunity to help each other before stepping in.

Extend lessons into everyday subjects. Although the focus lessons seem to exist on their own, they can be brought into other lessons to help students practice these new concepts.

Use reminders. If students seem to be forgetting the lessons they learned, remind them with short statements like “is that growth mindset?” to guide them.

Coach's Reflections

Jamie was coached by Personalized Learning coach Sarah Holdeman, who also helped in teaching many of the lessons. We asked Sarah for her thoughts on Jamie's work.

What was Jamie's goal and why did you select mindset/metacognition to meet it?

"Jamie began by analyzing her group of learners this year and she noticed that a lot of students were 'floating' above their learning. What she meant by that is that they were not fully engaged in the learning process  She noticed that they gave up easily, didn’t have many tools to solve complex problems, and generally did not know how they were a part of their own educational experience. So she set a goal to support students becoming a more active part in their own learning. Mindset/Metacognition was chosen as a way to solve this issue. These paths promote independent use of metacognitive strategies. We were hoping students would be exposed to several strategies so they could practice when and how to use them and be able to make decisions about which strategy to use." 

What did you see as Jamie’s main strengths coming into this work?

"Jamie has so many strengths that allow her success with innovative practices.  First, and foremost, she is open to change, always searching for a better method of reaching and engaging learners.  She does not worry if lessons don’t go as planned; she reacts to challenging situations with calm and ease.  Secondly, she maintains high expectations for learners.  Kids know they are in school to learn, to explain their thinking, to collaborate, and she asks kids to reflect continually throughout the process.  Thirdly, she has put time and energy into designing her classroom so learners have voice/choice throughout the day.  She has several areas for learning- sling back chairs for working on the rug, low tables, desks, standing desks, etc.  Learners have agency in the classroom, being able to make choices for their learning and being able to verbalize how a choice makes them a better learner."

What went well for Jamie?

"Jamie seemed very happy with how the lessons turned out. She reported liking having another adult to brainstorm and plan lessons with. She always knew what she wanted to do next and she knew what she wanted her learners to be able to do. The 2nd Graders were able to experiment in a lot of different ways about mindset and metacognition. They studied themselves like scientists. In one lesson they were able to choose two ways to learn about growth mindset from a playlist. Some kids chose to get information from a website. Some chose to watch a wordless video about growth mindset.  Some ventured into the hallway to do physical endurance tests. During our reflection one student said, 'I liked this work. I felt like an adult going to a job'."


Special Thanks to...

UPark staff Jamie Archambault, Sarah Holdeman, Steve Nederveld, and principal Grant Varveris, Imaginarium staff Sophie Gullett, Laura Mitchell, Lynn Hawthorne, and Signe Hawley, and the students becoming agents of their own learning.

A huge thank you to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation whose Next Generation Systems Intiative (NGSI) grant has been instrumental in helping Denver Public Schools design, study and scale personalized learning.