From the “Sometimes Your Read Something That Makes You Want to Scream ‘THIS!’ Department” I give you Sean Michael Morris:
“This is the right of agency. It does not give us power over another, but it gives us mastery over ourselves. And an education that does not encourage or facilitate this agency is not an education.”
Read and repeat. Without “Mastery over ourselves…” it’s “…not an education.”
“Agency” is one of those growing buzzwords now in education, which means that its true meaning is soon to be neutered in practice. Especially because “agency” is at the heart of everything related to serious, re-imagin-y school change. It is, I’ve come to believe, the only real measure of whether a school is truly about learning…or not.
Because it is so foundational to the work, you can already see “agency” being watered down. Students are being given “agency” over how to learn what’s in the curriculum (a la “competency-based education.) Or students given the choice the technologies they use to master (as in pass the test) the content in a course (a la “blended” or “flipped” learning). More often than not, “Genius Hour” is our feel good attempt to check the agency box. (If we really meant it, we’d have “Curriculum Hour” instead.) And don’t get me started on “personalized.” (Seriously…don’t.)
And make note of that word “given” which to me is what makes all the difference. In most conversations, we are to “give” kids agency over their learning. No, we don’t. We do not “give” agency to students. Similarly, we do not “empower” students to have choice as power is not ours to give. Instead, we create conditions under which “agency” can flourish, under which our students can create their own power and become powerful in their own right. Conditions under which students have “mastery” over themselves and their learning, not just the content. Conditions built on what we believe about how kids learn.
For all the talk of “transformation” in schools, none of it matters if we don’t start here. Forget buying technology if you plan to distribute it to students without allowing them to fully own it in a learning sense. Forget curriculum if we don’t see it as something as navigated by the learner on their own terms. (Remember that there is a huge difference between “having to learn” and “wanting to learn,” and that only one of those really leads to learning.) And forget, as well, assessments that aren’t driven by the learner in a quest to learn more deeply. Otherwise, it’s just a meaningless, contrived metric that says nothing about real learning beyond memorization.
As Morris says, however, “agency” doesn’t mean that adults in classrooms don’t have a role to play.
“In other words, agency doesn’t so much exert itself upon others as it does float within the intersection of freedom and authority. Enacting one’s agency is always a balancing act between doing what is within your understanding of your own power and working with the boundaries of others’ understandings of theirs. It is a cooperative, chemical interaction. Freedom delimited by others’ freedoms delimited by yours. In a classroom, this means that authority remains present. Sometimes, the authority of the teacher; but in the best situation, the shared authority of the group of learners (and the teacher).”
I love that phrase “the intersection of freedom and authority.” But he’s not talking about “authority” in the typical school sense. The traditional power relationships in schools suggest that the adults are the authority, both when it comes to curriculum and to behavior. Traditionally, students are bereft of agency in any real sense, because the efficiency model of education can’t deal with it. (The idea of kids with real agency over their learning makes our heads hurt.) But a teacher’s will should be limited by the freedoms of learners. It’s not our job to impose an education on kids. It’s our job to allow them to create their own with our guidance.
But here’s the thing, as Morris suggests. We’re in deep trouble as a society if we continue to either deny or play at the edges of creating classrooms where students are the agents of their own learning. Kids who are trained to wait to be told what to learn, when to learn it, how to learn it, and how to be assessed on that learning will grow into adults who are of the same cloth, waiting for someone to tell them what to believe and how to act and what to think and know without the critical lens that only freedom can nourish. In large measure in the U.S., we’re already there.
So, don’t say “agency” unless you really mean it, unless you truly intend to create classrooms where kids “have mastery over themselves” and the freedom to employ that mastery with other learners.
Image credit: Annie Spratt
Steve Goldberg says
Great post. I have a story to share that kind of fits…
I just had my junior US History students choose a book to read. There are 40 students total. They had to pick three topics, and I approved the topics as possible topics. They decided last week on a topic — and this weekend, they chose a book. They wrote a paragraph explaining why they chose their book.
I was a little worried because I’d given them almost no guidance — the book ideally had to be about a topic in US History from 1945 to the present, but I allowed a few students to write about stuff earlier if they convinced me they really are interested about the topic (a few convinced me).
They chose awesome books. Most books are in the 4-500 page range. But here’s the thing — I think they’re excited about reading the books becuase they chose a topic they care about. They had agency — albeit a limited form of agency within the artificial world of “you’re in a US History class that’s required, even though history isn’t your thing.”
I’m excited to see what they write about the books they chose. I’m not going to have them do a traditional “book report” — they will write a few entries about what they’re finding interesting in the book. And some days the agenda will be “read your book.”
We’ll see how it goes…
Will you be at EduCon?
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment, Steve, and good to hear from you as always. I won’t be at EduCon this year…basketball season rules all right now. ;0)
Bea Leiderman says
Thank you for this post. I think it is impossible for kids to develop this ability to work at the intersection of freedom and authority if you do not let them work in open-ended projects. Moving beyond decisions regarding behavior into decisions regarding their learning and interests requires, in my opinion, that students have the opportunity to decide what is a good solution to a problem, or a good creative endeavor. However, when these things do happen in a classroom, the end result must be shared with the class, and the group as a whole has to ask questions and give feedback. This is way more meaningful than a grade assigned solely by the teacher. It gives students insights into quality and content by providing them with references based on their peers’ abilities. From talking to students, and from my own very distant memories, grades are often assumed to be based, at least partly, on teacher’s opinions, even when there is a rubric present.
I guess none of this is new to you. It’s just what I am thinking after reading your post. The big hurdle is convincing teachers to open up their classrooms to open-ended group projects when they are worried about the test looming at the end of the year.
A small group of colleagues and I are attempting to address this by introducing Scrum to our students. So far, so good. A year and a half later, we see huge changes in the kids who have had the opportunity to be in Scrum classrooms. Many of our colleagues are skeptical of the benefits. It is hard to win them over when what I have are anecdotes of kids behaving in amazing ways. I’ll have to start pointing people to this post when they object.
Can you please tell me what “Scrum” is? I found some references on the net that suggests it’s a certification in managing agile software development. Agile software development and open ended projects have a lot in common –
so I’m guessing I’m on the right path and I’m curious how this is implemented in schools.
My colleagues and I in Australia are running a small school for young people 15 and over who have been disenfranchised from traditional/mainstream schools. In the last 12 months we’ve experimented with making the core of our curriculum “Personal/Group Interest Projects”. They are entirely open-ended and student directed. When students finish a project we interview them and together identify the capabilities (from curriculum) that they demonstrated and developed during the project. And we identify which capabilities they want to work on more. It’s a huge experiment, and what we are looking for are resources/tools to help us scaffold these projects a little more (for us and students). I’m wondering if this “Scrum” process might be a candidate.
Bea Leiderman says
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Bea Leiderman says
I think all my multitasking led to the funny reply above. So sorry…
David, I do think you should give Scrum a try. It does have its origins in the software development industry, but we have adapted it to fit our needs. Scrum provides a framework for planning and a process for executing projects. It helps teams stay on task and be productive with equitable (not necessarily equal) distribution of work. It is hard to explain the whole thing in a few short paragraphs. I recently wrote a post on my husband’s blog walking readers through making soup using Scrum. I hope applying a new idea to a well-known task helps others see how this works.
Let me know what you think and if you’d like to talk about it.