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Rethinking Agency

October 17, 2017

The personalized, student-centered, competency-based, deeper learning (the list goes on) movements talk a lot about student agency. Some think of this as ‘having voice and choice.’ More sophisticated definitions conceive of agency as a student’s ability to direct their learning and their lives, based on their desire to do so (their will), their belief that they can do so (their efficacy), and the degree to which their learning environments support them to develop both. Many people - myself included - have argued that students need agency to navigate increasingly complex and open systems of education, economy, politics, and profession. They have said - as have I - that preparing students with these skills is a matter of pragmatism - they will not succeed if they cannot make their own way - and ethics - education should provide young people with the opportunity and the skill to make free choices about their lives. And finally, they have warned - as have I - that our most “successful" schools for students of color and students who come from poverty are almost systematically denying young people the opportunity for agency by placing them in teacher-directed, restrictive, and sometimes punitive educational contexts. No matter how impressive our academic outcomes, we will continue to widen our equity gaps if we continue to widen our agency gaps.


Educators view agency as a productive tool to support learning. At the same time, most of us view following behaviors as counter-productive to learning: work avoidance, lack of effort, class disruption, and defiance. While we can probably all agree that these behaviors don’t work in service of better academic outcomes - kids are less likely to do well on assignments if they are not trying or if they are not even present - I’ve started to wonder if we aren’t entirely misunderstanding these behaviors as they relate to agency. 


What if these kinds of counterproductive behaviors actually reflect the following line of reasoning in the mind of a student? “This school is not working with me or for me. They are asking me to do work that doesn’t matter, they are telling me that I should believe this work matters and that they want me to be successful, but they don’t care that I’m not into it and they don’t seem to mind when I don’t actually learn it. They either know it doesn’t matter and they’re lying, or they just don’t think I can do the work.” Imagine feeling this way every day. 


After working with brilliant, creative, cognitively capable students who actively resist academic work on a regular basis, I’ve been trying to see ‘apathy’ and ‘disruption’ through the lens of this type of thinking. Here’s what I see. Shutting down or acting out are willful acts against things, ideas, and people that students do not trust. They are acts of efficacy that say “I can resist this and I will be successful.” And here’s what this makes me wonder: what if “problem” behaviors aren’t evidence of agency lacking, but evidence of agency working? Working against the outcomes we want for students, but toward outcomes they identify as preferable to the ones we preach?


If we started from the belief that our students have agency, our focus would be less on helping them to develop agency and more on these three things.


Engaging in honest conversations with our students about the outcomes that matter to them, and where they are in their learning. We can't break through the barrier of dishonesty that makes our students cynical about learning without engaging in radical honesty. We have to talk with them about how they’ve experienced school, what they want school to be like, what they want to be, where they are in their learning, and what it will actually take to move forward. They will not move forward in positive ways if they do not trust us to tell them the truth.


Designing learning experiences that our students identify as meaningful, and that reflect a shared understanding about outcomes that matter. Students will do what they love. Once we know what they love and know what they want to do and be in their lives,  have to find ways to make experiences in school respond to those things and build on their strengths so that they can experience success that is personally meaningful. It matters less that students are on page ninety-six of the book we decided was good from them than it does that they are deeply engaged in cognitively demanding work that they love. 


Helping students learn to see the potential strength in the very behaviors we've previously labeled as problematic. Yes, we need to hold students accountable for their behavior and ensure we are helping them to develop the prosocial skills to navigate a world that is still racist, biased, and dangerous. But even within this effort, what if we could help them ‘flip the script’? What if we could help them see their abilities to successfully avoid and successfully avoid work as potential tools to successfully attain outcomes that matter? We have to find ways to help students harness their previous successes - even if those successes were labeled as failures - and turn them toward something that we and they agree on as meaningful.


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