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The Curious Concept of Agency

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Image from brian.magierski.com and retrieved from Google Images.

I always enjoy seeing students engaged in work that causes them to take action in one or another direction in their life. Recently, my daughter experienced this type of learning. She visited a doctor to have some allergy tests run, and when she came home she spent the next few days researching all she could about histamines and how they interact with and through various body systems. It amazed me how much she learned from that independent research, as she came out informing me of these processes using terms and ideas that I really am only vaguely familiar with. She is now on a quest to figure out the educational steps one might take in order to design her future the way she dreams of it: researching rare medical conditions and disorders of the immune system, conducting lab tests, learning…. This is not something new; she has spent most of her life on her computer, researching this or that, always with a particular interest in the areas of health and wellness.

So what changed? Why suddenly is this something she feels has given her life direction? Has given purpose to her education? Why did this experience cause her to feel compelled to act? Curious and driven to research, learn, teach, and contribute to the understanding in the field?

In a recent PBL chat with @newtechnetwork and others (see archive ), a word was shared with me that I really have not pondered much in my life. A word that I thought, at the time, I may not even fully understand. A word that I found out, after some research of my own, I actually do understand and a word that explains, at least in my opinion, the curious explosion that occurs when purpose and action collide.

Agency.

I considered my (vague) conceptual understanding of this word. It is a curious word. Or maybe it is just curious when considered alongside such words as empowerment, ownership, growth mindset, and engagement. It is not a word I hear much; it’s not frequently used in educational circles and conversations I have, at least not that I can remember. So I began looking into this word; more specifically, the ideas and concepts behind it. This idea of “agency”… What is it? How does it affect or contribute to student learning and achievement? How does one develop it? And how can we as educators support it?

One resource I looked at, which sought to define the term “agency” as a phenomenon related to education, was this paper written by Professor Gert Biesta of the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at The University of Exeter in 2006. This definition read, in part,

…the situation where individuals are able to exert control over and give direction to the course of their lives.

This aligns with well a general definition of agency as “…the capacity for autonomous social action” (Calhoun 2002).

New Tech Network, a nonprofit organization, offers this agency rubric on their website which I found to be marvelous. Interestingly, the rubrics, which are entitled “New Tech Network Agency Rubric, High School” reveal domains and criteria to be measured along the lines of growth mindset, seeking out of feedback, and reflective learning, among others.

Further researching turned up this article by Eduardo Briceno of Mindset Works entitled “Mindset and Student Agency”. He suggests:

Deeper learning requires students to think, question, pursue, and create—to take agency and ownership of their learning. When they do, they acquire deeper understanding and skills, and most important, they become more competent learners in and out of school. They become better prepared to succeed in academics, but also in 21st century careers and in life.

But agency is not something we can “give” someone else. It comes from within. What can we do in our schools and classrooms – even our homes –  to help promote agency in our students and in our own children?

As Briceno points out,  “growth mindset”, “grit”,  “motivation”,  and “college and career readiness” standards are important areas for developing personally aware and autonomous students “capable of driving their own learning”. These ideas, he suggests, are a part of  two distinct but complex components for developing and supporting agency:

Learner Mindsets and Learning Strategies and Habits

What are some examples of learner mindsets that we promote and invest in daily? I know for my daughter, who for those who do not know, is a 19 year old college student who is also autistic, we have focused a lot on growth mindset and perseverance. On self-awareness and familiarity with her own learning style and needs. On self-advocacy, reflection, and how to recognize feedback (both verbal and nonverbal) and then how to think through that feedback and use it toward continual growth and self-awareness. We have focused on confidence building and persistence. We have also focused on recognizing challenges and knowing when (and how) to seek help. We have also focused on purpose, a sense that she “belongs” and has gifts and contributions to make to the world. This is perhaps the most difficult mindset for her. Feeling “different” makes it hard to feel a sense of “belonging”.

So what about learning strategies and habits? It is one thing to have these different learner mindsets I mentioned above as one’s goals. She feels aware and she focuses on growth not ability, and she seeks feedback and strives for purpose and belonging. Great! But what happens when she experiences something that challenges those goals? What happens when she is not successful despite her persistence and “I can do it!” mindset? And how does this look for our students? I think this goes a little bit farther, a little beyond simply “embracing failure”.  Just how do we support agency?

My daughter, just like so many other students (and adults), experiences setbacks frequently. We might not be able to teach “agency” but we can teach learning skills that support the development and growth of agency.  Here are just a few suggestions from Briceno for learning strategies to support agency, along with my own reflections about these suggestions. I will use my  daughter as a little vignette here:

Teach students how the brain works. My daughter has taken numerous learning inventories, and we shared information with her early on about what autism is and how it impacts her specifically. We did this to build understanding and awareness; to help her build capacity. She remarked one day, “So that explains why I do _______!” after reading the book “Freaks, Geeks and Aspergers” by Luke Jackson (Terrible title, great read). This teaching, which was relevant and specific for her, seemed to not just bring awareness, but give her a profound understanding and acceptance of herself. Finally having a reason for her (sometimes odd) behaviors made her feel…well, normal. (I am not suggesting anyone take this approach, as this is a decision based on your own child and family, I am just sharing my own experiences and results).

Self-Efficacy. While she does have a growth mindset toward life and learning, she is also aware of paths to take should she need supports or information, or help. At school, this is again individual. For her, this came in the form of an IEP (for academics) and a few trusted adults to whom she could go to talk or ask a question, but could be any steps a student can take to meet their own needs. It is not enough to believe “I can do it!”, one also needs to know where, how, and to whom they can turn if they need help…if they can’t do it. These “paths” serve to truly support self-confidence…to enable someone to be confident in their ability to succeed, but just as confident in their ability to recover and go on in the face of an obstacle. How that looks is as individual as our students and their needs.

How To Work In Teams. While this was (and still is) a challenge for her, she has learned to offer up her particular strengths to help toward a common goal. Using her technology skills to create a video, for example, or doing the leg-work or research for a particular topic is something she does enjoy, and allows her to still work independently on her portion of a group task.

Developing desirable habits through cues and routines. Funny story to share here. She used to struggle with recognizing nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions or tones of voice. She would be talking away about the current tropical depression or other weather phenomenon occurring in some other part of the world, completely oblivious to the checking of the watch, walking slowly off to the side, and other non verbal ways her peers have of saying, “Nobody cares”!! She spent a great deal of time with her therapist and a computer program, learning to recognize these little cues and nuances which are so natural for you and I –but not necessarily so for others. She has learned to regulate; to recognize when the conversation has changed topic and how to adjust to that, and when it is time to really stop talking about a certain thing that is not interesting to the other person! This is all part of the important work that has gone on, and continues, for her to become a person with a strong sense of agency.

Because, if she does not believe in her ability to direct her own path, to be heard and understood,  if she doesn’t see a purpose and feel compelled to change the world, how will she ever go about changing it? How will she ever fulfill a purpose that she does not believe she is capable of fulfilling? She won’t. And neither will our students. Agency is the line between reacting to a world in which you are only a speck, and designing a world of which you are the creator.

By putting into our classrooms and schools practices which value and support growth, effort, and learning, by recognizing and responding to individual needs, through building relationships and knowing our students, and kids, as unique learners and people, we have the best possible chance at supporting agency in our students. It will also help our students avoid the crippling effects of its absence, which she also experienced in her early life and learning experiences.

The curious concept of agency. Turns out, it’s not so foreign to me after all.

What do you think of agency? What practices do you think are important when designing an environment which helps contribute to the development of agency? I would love to hear more!

Sources: Teaching and Learning Research Program (www.tlrp.org); Prof. Gert Biesta , School of Education and Lifelong Learning at St Lukes Campus ,The University of Exeter: Working Paper 5 “Learning Lives“; New Tech Network (www.newtechnetwork.org), Calhoun, C. (2002). Dictionary of the social sciences [electronic resource]/ edited by
Craig Calhoun … [et al.]. Oxford : Blackwell, 2002

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “The Curious Concept of Agency”

  1. This was a woderful read: Thanks!

    Along the lines of “teaching students how the brain works,” I love Carol Dweck’s “Mindsets” and always work with students, early on in the year and then throughout, to understand the science behind the brains ability to learn and how your perception of that ability can actually impact the ability itself. The message is: You can learn… It is hard, it will take work, you will fail sometimes, but if you persevere, you will learn.

    1. Thank you so much for reading. I have not read that book but I have been wanting to get it for a while now, and your reply has inspired me to do so! Your students are lucky to have you !

  2. Fantastic article! Such great posts and excellent resources. The rubric from New Tech Network is a keeper. This was incredibly helpful and you are so right, not discussed enough in education circles. I too recommend “Mindset” which only reinforces with lots of strong research exactly your points.

    Thanks! Good read!
    Jennifer Miller, M.Ed.
    Confident Parents, Confident Kids

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