Developing Students' Agency in Schools: Resource Organization

In this post I am going to talk about the central issue of developing students agency in schools through the organization of resources in school.  This post is part of a series of posts about student agency and how to develop it through new organizations of time, space, relationships and resources.

We often get caught up in one way of doing things without thinking about it.  Without stepping back from it to reflect upon our goals and what’s most important to us.  In other words, to think about what our “WHYs” are for schooling, then evaluate whether or not we are expressing WHAT we value and hold as principles in the choices we make in HOW “whys” are, then evaluate whether or not we are expressing our values and principles in the choices we make.  We need to ask ourselves the question: How do we demonstrate what’s important to us in how we live our lives generally, and organize our resources specifically?

In this post, I will talk about two principle ways that we can think about resources: material and conceptual.  Of course, they may be many other ways to think about this topic, however I find this way helpful in understanding how resources are tools that empower human beings to live more meaningful lives.

Material resources are tangible, concrete objects that enable us to be in more control over our lives and to transform the world around us.  The resources that we have available to us and our ability to use them can empower us to make critical and creative decisions in our lives.  They are integral to any person’s agency.  If you don’t have a material resource, let’s say access to a mode of transportation, that will limit your mobility.  If you don’t have access to a conceptual resource, let’s say knowledge of different cultures than your own, then your ability to make choices will be limited to what you know of your own culture.  The more material and conceptual resources that we have and our ability to use these resources deftly and ethically, the greater scope of possibilities we have for making informed and meaningful decisions in our lives. 

School is where students are equipped with tools, conceptual tools from the contents of the curriculum and material tools from using a pencil, a computer, a book.  First, let’s talk about material tools.  Students learn how to use a variety of material resources in schools from using the low-tech resources of a pen and paper to the high-tech resources of circuit boards and 3-D printers.  They learn to create new resources by building prototypes.  Students’ agency can be expanded when students get a choice about which resources to use at school and can justify their choices with educators’ support.  Students can choose to make a digital model of an idea using a computer or a model of an idea using cardboard; a digital poster or a paper-based poster; they could write or type or draw their ideas in written form, or perhaps record them in an audio or audio-visual format.  It is important not just to give choices, but to talk about the meaning behind those choices.  Why is one way better for a specific purpose than another?  Supporting students to think about the reasons behind a choice and making an informed, intentional and meaningful choice is key to developing students’ agency in schools. 

Now, let’s talk about conceptual resources.  At school students learn a vast array of conceptual tools, learning about ideas and their evolution over the centuries that broaden their understanding of how the world works.  Students must learn about how concepts change over time and across cultures as something dynamic.  For instance, many of the concepts that sustain the field of medicine today are completely different than they were 500 years ago.  With scientific advances or changes in the way that human beings see one another and their relations through concepts, ideas transform.  For example, slavery was a legal institution in many countries around the world just a couple of centuries ago whereas now there is general consensus amongst human beings that slavery is immoral and unethical.  When students learn that concepts evolve and that even at the same moment in time can be understood in many different ways, they can attempt to make sense of the world and deliberate upon the relationship between concepts and judgments, theory and practice, belief and action.  Conceptual resources can empower students to make more informed and intentional decisions that they can be held accountable for, or, in other words, expand their agency.

Both material and conceptual resources limit and afford many different possibilities of how to think, act and be in the world.  By addressing the multitude of resources critically, students with the support of their teachers can rationally deliberate upon real world decision making based on the tool chest of material and conceptual resources at their fingertips.  The role of schools in using resources to most optimally develop students’ agency is to teach students that there are many resources that can be used and not just one.  Not just one way to think, not just one way to act and not just one way to be.  Equipping students with a multitude of tools, or resources, for them to build up their tool chests and how to engage in critical evaluation in order to make decisions about which resources to use and how.  Schooling should develop students’ tool chests so that they can draw upon them when they are making decisions in their lives.  Schools must teach students how to think, how to deal with multiple perspectives and how to reach their own conclusions, not what to think.  To support students to build networks of co-constituting concepts, to understand how one concept relates to another one in an interdependent way and how those systemic relationships are intertwined with real life situations and the ways we understand and act in the world.  The judgments made transform the concepts understood and the concepts understood transform the judgments in a reciprocal relationship.  This is based in the work of the German Idealist thinkers Kant and Hegel, especially Hegel, who argued that human freedom or agency is self-determined based on how human beings commit themselves to concepts in the judgements they make and are held accountable to what these commitments follow from (in terms of their historical origin and evolution) and what follows from them (in terms of their future implications).  This is the role, or the purpose, of schools in society and what it means to develop students’ agency in schools. 

Wrapping up, this is certainly not an exhaustive exploration of how to develop students agency through the ways that we organize resources at school, however it is meant to provoke a reflection about how we are currently doing it and how we could be doing it.  I hope that it is helpful to educators and it can be the start of a critical dialogue that moves towards the transformation of schooling based most fundamentally on expanding student agency.  

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The founder and primary contributor to Education for Contemporary Times is Sarah O. Weiler, long-time educator with a M.A. in Global Education from the University of Illinois and a M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Education at the prestigious Institute of Education at the University of London in the UK.
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