Developing Students' Agency in Schools: Relationship Organization

In this post I am going to talk about the central issue of developing students agency in schools through the organization of relationships 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 relationships specifically?

In this post, I will talk about school relationships between teachers and students, students and students, students and the larger school community and students and the community beyond the walls of the school.  I could talk about other relationships, but am focusing on students’ relationships to think about the development of their agency through relationships, however it is not to say that other relationships are any less important within the schooling ecosystem.  When talking about relationships it is important to think about roles within relationships.  What is the teacher’s role?  What is the student’s role?  What is the school community’s role?  What is the role of the community just outside the school’s gate?  In this video I will talk about these types of relationships in schools and their relation to the development of students’ agency.


When talking about relationships it is important to talk about underlying principles that are the foundation of those relationships, inside and outside of schools.  Is the relationship healthy such that the well-being of all people is the highest value, that all people are respected and that the most essential quality of a relationship is collaboration?  Are relationships built upon the pillars of care and trust?  Do all members of the school community feel that they belong and are valued, such that everyone has something to give or to contribute and everyone has something to learn from others and space to grow and develop? 

In life and in schools, there can be power dynamics within relationships that merit questioning.  Should one person’s agenda trump another’s?  The simplest answer is: no.  There should be equal power relations, although in many schools the teacher as an authoritarian figure who controls knowledge and modes of participation remains the status quo.  There is a difference between being a respected and trusted authority that guides and supports and being an authoritarian figure with total control.  Promoting equal power relations is important in schools so that relations are democratic.

No one should ever feel coerced into doing something because another person holds power over them.  In schools this happens when the threat of punishment or the promise of reward is used to coerce someone to do something.  People’s decisions should be based on people’s belief in the decision itself and not on external factors that incentivize or de-incentive making a choice.  This is central to the question of agency.  Agency is not just about having the opportunity to make a decision, it is about understanding what that decision follows from and follows from that decision.  Making decisions is importantly a collaborative activity.  Even when you are making a choice on your own you can hear all the different voices inside your own head of what you could do and those voices are different positions with different reasons that justify them.  How you weigh the different possibilities depends on the beliefs you have that have been constituted in relationships with others.  Ideas don’t just exist, they come from people.  We have relationships with ideas through people.  And those people collaborate in our decisions.  

In schools it is important to talk about roles teachers and students, students and students, students and the school community and the community beyond the school’s walls and students perform in their relationships with one another.  Of course there are other relationships that could be discussed here, such as the relationships between teachers and families as part of the school community, but the focus here will be on students.  Let’s start with teachers and students. 


Teachers have traditionally played the role of deliverer of content, curricular expert, behavior conditioner and singular arbiter of evaluation.  Students have traditionally played the role of passive consumers of content and the subjects of behavioral conditioning.  The relationship between teachers and students has largely been a transitionary relationship, reminiscent of Freire’s banking metaphor of education, based on a fixed, pre-established criteria with a singular perspective for what should be taught and learned - primarily focused on academic achievement on evaluations and behaving according to set rules and standards.  Shifting from this traditional model of the teacher-student relationship to a more contemporary model involves re-thinking the roles of teachers and students.  Teachers as advisors, experts, Socratic questioners, resource providers, guides, caring supporters of students holistic growth and development.  Empowering students to become experts themselves, questioners, life-long learners and teachers to one another.   Teachers and students sharing responsibility for the teaching and learning process.  For instance, instead of the teacher “delivering” a lesson on a topic, they could ask students to research different aspects of the lesson topic in groups then present their findings to one another.  In this example, the students take the role of researchers,  experts-in-development and co-teachers and the teacher takes the role as mediator of the discussion about the presented content - asking questions that support students to probe further and make connections. 


Traditionally, students have been designated to a passive role with a focus on individual work with few opportunities to relate to one another as co-contributors to their shared teaching and learning process.  To shift away from the idea of students as “blank slates” to students as human beings who have knowledge to share and important ideas to offer who can teach and learn from one another, it is critical to create spaces for collaboration.  Moving toward project-based learning and pedagogic approaches founded on students taking a central role not only in their own teaching and learning process, but in the work they produce collaboratively, relationships can be built around the development of students’ agency.  Relationships amongst students can also be varied, such as relationships amongst students of different ages in collaborative work structured around interest rather than age cohort.  Developing relationships amongst students that are based on mutual support, a give and take in collaborating with one another, recognizing that everyone has something to offer and something to learn and grow from others.  By building relationships built upon caring, trusting, supporting reciprocality, students can learn what healthy, positive relationships look like and how to co-create them with others, which is fundamental for living a life rooted in well-being.


The school community is a rich resource to draw upon in terms of expertise in specific areas that are studied or multiple perspectives from the different life experiences of families, the entire school faculty and staff and students.  Developing these relationships fosters a greater sense of value and belonging for all members of the school community.      


The internet gives us the capability to go beyond the physical borders of the school to different places to access expert knowledge in the field and different cultural perspectives on a wide range of topics.  Digital relationships should be fostered, which also teaches students how to handle online content and be safe in the virtual world.

Wrapping up, this is certainly not an exhaustive exploration of how to develop students agency through the ways that we organize relationships 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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