How Do We Develop Students’ Agency in Schools?

This post talks about the central issue of developing students’ agency in schools.  This is part of a series of posts about student agency and how to develop it through new organizations of time, space, relationships and resources.

To give some context for a discussion on agency think about how we, as human beings, 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 doing what we do.  This is true for how we do schooling.  We take for granted the way schooling is done without thinking about why it is organized the way it is and recognizing that the way it is organized is just one of many possibilities for how to organize it.  When we can take a step back and evaluate whether or not we are expressing WHAT we value and hold as principles, or our WHYs” in the choices we make in HOW we do things, we can begin to make more agentive choices.  In schools, we can think about its organizational structure, or design, and question whether or not it is developing students’ agency.  Whether or not it is supporting students to analyze their choices and the reasons for those choices.  Our conscious awareness of these choices and the reasons for them is at the core of developing agency, yet this will be further explored in this video, discussing: What is “agency” and how do we develop it in schools?

This is a big issue in schools today, perhaps the most central issue.  In simple terms, agency is about making choices, but in more complex terms, it is about understanding the choices we make.  All too often, students show up to school and spend the day being shuffled from class to class, or activity to activity, being told what to do, how to do it, when to do it, where to do it and with whom to do it (if it is not an individual task).  Further, students are almost never told why to do it.  This peculiarity is worthwhile exploring.  Why are students given dictates about almost everything except the purpose of their school work?  When we think about the concept of agency, this question is central.  

What if students co-create their own plans with one another and their teachers around interdisciplinary projects in which they set goals and develop pathways to achieving those objectives?  What if students could choose from different workshops or activity stations in the classroom, deciding how much time to invest, which resources to utilize, which space to use and who to work with?  Of course, criteria can be co-established to support them in making these choices, such as working with others who want to investigate the same sub-topic, rather than with your best friends.  As students work on their plans, some might be at computers doing research, others utilizing books for their inquiry, others conducting empirical studies such as experiments, others analyzing their data and making charts and graphs.  The classroom can be a buzz with various activities occurring simultaneously.  The teacher might be going from one group to the next to check in, give guidance, provide support and offer additional resources, and, of course, from time to time help students resolve conflicts and overcome challenges.  This organization of the class involves time, space, relationships and resources and importantly puts students at the center of their teaching and learning process and potentializes the expansion of their agency.    

In order to discuss agency any further, it is important to talk about different perspectives of this concept.  A more restricted, yet very commonplace conception of agency is one that could be called “non-interference”, or removing any restrictions, limits or obstacles on choices so that they can be made “freely”.  Yet this understanding of choice is devoid of the meaning of any choice.  It is simply to be able to make a choice, but does not take account of what that choice means: What motives does it follow from, what underlying understandings is it based upon and what are the implications of making such a choice?  

A more robust, yet not very commonplace conception of agency is one that could be called “self-determination”, or empowering people to make more consciously aware choices that are responsive to the reasons for making a choice.  This perspective of agency focuses on the question of “why”, or the purpose, or reasons for making one choice instead of another.  It probes into the question of motives, understandings and implications, treating decision-making as a reflective process that demands critical thinking and deliberation.  

John Dewey discussed this reflective process of deliberation upon one’s choices as the difference between routine thought and action and reflected thought and action.  When we take agency to mean not only decision-making, but informed, intentional and meaningful decision-making, there are far-reaching implications for schooling.  Yet can students agency develop in schools if students show up to school and simply told what to do all day long?

Developing students agency as self-determination in schools means to teach students how to think, not what to think.  Schools have the responsibility to teach students how to take any curricular content and analyze it critically from various perspectives in relation to real life problem-situations in order to make their own decisions through thoughtful reflection.  Even a simple choice like who to work with for a project at school, teachers have the responsibility to discuss with students the factors to consider when making such a choice.  What is the objective of the project?  Who would best contribute to realizing that objective?  How can you organize the group work to most effectively achieve the objective?  This discussion can support students to make more informed, intentional and meaningful decisions, rather than just opting to work with a group of close friends when given a the opportunity to choose.  The same type of reasoning is needed for any type of problem-solving situation, from simple to complex.  By empowering students to make more informed, intentional and meaningful decisions, schools can expand and amplify students’ agency as self-determination. 

The conception of agency as self-determination comes from German idealist philosophers, Kant and Hegel, particularly Brandom's interpretation of their work.  Yet this theoretical foundation for agency can only be expressed in practice through a few important mediums: time, space, relationships and resources.  How we, as human beings, organize time, space, relationships and resources is a determining factor in the exercise of our agency.  Do we organize these factors consciously, taking a step back to reflect upon what we are doing and how?  Do we organize these factors critically, examining various possibilities for action and the reasons that underly them?  Do we deliberate upon our core values and principles and their theoretical origin together with the practical expressions in how we organize our time, space, relationships and resources?  These are questions that will be further discussed in the other videos in this series on developing students’ agency in schools, as well as the video series on the Contemporary Education Framework.  

Re-structuring schooling to most fundamentally develop students’ agency has far-reaching implications.  It provides a kind of societal insurance that individuals are not easily susceptible to the hold of dogma and indoctrination because developing students’ agency as self-determination is rooted in the development of students’ rational capabilities to make decisions and take responsibility for them rather than to allow others to make decisions for them and not be held accountable for their actions.  Developing students’ agency as self-determination avoids what Hannah Ardent called the “banality of evil” when discussing how high ranking Nazi officials carried out genocide by blindly following orders without reasoning about what those orders followed from and what followed from those orders.  Schooling aimed at primarily developing students’ agency is a best form of schooling for truly democratic societies.    

Furthermore, these four basic organizational factors: time, space, relationships and resources are the key to translating our WHYs into HOWs, theory into action, principle into practice, what we think into what we do.  In schools, we can re-think how we organize time tables, or schedules, to develop students’ agency; we can re-think how we organize the physical space of schools to develop students’ agency; we can re-think how we organize the teacher-student, student-student  and other relationships to develop students’ agency; and we can re-think how we utilize material and conceptual resources to develop students’ agency in schools.  Each of these organizational factors is discussed in its own video in this series with the hope of providing tools for reflection upon school practices in order to transform them to amplify students’ agency in schools. 

Wrapping up, this is certainly not an exhaustive exploration of the concept of agency and how to develop students’ agency in schools, but I hope that it is helpful in starting 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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