Sunday, November 23, 2014

Moving through student voice to student agency or How I used Wikipedia to figure out student agency.

Let me start by repeating the correct call that we must listen to our student's voice in our classroom. It is imperative. But:
I cannot remember who in my PLN said, "We must start to turn the talk into walk." (I think it was @iancoon maybe @coffeechugbooks.), but that statement started me on the journey of figuring out how we move past just listening to our students to giving them agency in their learning.
Now, if you have read my blog, you may know that I love words and I love definitions. So, what is student agency? A brief Google search led me to the Mecca of  all repositories of information: Wikipedia (dodging thrown items). And Wikipedia said:
“Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure are those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions...
One's agency is one's independent capability or ability to act on one's will. This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one's experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in and the position they are born into. Disagreement on the extent of one's agency often causes conflict between parties, e.g. parents and children.”
Let’s break this down.
Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own free choices. By contrast, structures are those factors of influence that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions.
So, is, in fact, structure the opposite of agency. What is more structured than school?
Show up now.
Learn this at this time.
Have fun for this long.
Go to the bathroom now.
Learn something else now.
Take this test.
There’s the bell.
Wear this.
Don’t do that.
Go home.
I’m not saying that we say, “Be gone all structure!! Let anarchy be the rule of the day!” (I said that in my head with a Bruce Almighty voice. It was pretty effective.) But, if structure is the opposite of agency, how can I create a structure that will have the least amount of limits on my students’ ability to choose and make decisions?
There is more here, but I’m not sure of what it looks like yet.
One's agency is one's independent capability or ability to act on one's will. This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one's experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in and the position they are born into.
There is a lot here. Taking the first sentence:
One's agency is one's independent capability or ability to act on one's will.
The two words that jump out at me are independent and ability. The act of agency relies on having a space that is not cluttered with outside influences and accepted outcomes. The student needs to be free to make the choice that suits, or seemingly suits, them best. Secondly, agency relies on student “ability to act on one’s will.” If we define ability as the means or skill to do something, would it not stand to reason that each student’s ability; each students amount of means of skill to do something would be different? So, plainly, some students are going to be better at exercising their agency in school than others. But, that’s not to say they cannot improve on their ability through practice.
Next,
This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one's experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in and the position they are born into.
There is an incredible amount of agency killers in this section. Let’s see what we can do with it:


“This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one's experiences”


This ability they are talking about is not a student’s ability to exercise their agency, it is merely the ability to act on their own will. That ability is affected by “the cognitive belief structure that one has formed through one’s experiences.” What is a cognitive belief structure that one has formed through one’s experiences? Mindset. So, the ability to act on one’s own will is affected by a student’s mindset. Does this student think that things that are hard are to be avoided? Is that student scared to death to fail? Does that student think that if at first they don’t succeed, it must be impossible? Well then, student agency is not an option.
But, let’s just spitball for a minute. What if had a teacher who allowed; nay, expected failure? What if that student had a teacher who celebrated failure as proof that effort was exerted? Otherwise saying, failure was proof they tried? What if they learned in a classroom that saw the word fail as the


First
Attempt
In
Learning?


What if failure wasn’t a reason to quit, but the precise thing that directed future learning?


I want to teach in that space.


This ability (to act on one’s will) is affected by...the perceptions held by the society and the individual.


So, our students are subjected to perceptions, expected behaviors, what they believe they are supposed to be. People perceive, see, students as a controlled variable. They are supposed to act a certain way. What if they didn’t? What if they challenged with purpose and respect? I think that the expected compliance we demand from our students is making student agency impossible. I hear myself say things like:


“I’ll wait for you to be quiet.”
“This is not the behavior I expect.”
“I can wait.”


These teacher-centric language like that will rob your students of the brain space they need feel like they can take the vulnerable step, and put themselves on the line. Exposing they may care about what they are learning is a scary prospect, but, when you can make that behavior allowed and encouraged, the power is in the hands of your students.


Last couple of things. I appreciate you making it this far. This is a big idea. Takes more words than usual.


The ability of your students to exercise agency is “...affected by the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in and the position they are born into.” What control does the student have over this aspect of their ability to affect the “circumstances of the environment one is in and position they are born into”? In my nine years as a teacher (yes, I know that’s just barely past rookie ball.), I have seen students be run by their situational inheritance and those who simply ignore it. I’ve see K and G and others take a bad hand and create brilliance. I’ve also seen J and G and A see their situation as the only direction available. How do you create a space where students who are dealt all different hands have the same possibility for success? You do that by convincing every student it’s possible.


Lastly, “disagreement on the extent of one's agency often causes conflict between parties, e.g. parents and children.”


Just ask my son what I think about this...It’s a work in progress.


Lots of words here. Not an overwhelming amount of answers.


As always, your comments are welcomed and encouraged,


Dane Barner

2 comments:

  1. This is a lot to think about, Dane! I'm struggling with this, too. Teaching my school's advanced learning program, I have 45 minute class periods with third-fifth graders. To use that time effectively, I feel like I have to provide quite a bit of structure. I'm gradually figuring out how to give my students more agency within that structure, but it is definitely a challenge. I'm working toward a reading/writing workshop structure for my fourth and fifth grade reading groups. I hope that will strike the right balance between agency and structure. I'll post some reflections on my blog http://blog.jimwindisch.com once we get going.

    Best of luck in your search for answers to this dilemma, too!

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  2. Thanks, Jim! Way more questions than answers. We have to start somewhere. Looking forward to your reflection.

    Dane

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