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Aurora Institute

‘Student Agency’ Is Not Something You Give or Take

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Andrew Rikard

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Activate Student Agency

StepsThis post originally appeared at EdSurge on October 16, 2015.

I feel strange saying that I, a Davidson College Junior named Andrew, have obtained ‘Student Agency.’ Does that make me a ‘Student Agent,’ a sort of James Bond of the educational Free Will? Does that mean I can drop out? Have I made it?

Well, no. I haven’t made it. Because ‘agency’ is a capacity that you never stop developing. You can’t obtain it and you can’t take it away. Education can encourage or discourage ‘agency,’ but education cannot eliminate or provide it. I make this point because ‘student agency’ is often paired with phrases like “the flipped classroom” and “active versus passive learning.” These phrases suggest that agency is a flippable switch: Yesterday, my professor was an onerous, tweed-coated, lecture-giver; today, with an iPad, and an unanticipated boost in self-discipline, I barely even need her!

We can’t continue to frame agency as something that educators give to students. That feeds into the old model of knowledge transmission, where educators stand up and give information to students. Developing ‘agency’, on the other hand, is a collaborative effort where both parties stand to gain (and lose). Collaboration, then, is fundamentally about a relationship between two (or more) equals. As such, ‘agency’ demands a couple of things: individualization, relationship, and equality.

This is important because it lets us see the revolution in education as something more than a couple of quick, life-changing clicks and tips. You can’t just flip the classroom. Developing a student’s capacity to be an ‘agent’ is a horribly difficult, complicated, and personal work. It’s unquantifiable and un-MOOCable. It’s very nearly an art; It’s almost moral; and I believe it is the central role of the educator.

So let’s say this moral, artistic, deeply personal act is part of the educator’s purpose. If it is, I’d like to speak to the way that a group of brilliant, revolutionary educators are cultivating ‘Student Agency’ in me:

They’ve renamed me.

This is first and fundamental. When educators say that I am an equal, even when I clearly am not intellectually, everything changes. When I am dubbed ‘collaborator’ by PhD holders, I feel both a sharp fear and an intense freedom. Suddenly, my voice is valuable. If I am a collaborator, then my thoughts can change the mind of the other collaborators. This is empowering. It is the exclamation that we all are learning together.

They’ve followed through.

Using words is one thing; taking action is another. After renaming me (a student) as a collaborator, the next step is having faith in my contributions. If an educator calls me a collaborator, then honors my contributions, it’s as though the world has shattered. It allows me to imagine, create and express in a way that matters. Students like myself tend to imagine educators in a world apart, floating intellectually in the gardens of contemplation. When that illusion is busted up and educators proceed to listen to my ideas—well, that’s motivating.

They’ve engaged my whole being.

The relationship between students and educators is fraught with strange hierarchies. But because of this renaming and follow through, I now feel able to engage with questions of purpose and morality. I can walk into an office asking how I might be able to take this bit of literary theory and apply it to my life without going utterly insane. Inspiring educators encourage this. They insist on the applied nature of learning—how it isn’t some isolated knowledge set, but tied deeply to the real world. My emotional, spiritual and intellectual lives are all wrapped up together. All of me gets to develop here.

They’ve let me fail.

This is key. Grades do a great deal of damage to all the aforementioned hopes of ‘agency’—even if grades are necessary. That said, the best educators create an environment where they understand that even with all this talk of equality, I am still a fearful kid walking around in an adult’s body. They understand that I will let them down. But they also own up to their own failings and weaknesses. They proceed to lift me back up and start afresh.

When I first had these conversations about agency, I imagined it was just my capacity to decide what I learned. This is only part of it. Encouraging agency is more than just doing what you want—it’s recognizing your responsibility to take action in a world that needs makers and creators. This process is not easy. Very often, it isn’t fun. But without the educators in my life who said, “Andrew, you should write an article for EdSurge,” I wouldn’t be writing this article now.

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Andrew Rikard is a Junior at Davidson College in North Carolina where he studies English and Computer Science.