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Agency at home: Creative responses to constraints


I sat down, armed with my laptop, coffee in hand, prepared to pen my thoughts about our schools collective focus on Agency. A message came over the intercom, “school will be closing from tomorrow”.

Reality can change in heartbeat and we need to be ready to change with it.

Initially this blogpost was written with the aim of exploring the concept of agency in schools. Amidst what is happening around the world, such a topic might seem secondary to conversations around digital learning or mental wellbeing. However, now more than ever agency should be at the heart of discussions schools are having about teaching and learning. In this new reality, educators need to be asking how both they and their students can be more agentic.

This two-part blog post will explore creative responses to constraints, how to create agentic environments and building the foundations: a metaphor for collective agency.

So, what exactly do I mean by agency?

Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make choices within their classrooms and organisations. For teachers this looks like enacting changes in their practice without waiting for directives from senior leaders.

In Lehman’s terms, it’s the ability to take difficult situations, see the silver lining and make the best of what happened. One of the things I admire about our Kiwi spirit is the way we respond to crisis. I mentioned this in my earlier blog post on what our answer to COVID_19 should look like. New Zealanders are brilliantly responsive and that’s what agency embodies: the ability to act in response to the constraints you have. We’ve got some pretty novel constraints. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and we’ve been given the opportunity to respond, to be agentic.


Agency looks like the difference between being responsive as opposed to reactive. Reactions are typically quick and enacted without much thought, whereas a response tends to be thought out. One is tense and aggressive, whilst the other shows calm reflection. Much of the last few weeks have had been reactive. We’ve had to move quick to respond to this pandemic. As the dust begins to settle, we now have the opportunity to respond.

What exactly are we responding to? Sure, there are the practical concerns of how COVID_19 will play out but beyond that we are responding to a slew of issues related to students learning and wellbeing. We are responding to our students’ lack of access to devices, to the internet, and to our need to digitally upskill. We are stuck in our homes, with limited resources. To some extent the pandemic is out of our control, but our response is not.

Agency calls us to delineate between controllable and uncontrollable factors and ask the question; what can I control? Blame has no place in an agentic mindset and in this way being agentic is forward-focused. As opposed to looking at what you could have done, you look at what you can do. Problems such as the need to digitally upskill are controllable factors. Sure, it might take learning, but we have the ability to do something about this. An agentic step might look like reading a new technology blog post daily or trying a new education app.


Our ability to distinguish between what is controllable and uncontrollable, between real vs perceived constraints, depends on how creative we are. Agentic thinkers are those working outside the box, taking risks and proposing novel solutions. It’s a practice inherently rooted in creativity.

Now more than ever, we need creative responses to constraints. A quick scroll online shows performers, teachers, doctors and engineers using innovative and exciting new ways to deal with this crisis. Isolation has seen a burgeoning rise in young creators. As opposed to merely consuming, young people are creating using apps such as TikTok. I’ve written previously about our need as educators to explore the Consumer vs Creator binary with our students.

So, how do we become more creative, and in turn more agentic, teachers?

From a digital perspective, we need to redefine learning using technology in the most creative way. Redefinition comes from the Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition (SAMR) model, developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura. SAMR is a framework for understanding the impact of computer technology on teaching and learning. In short, the SAMR continuum moves through four levels, from mere substitution (creating slideshow instead of a poster) through to redefinition (using forms to create a choose your own path student adventure). We need to be working at redefining learning, using technology in a way that doesn’t merely substitute worksheets for google documents or posters for slideshows. This is a basic overview of the SAMR framework and if interested, you can find more information here. It does, however, provide a useful impetus for thinking about how we work digitally.

Some questions that might aid us in redefining our digital spaces might be:

Am I just putting written content online? What applications could support more creative practices? How do I ensure student voices are heard through online forums? How can I use technology to support students health and wellbeing? Where does the power lie in our digital spaces; with the teacher or the student?

Another opportunity for creative reimagining is assessment. From an NCEA perspective, this could be the perfect opportunity to revisit how and why we assess. We need to be thinking about creating new tasks that are based on the requirement of the standard, as opposed to task we have done year in and year out. Which standards allow you to assess through online platforms and could be rethought? As an English teacher, I’m already exploring how students might use applications such as Zoom to host online seminars and whether that would satisfy requirements for the Oral text standard.

My first challenge for you is to explore the constraints you have faced due to COVID_19 and ask yourself what you might be able to change. The second is to reflect on how you can be creative, responding to the real constraints you have.

Agency requires that you look at yourself, look at what’s in your hands, and look at what’s in front of you in order to know where to go next. Practitioners need to ask “what are the true constraints and what are the constraints I am placing on myself.” If we begin to do this, constraints may just begin to look like opportunities.

We cannot control what has happened, only what we do now.


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