It seems like agency is the education buzzword for 2020. Essentially, it’s about promoting the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. That’s something that applies to both students and teachers. Senior management want agentic staff members and teachers want agentic students. So why do we keep using power structures that jar with these desires?
The first few weeks of school are always occupied by the setting of expectations. Up until now, I’ve taught mainly seniors and in the senior school, students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning. They come into the classroom and get started on the work at hand. This year, however, I’ve found myself with a Year 9 class. Classes begin with the lining up of students, setting of consequences and a firmer approach to structure, because kid’s need structure, right? I’m setting the tone and expectations for this class. And yet, what fascinates me is that the structures I am putting in place echo a similar practice in our school, one which I was pretty firmly against.
Until this year, my school implemented a military style roll call. Students were required to meet in the quad, in lines, for routine uniform checks and the marking of the roll. It all seemed a bit “old school” for my liking. Thankfully, that practice was removed this year and students find their way to whanau class for the beginning of the day.
But here I am, after lunch, lining my up students and checking uniform before we enter the classroom, questioning how many school and teacher practices are implemented through the rationale of control. Schools are rife with untested practices that reinforce power structures, yet, no one would ever admit that our conception of a ‘teacher’s’ role is embedded in the assertion that we have the power. Why do we stand at the front of the classroom, whilst students sit? Why do they refer to us as Mr., Sir and Miss? We’d argue respect but maybe it’s a reminder of who holds the control. If this is the case, where does agency sit?
Now I’m not arguing that we should throw the baby out with the bath water and let students run loose. Agency is curated and there is a difference between giving power and giving over power. The former is the job of a teacher, to empower their students to learn. But where is the balance between boundaries, expectations and empowerment and how do we teach students to be agentic? I think often we make the assumption there is a transition between the junior and senior school. As if students suddenly just become agentic over the summer break?
We need to be teaching agency and reflecting on the rationale behind our behaviour. There’s a fine line between ‘setting expectations’ and yelling military orders. In short, we need to question our role as a teacher.
At my partner’s new school, teachers are reframed as learning coaches and referred to by their first name. She thought this would be a difficult change to get used to but actually found it a relatively easy transition, one that didn’t involve kids running loose. Names are just one example of how we might begin questioning power structures and when we begin to demystify our names, we actually remove the taboo power of saying them.
Even our language reinforces power. When students ask for permission to go to the bathroom, it assumes the power to grant them such a wish. As a teacher, I’ve begun telling students, they need to let me know they are going to the bathroom, but they don’t need to ask if they can. This hasn’t resulted in droves heading out of the classroom but rather students are questioning whether they need to when the lesson is finishing in five minutes and what they might miss if they do. This is just one way to make students aware that their decision-making holds power. Enhancing meta-cognition and responsibility for one’s learning can implemented through any number of techniques. Whether it’s learning logs or discovery practices; find what works for your class and begin actively promoting agentic learning.
Like most things in education, the way we treat our students is reflected in the way we treat our teachers. Agency isn’t limited to the learners in the classroom. Educators need to be empowered by their senior managers and given the space for creative freedom, informed risk taking and support. If we want agentic students, we need agentic staff.
If we can begin to enhance the agency of our staff and students through small daily practices, we have some hope of disrupting power structures. Structures that dictate being in charge means control, as opposed to the opportunity to empower those around you.