Playing at “Agency”: Why Words Matter When It Comes to Learning | Will Richardson | 4 Min Read

From the “Sometimes You Read Something That Makes You Want to Scream ‘THIS!’ Department” I give you Sean Michael Morris:

“This is the right of agency. It does not give us power over another, but it gives us mastery over ourselves. And an education that does not encourage or facilitate this agency is not an education.”

Sean Michael Morris

Read and repeat. Without “Mastery over ourselves…” it’s “…not an education.”

“Agency” is one of those growing buzzwords now in education, which means that its true meaning is soon to be neutered in practice. Especially because “agency” is at the heart of everything related to serious, re-imaging-my school change. It is, I’ve come to believe, the only real measure of whether a school is truly about learning…or not.

Because it is so foundational to the work, you can already see “agency” being watered down. Students are being given “agency” over how to learn what’s in the curriculum (a la competency-based education)… or students are given the choice of technologies they use to master (as in pass the test) the content in a course (a la “blended” or “flipped” learning). More often than not, “Genius Hour” is our feel-good attempt to check the agency box. (If we really meant it, we’d have “Curriculum Hour” instead.) And don’t get me started on “personalized.” (Seriously…don’t.)

And make note of that word “given,” which to me is what makes all the difference. In most conversations, we are to “give” kids agency over their learning. No, we don’t. We do not “give” agency to students. Similarly, we do not “empower” students to have a choice as power is not ours to give. Instead, we create conditions under which “agency” can flourish, under which our students can create their own power and become powerful in their own right. Conditions under which students have “mastery” over themselves and their learning, not just the content. Conditions built on what we believe about how kids learn.

For all the talk of “transformation” in schools, none of it matters if we don’t start here. Forget buying technology if you plan to distribute it to students without allowing them to fully own it in a learning sense. Forget curriculum if we don’t see it as something as navigated by the learner on their own terms. (Remember that there is a huge difference between “having to…

Register Now
You may use your member school or partner discount code !!!

Will Richardson

A former public school educator of 22 years, Will Richardson has spent the past 15 years developing an international reputation as a leading thinker and writer about the intersection of social online learning networks, education, and systemic change. Most recently, Will is a co-founder of The Big Questions Institute which was created to help educators use “fearless inquiry” to make sense of this complex moment and an uncertain future. In 2017, Will was named one of 100 global “Changemakers in Education” by the Finnish site HundrED, and was named one of the Top 5 “Edupreneurs to Follow” by Forbes. He has given keynote speeches, lead breakout sessions, and provided coaching services in over 30 countries on 6 continents. He has also authored six books, and given TEDx Talks in New York, Melbourne, and Vancouver.