Do students have agency or not?

agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

In debates about learning and behaviour, I often think that people in education are conflicted about the extent of student agency.  Do students have agency?  Should they have agency – it is a good thing?  Are we meant to teach them to have agency?  Do we even believe it’s possible for students to have agency?

The conflict and confusion I see relates to different attitudes to behaviour and learning debates:

For some people it’s hard to accept that students make a free-will choice to disrupt lessons; that they do it on purpose. For some, it’s more comfortable to argue that students who make bad choices are doing so because of forces beyond their control, leading to an emphasis on tackling those forces rather than supporting and expecting students to take control.  These same people often also argue that students should be given choices in their curriculum and perhaps their preferred learning methods.

The reverse case is also made, that students do have agency in relation to their behaviour and should be held to account for the choices they make where they have a negative impact.  However sometimes the same folk who seem to take a strong stance in terms of students being responsible for their behaviour also often suggest that students can’t make good decisions about what they learn and how they learn it.  There’s an inherent scepticism regarding whether students might make good choices or have meaningful insights into their learning.

Sometimes a ‘no excuses’ behaviour culture has more overlap with the ‘challenging behaviour = unmet needs/adults need to change’ viewpoint because both effectively deny student agency in practice.  In a looser regime, students can often go from class to class with very different expectations where the de facto norms are not conducive to great learning.  It can be normal to chat throughout a lesson so that’s what you do.  This isn’t building agency towards successful independent learning; in most situations positive learning habits need to be instilled through some kind of external enforcement.

However,  if school regimes are permanently very tight, they’re not really giving students room to develop agency. It always strikes me as odd when schools with silent corridor policies talk about this in terms of wanting their students to walk tall, matching anyone from the local grammar schools and independent schools – none of which impose silent corridor regimes.  Student behaviour isn’t truly impeccable unless students are choosing to behave impeccably – is it? Hyper-controlled behaviour is still basically a deficit model, where students aren’t trusted  – not yet.  Real agency comes when, having learned to value the the truer freedoms afforded by good behaviour, students continue to behave impeccably whilst having the freedom not to.  Silent corridors can’t be an end-goal; surely they can only be a means to an end.  At some point they have to be phased out if true agency and sincere trust are to be fostered.

And what about learning?  If you are never given the chance to make a choice, how do you learn to make a good one?  To choose a good book? To pursue a line of enquiry beyond the set curriculum in a rigorous manner rather than a shallow one?  What’s the point of placing maximum emphasis on teaching kids to read if we don’t then later allow the possibility that students can teach themselves things by reading? Perhaps even by reading things they’ve chosen to read?  Some teachers are horrified – deeply sceptical, scoffing loudly into their twitter feeds – at the suggestion that it might be instructive to ask students for their views about things they want to learn about, ideas about the kinds of activities they value in terms of their own learning.   I remember being 14 and having some pretty clear ideas about this.   I had a VERY clear view that the teaching methods used by certain teachers in art and maths were monstrously ineffective and I got into trouble for saying so!  (I was right though! I just needed to learn a better way to express myself.)

As a teacher I’ve learned a great deal from students and often been surprised and delighted by their ideas about the curriculum.  In a culture of high expectations and serious pursuit of excellence, students can bring a lot to the table, using their experience or perspectives to enrich and enhance your own.  Just because you might never have had the joy of teaching students with great ideas doesn’t mean that students can’t ever have them.  In fact it may be that your refusal to allow for student agency in relation to their curriculum has held them back.  I’ve written about this extensively under the title ‘co-construction‘.   Of course, you don’t just dump students in the deep-end and proclaim the virtue of the great struggle.  No.  You teach them to swim, set up a ramp of incremental challenge and, when ready, you let them jump in.  You build their capacity for independent learning gradually over time, moving from being tight and structured to a more open approach as their agency develops.   If that’s not an explicit goal, I don’t think it happens.  I’d suggest the same should apply to behaviour.

One of my all-time favourite things to see in a school was when, at KEGS, I found a group of Y9s unsupervised in a classroom during lunch.  They informed me that I’d stumbled upon the new, independently initiated, KS3 Debating Society where the motion in hand was ‘This house would invade North Korea’.  The debate was underway with a self-appointed chair, two teams and an enthusiastic audience.  That seems like true agency to me.  In my view, school culture should allow things like this to happen – at least in the end.  There are safety and safeguarding considerations, of course  – and this is very context specific.  But real agency has to be fuelled by trust so at some point trust has to be given. That requires a belief that whilst students must first learn to be trustworthy, ultimately, having learned, they should be trusted.





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