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Student Agency

Written on January 28th, 2016

waving students

All the best research in organizations, families, schools and generally in people’s psychological health seems to suggest that agency, or having a say in what is going on or in what affects you, is extremely important. It is extremely important to their overall health and well-being for people to feel that they have a say or that they actually feel heard. Parents who do everything for their children rob them of the development of ownership and pride in contributing to the family. Parents who continually tell their children what they should do give them no opportunity to grow their own problem-solving skills. The result is similar between students and teachers in classrooms as well as between employers and employees in the workplace.

In actual fact, it is not really good for us to be told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it continually. We become passive, and we assume that others always have the good ideas. It might also grate on us because someone else is taking responsibility for our actions and we have no agency (which is “built” into us as image-bearers). It is also unhealthy for us to have everything done for us. We begin to feel that we are not capable or that we wouldn’t be appreciated for our contributions anyway, because we wouldn’t do it the same way as the other person.

In the creation story, God created man and woman in His image. He gave them choice; He fundamentally built in the opportunity for humankind NOT to obey Him. I am sure that God hoped that humankind would be able to see all that He had done for them—creating a Garden, providing an opportunity to walk and talk with our Maker—but in the end, humankind did not appreciate what God had done and made a choice to break relationship with Him. And so begins our search back to God, if we so choose.

Agency also reminds me of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. God as the Father in the story waits for his son to return. He doesn’t go out to haul him back. He waits. And He celebrates when the lost son comes back to take responsibility for his actions and to apologize to his father for not realizing how good he had it. How do we as parents, educators, and leaders in our communities create ways for our students, our children and our colleagues to also make choices (knowing that sometimes they won’t make good ones)? Just as importantly, how do we create hospitable cultures where mistakes are recognized and forgiven when responsibility and accountability are acknowledged?

In different situations, it might mean that things get a bit messier than we might like. Relationships are always messy! We know that. Teaching students, parenting kids, or leading employees/colleagues is a messy process. People do not conform to nice neat boxes. The reason for this is agency: people are living, breathing, thinking, acting humans who by design want to participate in what is happening. Sometimes this participation is healthy and joyous and other times it is destructive and unhappy. In either case, it is participation; it means they feel agency. We need to be much more worried about those children who are ALWAYS compliant, who seem not to care, who do what they do because you are telling them to do it. Perhaps they don’t think their voice or ideas would change anything; perhaps they have given up.

Teaching is an amazing adventure. Each day, you need to be open to the surprises that happen: the lesson that goes sideways, the student who suddenly shares something sad or something amazing, the laughter, or the frustration of things not accomplished. In the end, our goal as educators is to engage students in learning where they “lead their own learning”—where they become agents and take responsibility.