Agency – Give or Take?

Alternate title: Sit long, listen hard, talk lots!

The ownership and authorship of agency was a challenge for me this past week. It has caused me to read and reflect, reread and revisit readings.  I lurked and listened in digital spaces.  This has not been an easy idea to visualize, through any lens, in order to gain clarity.  This concept still sits heavily in my mind as I think of my own role as an educator of soon to be educators.  Can I enable agency or empower others? Are my students taking agency as they take ownership of their learning?  Is it a give and take?  Is agency something that can be given? If so, how?  One realization that comes from my reflections is that agency is not a commodity that can be banked through a give and take.  It emerges through relationship and reflection.

3590904689_5d277122af_mThrough reflection comes understanding.  Ideas gain clarity when viewed through the various lenses of time, events, empathy, revisits or contextual changes.  I think of the image of the eye examination tool where various lenses are applied to ‘see what you see’ or don’t see in many cases.  I’ve tried on various lenses this week – Maha Bali’ & Shyam Sharma’s Bonds of Difference, Ann Gangne’s Agency and Reclaiming Student Demographics, Chris Friend’s Listening to Students and Keith Hamon’s moocmooc & Critical Pedagogy. Each one provides a slightly blurred image of my own understanding and vision of ‘agency’. I had to search for a definition of agency to help clarify – ‘a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved’ (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary).  From this definition, individual agency in learning is envisioned as taking control, exerting autonomy and setting directions.

Awakening agency is not a matter of giving or taking.  Agency results from reflection within relationships.  As a teacher, I can no more give a student agency than I can give them motivation.  Agency is gained through reciprocal reflection and action, from student to teacher, from content to context.  As a professional, I cannot take agency without understanding myself as I learn within political, geographic and cultural contexts.  For professional agency, my relationship with learning comes from within, not from external sources or resources.  Certainly the external forces will impact my agency but it is not taken or given by those forces.


Agency in Learning – The Third Thing

Agency is achieved when the focus of the teacher/student relationship begins with the ‘third thing’ (Palmer) and ends with understanding each other.  This ‘third thing’ can be the content, concept, problem, big idea, issue or learning object around which the learning occurs. When you and I, teacher and student, sit beside each other, examine and explore this ‘third thing’, talk about it, problem through it together, we learn first, but also come to know each other and ourselves.  Ways of knowing and ways of being are intertwined in our collaborative agency with new knowledge and strengthened relationship. As I do in my own teaching practice, I move to sit beside my student (or frequently squat down) to talk, listen and learn about what they are doing, thinking, or wondering.  Using metaphor or story is something I’ll  use to clarify thinking or to gain understanding.

Bali & Sharma, in Bonds of Difference: Participation as Inclusion, state “working with and through each other should not be seen as a liability or a hassle. It is a process that can transform us”.  As educators and students grow into the ownership of their individual agency, it is an opportunity to ‘invite participants from different contexts for genuine participation, to listen and learn from others, to enrich their own understanding”.  This can be within face-to-face classroom settings, around an issue “with the language of technique and methodology” (Hamon) or in a diverse, global, virtual discourse such as #moocmooc.  Individual agency emerges from the dialogue, critique, feedback and reflection in which each teacher/learner engages.  My agency within the classroom or digital space is not a give or take, it is an evolutionary and ever changing understanding of my place in context.  Agency evolves for my students as we engage in relationship over ‘third things’.

To conclude, I’ll respond to Ann Gagne’s question about how to ‘expand concepts of agency’ … with low tech or no tech’ – sit long, listen hard and talk lots! There’s no tech required, but tech can enable these conversations well beyond the time and space a traditional classroom context allows. To continue this challenge, how do you find spaces and places to ‘sit long, listen hard and talk lots’? How do your teaching practices allow for the emerging, evolutionary agency within your students or yourself?


Maha Bali & Shyam Sharma, Bonds of Difference: Participation as Inclusion

Eye Exam, Flickr Creative Commons, [image].

Chris Friend, Listening to Students

Ann Gagne, Agency and Reclaiming Student Demographics in Our Discourse (Or Looking for Giroux in a Haystack),

Keith Hamon, #moocmooc & Critical Pedagogy

Parker Palmer, The Third Thing,

This entry was posted in Talking, Teaching, Together and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Agency – Give or Take?

  1. Hi Helen, what a nice way of putting it: awakening agency – I like that.

  2. Maha Bali says:

    Hey Helen, i definitely agree that tech isn’t needed for this but that it can expand the time-space for having these conversations. I know for sure that communicating w students via Twitter and having outdoor classes breaks down some barriers and helps them feel more “agent” (word looks funny but it,s the right one, gramatically, yeah?)

    • HJ.DeWaard says:

      Thanks for the feedback. It’s the word ‘agency’ that kept me pondering this past week. As I researched and read, I went deeper into social and psychological theory but I kept trying to link it back to students in classrooms. My experience teaching at elementary levels had me wondering what ‘agency’ looks like for younger learners. They’re not into Twitter but can feel like they have control when engaging in blogs or wikis with others around the world. But it comes down to whether I, as their teacher, is giving them these opportunities. That was the question I still can’t resolve – not sure if it’s a give & take or if it’s and evolution of independence and autonomy. Still wondering and wandering around this topic! 🙂

Comments are closed.