Agency is something that we can support or hinder and certainly something we should deliberately explore in our own practice, as we design and facilitate learning in our school.
The concept of ‘Agency’ has increasingly crept into ‘educational jargon’ and ‘teacher speak’ in recent years and is frequently mentioned in educational literature. Monica Sen (PYP Authorisation Manager, at IB), unpacks the meaning of agency in her paper, Agency and the Early Learner (March, 2021) conceding that this word has captivated teachers who seem to naturally favour the idea of voice, choice and ownership in education. Sen suggests that agency relates to autonomy, self-efficacy, independent learning, child-centred education and learners taking action. She summarises agency as an ‘umbrella’ term, overarching related concepts as, “the power to take individual action,” relating this to the OECD (2019) definition of agency, “the capacity to set a goal, reflect and act responsibly to effect change.” This stance, Sen writes, relates to the learner, pedagogy and context. Agency is not seen as something we can “give” learners. It is something that we can support or hinder and certainly something we should deliberately explore in our own practice (and context) as we design and facilitate learning in our schools.
The King’s School Mission Statement implores our community, “to make an outstanding impact for the good of society,” through our students, and by the quality of teaching and leadership in education. Our responsibility is to develop collective agency, to make the world a better place. We often speak to our Tudor House students about endeavouring to make the School Community… the World, a better place because they’re in it… If we view young children as fragile, weak, helpless, “too young”, not ready, we are taking away from them opportunities to practise agency and to make a difference. We know how curious young children are. Babies are innately curious and use a myriad of senses to find out about their world, touching, tasting, looking, smelling, listening… As soon as children learn to speak – they ask, “why?”, often many times! Young children love to do things independently. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children states that children have the right to be active participants in all matters affecting their lives. We have a significant responsibility to intentionally promote opportunities for children to develop their sense of self-efficacy and set them up to succeed, not to be dependent. We look for opportunities to ‘catch’ our students demonstrating, ‘agency’ and affirm their actions.
As an International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Programme (PYP) School the Learner Profile character traits are a useful guide, a ‘blue print,’ for all in the learning community to make the ‘world’ a better place. We seek to be and encourage others to be: balanced, caring, communicators, inquirers, knowledgeable, open-minded, principled, reflective, risk-takers, thinkers. In addition, woven as a thread throughout all we do at Tudor House we have the School Values promoting: Humility, Honesty, Respect, Responsibility, Integrity, Compassion, Excellence.
Sen suggests we should seek ways to, Honour voice by really listening to what young learners tell us – through various modes of communication, actions, expressions, movements, moods; encourage and respect different perspectives; acknowledge and value children’s emerging theories and ideas and share decision making and input into learning design. We should enable choice by: providing multiple pathways and materials; encourage young learners to set goals and reflect on them; support decision making (modelling, suggesting strategies or options) and provide choices via the learning environment (making materials accessible to children). We should promote ownership of learning by supporting young learners to understand what they’re learning and why; provide relevant learning opportunities; support students to understand the importance of failure as part of the learning process and provide opportunities to develop self-confidence, independence, support experimentation.
Examples of the suggestions above spill well-beyond the conventional classroom walls at Tudor House. The characters and leaders we’re growing also practise these skills in a range of specialist lessons, by participating in Chapel services and Assemblies, in co-curricular activities and so very obviously in our Outdoor Education program, Kahiba.
www.oecd.org. (n.d.). Student Agency – OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030. [online] Available at: https://www.oecd.org/education/2030-project/teaching-and-learning/learning/student-agency/.
UNICEF AUSTRALIA (2021). United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children. [online] 80. Available at: https://www.unicef.org.au/our-work/information-for-children/un-convention-on-the-rights-of-the-child.