Function and Agency

I spent a year digging deeply into the concept of student agency with teacher teams. We tried to define what agency looked like for a particular grade level, and then how to use that definition to create a classroom culture that provided opportunities for students to develop and exhibit agency.

Lately, as I work on creating learning experiences for virtual learners, I’ve been thinking a lot about the agency work. How do students who aren’t in a classroom develop and exhibit agency? Do they have to already have agency in order to be a successful virtual learner? Is this a chicken or the egg debate?

Executive Function

The other day I stumbled upon a webinar by Sucheta Kamath, founder and CEO of EXQ, called The Back-to-school Brain: Developing Executive Function Skills to Shape a Successful School Year. Kamath dove into the importance of Executive Function skills for students. According to Kamath, executive function is the ability
to serve the self (goals),
done by oneself,
by managing self
…and if one can’t, it’s the ability ask for help, by oneself.

In other words, if an idea is originated by a parent or teacher, than it is the parent or teacher’s executive functioning skills getting worked, and not the student.

This isn’t far off from the definition of student agency. One definition I like states that “Agency refers to the power to make choices. Students with agency are those who feel a high level of responsibility and ownership for their own learning (source).” In order to have that high level of responsibility and ownership, students would need to have executive functioning.

So then…if a teacher is setting up a classroom to provide opportunities for students to develop and exhibit agency, then how much of that opportunity is based on the teacher’s executive functioning skills and agency and how much of it is building the child’s skills? In other words, if the teacher says, “I’m creating this writer’s workshop to build agency” then has the responsibility and ownership been placed on the teacher instead of the student?

Slide with female adult helping young female student.
States: If it's the parent's idea, parents EF skills were used. If it's the teacher's idea, teacher's EF skills were used. If it is the child's idea, child's EF skills are being used.
Slide from Kamath’s presentation. EF = Executive Function

This becomes an important question when considering two important executive functioning skills – to adapt and to shift flexibly. Throughout a school day, students are expected to transition multiple times through a variety of different transition types:

  • leisure to leisure – from lunch to free play, or during station rotation with fun experiences
  • work to leisure – finishing up an assignment before recess or the end of the school day
  • leisure to work – coming back to class after recess, or lunch, or an assembly
  • work to work – shifting from math instruction to science instruction

Disengaging from one experience and then reengaging with a different experience is exhausting, especially when it is a work to work adjustment. Before students can take ownership of learning, they must successfully navigate these transitions.

Kamath recommended that teachers ensure the expectations match the level of skill readiness. It may be unrealistic for a kindergartner to know how to put away math and pull out writing without direction, but it is not unrealistic for a middle school student. So before judging a child for failure to exhibit agency, it may be necessary to provide help in executive functioning,

A tip from Kamath: Use timers to warn about upcoming transitions (not just when time is up!), as well as provide visual reminders. Have different timer sounds for different transition types.

Function Before Agency

So if executive functioning skills must stem from the student’s self management, and self-management is required in order to exhibit responsibility and ownership, which are demonstrations of agency, then it stands to reason that students need to have age-appropriate executive functioning in order to demonstrate agency in learning.

Our Role as Educators

Helping students discover their sense of purpose, and then assisting them in using their executive functioning skills to set them on a course to achieve that purpose, will create a personal drive to learn, and thus lead them to take agency, or ownership and responsibility, of that learning.

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