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I've been challenged to think a lot about agency, or epistemic agency (and even shared epistemic agency) through my Knowledge Building Communities research over the last three years. I listen to the frustration that those who embrace future focused education and modern learning practices and pedagogies express, about those teachers who hold back, or for whatever reason don't engage.

I think too about my own initial difficulties with taking risks with all aspects of my teaching practice. I think about how teachers have to make a choice between giving themselves to an initiative, or holding back due to the fact they are, on the whole, exhausted from juggling what teaching has become in secondary school settings.

Many teachers are often nervous, watchful, or resistant in their practices. Even plunging headlong into something apparently 'innovative' can leave a teacher plagued with doubt, and nervous about the risk of change. I wonder what the interaction is between our education system, and the impact it has on teacher agency? What has happened to full teacher agency? Why aren't all teachers super excited about their jobs, continually investigating how learning happens, what learning means, what knowing means? My own experience of being an educator is one of submission to a system that seems to demand just that little bit more than what I'm capable of managing.

Its no wonder, I don't think, that activating agency in students seems to be at the heart of effective teaching. Self-motivated students, happy in their learning, curious and driven to discover meaningfulness and a connection to the world that gives them a sense of connection and efficacy... how do you teach agency? How do you teach epistemic agency particularly? Can you?

The elephant in the room? Image Source

What have we created in our education system? Is submitting your agency to another actually at the heart of our schools? Our society? If you submit to your teacher or "the system” (hegemony), you can learn safely; but if you are active in your learning, responsibility then moves from teacher to learner, then learning becomes risky, learning is not ‘safe' anymore, you are functioning outside the accepted system.

No wonder so many students demand to be told what to do, and think that learning is memorising what a teacher says. Do we require our learners to submit to known knowledge, and call it learning? Do we teach students (and ourselves as learners too) that a critical element of learning is submission? When we talk about passive learners, active learners, and agency, are we in effect talking about a politicising of learning?

Though I haven't more then skimmed a few ideas of French philosopher Michael Foucault, I'm sure he talked about the relationship between power and knowledge, and the use of social institutions as a form of hegemonic social control?

When I started to understand what Knowledge Building Communities theory and pedagogy was about three years ago, I remember getting the feeling it could be a powerful tool to destabilise what 20th century learning had become. Now I'm pretty convinced this approach to teaching and learning activates the ideas and vision of a 21st century education that produces epistemic agents that improve their knowledge and understanding through the catalyst of a community. What I didn't expect was that it would do the same for the epistemic agency of the teacher.

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Comment by Nina Smith on December 10, 2014 at 13:43

We have all the necessary technology to fully personalize the learning experience, but for some reason we are not doing that, but use the tech to track students' clicks on the website or the links, or the time they spend on any give page, thinking that this would reveal the quality of their learning (I work for a fully online university). This all comes from sales and business management. And even poor management, for that matter, where management by objective (MBO or MBR, by Drucker, 1954) was seen as the solution -- yet learning being so individual, situational and contextual would never fit into the model where "what gets measured gets done" is used. And that is the sad reality in many educational systems: "learning" is measured by teachers measuring how well students meet the learning objective of the week/day/lesson. This way we can measure instruction, but not learning.

Teaching and learning are two very different processes that sometime occur in the same space (classroom), but not always. We need to give much more credit for the informal and non-formal learning and this is where knowledge building communities and other PLC & PLN (personal/professional learning communities or networks) come in: sharing experiences and expertise to build better education. To build better learning experiences for every student (everywhere in the world). Open access journals are another important part of this.

I honestly think there is lots of movement away from the management thinking in education. But the change is hard to achieve as long as people making decisions about education are not professional educators. The grassroot movements are helping to educate people about better ways of learning and teaching, and Sir Ken is one of the really good and famous ones. I met him in Portland, Oregon few years ago. And sharing his work and other good online information may bring the world to the tipping point, where the GERM is seen what is really is. Global Education Reform Movement - you can read more about it here:  (yes, I am Finnish)



Comment by Hazel Owen on December 10, 2014 at 10:01

Hi Nina...some great, thought-provoking follow up points, which I have been mulling over for the last few days.

Yesterday I listened to the Ken Robinson TED Talk 'How to escape education's Death Valley', and a podcast featuring Eric Mazur. Robinson talks about education that is personalised, applied, and not the equivalent of "a low grade administration job" in intellectual and emotional development. Where this is the case, there are puzzled reactions when questions are asked about 'drop out' rates, to which the reply is "there are none". He also talks about the fact that teachers may teach (just as a person on a diet might restrict their intake of food), but that does not necessarily mean that learning occurs (again, just as weigh might not be lost). It feels to me that there is often a gap between the idea of education...and learning (mechanistic versus humanistic as you mention). Mazur describes how, when people are asked about how they learned the thing they are most passionate about, interestingly, lectures didn't feature, but practice, experience, and family did feature highly.

Reflecting back to my own experience of education in the UK (school - awful for so many reasons), and my first degree (OK-ish). I remember that lectures and the library were the only place to go to get 'information' and opinions. You went to lectures to take notes, which gave the framework from which you did your own study and developed your own understandings. You were expected to be independent and self-directed - you weren’t scaffolded into being an active learner; you were expected to learn these skills / systems, and to develop your own understandings (although 'opinions' came much later for me with a growth in experience and confidence). There was little sense, however, that I was contributing in any way to new knowledge (something you identify).

Your discussion started me wondering about the power of agency and how it actually shapes us as people from a really early age. As you say, "Knowledge MUST be constructed. By each individual student. And that is where agency begins". However, do you feel there will come a time when we move away from education (especially higher education) as a 'business model', to one that is flexible enough "to ensure the cultural progression AND to help the youth to thrive in their unknown future"?

Comment by Nina Smith on December 2, 2014 at 8:49

Hi Madeline,

I am still thinking about your excellent, thought-provoking post, and am thinking that what we all too often call "learning" in formal education, is actually just performance.  The difference is huge!



Comment by Nina Smith on December 2, 2014 at 4:42

What an interesting post and wonderful discussion!  Hazel, I think the "tipping point" is what you describe as transformative change, and that is the point when the culture of the organization changes. Until that point the cyclical changes are the more planned, strategic ones (policies, procedures,practices, etc.)...  and as we know, culture eats strategy for breakfast every day. So, until the culture changes, the transformation won't occur (and of course until the transformation happens the culture won't change).

But, what I wanted to write about is agency. I just got derailed with all the wonderful ideas here, and had to peek into the suggested (excellent!!) post about disengaging.

Coming from a background that has me convinced about the reality being a social construction (Berger & Luckmann, 1966), and playing with the idea of agency (as a life political choice - Giddens, 1984, 1991) since 2001, I believe formal education is just crippling itself by overly focusing on one purpose for its existence, and quite completely ignoring the other part. The reason for formal education to exist in any given society seems to be two-fold: to ensure the cultural progression AND to help the youth to thrive in their unknown future (this is why overly defined learning objectives are so ridiculous - we don't really know what future will look like, so how could we have definite answers for creating it?).

Educational systems are slowly (very slowly) moving from understanding schools/universities being repositories of knowledge into them being places where new knowledge is created (mechanistic vs humanistic view). This is a very slow process (culture, tipping point), because there are so many people and practices and procedures holding onto the cultural progression that the need for creating future is forgotten. Collectively we (grudgingly) acknowledge the knowledge creation among professional communities, but don't want to admit the same process being in the heart of every classroom -- because knowledge (and culture, and wisdom) still need to be transmitted to the next generation. What is really sad here is what I consider to be the first fact of teaching: knowledge cannot be transmitted, only information can.  Knowledge MUST be constructed. By each individual student. And that is where agency begins. 



Comment by Madeline Campbell on November 30, 2014 at 19:44

Hi Hazel, thanks for your response, that really helps me to keep thinking these ideas over. I remember Adam Fletcher's post well, I was really struck by the idea that students are in fact very motivated all the time, just not always about what we think they should be motivated to do! This keeps me thinking on that delicate balance of finding space for what students find motivating and making sure I'm inclusive of that, balancing the demands of assessment, expectations of parents, system pressures etc

Comment by Hazel Owen on November 26, 2014 at 20:39

Thanks for your thought-provoking post, Madeline! :) Heaps to mull over.

Adam Fletcher and I have had conversations about different notions of agency (e.g. Six Reasons Youth Disengage...and have a peek at the comments too. He has some other superb posts about youth agency and what that actually 'looks like'). One of the things that comes through in these discussions are the tensions between procedures, systems and processes (things we need to help ensure that day-to-day life works) and a need for flexibility in the face of change and changing needs. 

In simplistic terms, I would suggest there are two types of change in education: cyclical and transformative. Cyclical change is ongoing, and organisations often initiate it, or respond to it as it happens, occasionally returning to the state they were in before, constantly. In contrast, transformative change is holistic, disruptive, often uncomfortable, collaborative, happens at all levels, and is irreversible. Once an organisation or community has undergone transformative change, it will not be able to return to the way it was before.

I suspect that one of the issues being faced in the building of the future is there is a misconception that what is actually cyclical change, is often described as transformative. This could be one of the reasons why confidence in formal education (by youth, communities, and commerce) has been declining steadily as the gap grows ever wider between the 'information' (the word is used advisedly) and skills taught, and the living and working environments that currently exist; for example, by preparing learners to be ethical, able participants in communities - online and face-to-face.

The education system(s), in New Zealand and beyond, play an essential role in attempting to ensure equity and consistency, as well as offering processes that ensure, for instance, teachers are 'qualified' to teach. There is, however, I feel an ever-widening gap between 'education' as a system, and various theories of learning, which, as soon as you try to capture them in one 'approach' or framework become less flexible, and therefore less applicable for a wide range of contexts. Therefore, one of the issues, is perhaps that there is no 'one way' to learn...or 'one size fits all' approach that would fit easily within the existing system. And, any attempt to regulate and 'measure' effectiveness of innovative approaches is doomed from the get go because the regulations and measurements have been shaped by the existing system!

The impact of an education system on individual teacher agency therefore, I suggest, is an uneasy combination of regulation and accountability, with a desire (requirement?) to be innovative and participate in continuous professional development. Agency is thereby bound by parameters that can feel stifling or concerning - there is a sense of 'risk taking'; of possibly being 'found wanting' if the perception is that the shift in approach has 'failed' (plus an underlying ethical aspect that we may, though our actions, negatively impact the learning of the people with whom we are working).

So - "Why aren't all teachers super excited about their jobs, continually investigating how learning happens, what learning means, what knowing means?". Really great question, and maybe the answer is 'it's complicated'. We are all part of a variety of systems and communities, with a range of responsibilities; so, at all points we are influenced by our personal lives (including aspirations and obligations), as well as professional and political. These 3 aspects are never frozen in time and are continually changing.

This may help explain why many teachers feel exhausted and barely keeping up with the tasks they have to do, let alone the things they are wanting to do. The sometimes contradictory drivers can leave people feeling risk averse and overwhelmed.

To come to your questions about student agency - I get a sense of similar complexities at play. Many parents for example are resistant to changes to a system that some feel did OK by them. At a recent conference I was participating in a parent stood up and vehemently demanded to know why we were experimenting on his children. The students themselves are also surrounded by media that reinforces the status quo about education and how it is commonly perceived to 'happen'. ..and how we measure its effectiveness.

I must say that I agree that many schools do stifle learner agency; however, the underlying complexities are many layered and need careful unpacking. ..perhaps before the ideal of student agency can ever be truly realised and sustained. What do you reckon? :-)

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