5 Ways to Build Student Agency in the Digital Age

Community, Leadership, Learning, PreK-12

Arina Bokas & Rod Rock

Recent research findings demonstrate a strong link between one’s sense of empowerment, or “seeing oneself as a causal agent in one’s life,” and the level of an individual’s success in life. A developing sense of agency likely serves as a foundation for the acquisition of many essential skills, including grit and resilience, which allow us to overcome the many obstacles that we encounter throughout our lives.

Yet, our youth today may feel that external social forces are controlling their lives much more than their own internal compasses. In the Digital Age, as Howard Gardner and Katie Davis expressed in The App Generation (2013), young people are practicing constant self-protection, self-polishing, and self-tracking online, which is taking away time from quiet reflection and identity construction. In Disconnected (2014), Harvard researcher Carrie James identified such alarming issues in the digital world as invaded privacy and a slipping sense of ownership.

Yet, as Gardner and Davis state, apps can either “short circuit identity formation, pushing you into being someone else’s avatar […] or, by foregrounding various options, they allow you to approach identity formation more deliberately, holistically, thoughtfully.”.

The question is– What determines this outcome? And the answer may be one’s own sense of agency.

Schools and a Sense of Agency

If we consider most traditional educational systems, it is easy to see that they promote a culture of compliance, which strengthens a fragile sense of agency in today’s students.

To start, as Peter Senge describes it, children learn how to “please the teacher, avoid wrong answers and raise their hands when they know the right answer, and how to be quiet when they feel lost” or uncertain (p.39). If students feel no control in their learning environments, they will struggle to develop the essential sense of agency, to direct their lives, or foresee impact of their actions on others.

Standardized tests are another factor that affects developing agency. By their very design, these tests measure only two forms of human intelligence – linguistic and logical-mathematical – and therefore, exclude many children from the realm of the smart, communicating intellectual deficits to students. This could drastically impact their faith in own abilities and capabilities.

Finally, in our current system of education, math and reading are largely the focus of the comparisons between schools, which leaves arts programming with progressively less attention, depriving students of opportunities for creative self-discovery.

What can we do today to empower children and to help them feel in charge of their lives?  We can intentionally design experiences, environments, and interactions that foster the discovery and development of the self.

Incorporate Unstructured Play

Unstructured play allows children to develop necessary social skills, dip into their imaginations, and learn about themselves.  Studies in developmental psychology have demonstrated that play supports children in developing their intellectual and emotional self-regulation.  Because self-regulation involves the self-efficacy mechanism that impacts thought, motivation, and action, it is essential for the development of personal agency.

Increase Time on the Arts

Children need outlets, both at school and at home, to creatively express themselves. Erik Takeshita, the Bush Foundation’s Portfolio Director and a ceramic artist, puts it well, “Transforming mud into a usable object that has permanence, […] gives you a sense of power. The same is true with painting a mural, composing a song or performing a spoken-word piece. Making art is an act of creation that gives people a sense of agency—the experience that they can change the physical world and the world of the people around them.”

Provide Opportunities for Making and Tinkering

We need to design spaces that invite random exploration. According to Andrew Goodin, a Makerspace Teacher from Missouri, by setting aside spaces and materials, for kids to become “active participants in creating their own knowledge,” we allow them to “be driven by the products they hope to create as they push themselves to learn whatever skills are necessary to make it a reality” Processes of making and tinkering, particularly working with hands, are an especially effective builder of agency.

Encourage Thinking and Questioning

Thinking is something most children enjoy because they see immediately that it gives them more control. Shifting instruction from ‘teacher-driven’ to ‘student-led’ is a powerful way to allow students take a lead in meaningful conversations. Learners take an active role in learning and focus on their thinking, while reflecting upon questions.  When children pose questions and investigate the answers, they feel in charge of their learning, exercise their sense of agency, and develop valuable and complex problem-solving skills.

Involve Students in Projects

Authentic learning environments foster creative thinking. Connecting learning to the real world is an effective tool to build a sense of agency. When it is real in addressing issues that affect other people, students’ emotional reactions blend with the desire to contribute to the wellbeing of others and to make a difference in their lives.  Additionally, as noted by Nan Hathaway and Diane Jaquith, students “practice ideation, make decisions, find relevance, and create meaning. They build confidence in their abilities.”

What’s Next?

To put it in a perspective, the world needs a self-aware, adaptable, ethical generation of human beings, capable of navigating their lives. On the other hand, youth today exhibit anxiety and antipathy to risk-taking. As educators and parents, we have to re-visit how our students spend their time. We need to increase their opportunities for unstructured play, independent thinking, creative expression, and meaningful contribution. We need to help them build their sense of agency.

For more on student agency, check out:

Arina Bokas, Ph.D., is the editor of Kids’ Standard Magazine and the host of The Future of Learning TV Series in Clarkston, Michigan. She is on the faculty at Charles S. Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. Follow Arina on Twitter, @arinabokas.

Rod Rock, Ed.D. is the Superintendent of Clarkston Community Schools in Clarkston, Michigan. Follow Rod on Twitter, @RodRock1.

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