In Search of Agency

It sure seems like a lot of things just happen to people. You know, beyond our control and all. We’re well-intentioned, and rocking along, and all of a sudden, but on a pretty regular basis, something just happens.

And we are helpless in the face of all this happening stuff. Right?

Of course not, but when it comes to teaching and learning, I have come to see that way more often than I’m comfortable with, teachers and students alike just let their schooling happen to them rather than acknowledging that they have control over what and how and even when they learn. Even in the face of mandates and political pressure. Even then.

But folks feel helpless more than I think they actually are.  Learning, or school, or whatever, seems to happen to them, rather than the other way around.  It’s supposed to be the other way around.  Folks are supposed to own their actions and habits and the way they spend their time.  And our culture too often supports passivity and compliance.

I feel like folks forget they are the agents of their experiences.  We have agency.  Power. Control.  Maybe not over everything that happens.  Certainly not all.  But over more than we realize more often than not.

So how might we work to build agency in teachers and learners?  Let me simplify that question – how can we help folks develop the ability to recognize the constraints of a situation and to begin to play with them?

As I delve more into elements of play and hacking, and even maker culture, it seems to me that there’s fertile ground there.  Play, if you recall, is the ability to move freely within constraints.  Hacking is the ability to see the system – and a problem with it – and work to improve it.  Making is creating.  It’s fiddling with the constraints of lots of different systems.  Yarn.  Blocks.  Food.  Circuits.  Classrooms.  Textbooks.  Laws.  Whatever.

Hacking and making and playing are how you figure out where the constraints are, and how you might be able to fiddle with them.  As well as what happens when you do.  These skills/habits/attitudes/frames of thinking are useful when thinking about developing agency.

That was where I got to in my wondering and thinking when it was time for Michelle and Kyle and I to think about what we’re going to work on next.  And then I got a whiteboard pen in hand.  And we did this (( I should not be allowed to use whiteboards without some serious remedial handwriting work.)):

Enter hacking/making/playing. Or, more specifically, Hack/Make/Play.  It’ll be a multiple day and ongoing PD experience that we do in the district.  In conversation with other folks. If school’s but one node in the learning networks of children, well, we want to play nicely with the other nodes.  And we want to use our time with teachers to help them make things.  To help them understand how to identify building blocks.  And to help them figure out when and how to take things apart and put them back together differently.

Building on others’ successes in maker and hacking spaces, and on the idea that learning is, to some extent, playing with information, deconstructing and reconstructing it, we would like to create some professional learning experiences that would help people to begin to feel equipped, and to a more important extent, empowered, or permissioned, or whatever the word is for “it’s okay to do this”-ed in order to build those senses of agency for teachers and students and anyone involved in learning.

Right now, it’s just notes on a board.  And messy ones.  We started thinking about a week-long camp.  But that wasn’t right.  We want lots of entry points into this kind of thinking.  Lots of ways to engage and get involved.  So the “days” I spell out are probably not going to happen sequentially.  We don’t know yet.  But I do think that each of them is a kind of entry point.  Hacking the Web seems an important way of thinking.  Making stuff another.  Hacking curriculum?  Well, you get the idea.

The essential question at the bottom is, I think, the big piece – “How do I approach a system to determine where my agency lies?”  If you’re able to play, you can see the constraints.  To see them, you’ve got to know how and where to look.  Hacking, making and playing seem to be useful ways to answer that question.  Not the only ways – not everyone needs to play with Picocrickets, or build toy cars.  Heck, the knitting circles I’m familiar with in our district likely embody the ethos we’re aiming for.  Everyone needs to be making something.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll begin to flesh it out and look for the connective tissue that will hold various groups of hackers, makers, and players around our district together.  In some cases, we’ll probably start new groups.  In others, we might help existing groups to find one another.  I don’t know.  But I do know that something I said earlier in this post is worth saying again – there’s fertile ground here.  Hackers and makers and gamers are really good at learning.

You might already be farming spaces like these – so I’m asking: Where do we go next?

14 thoughts on “In Search of Agency

  1. monika hardy says:

    kool beans Bud.

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