Student agency Part 1: What is agency?

Exploring agency and motivation

student agency In this series of posts we will explore what agency in education means, and how parents can provide their students with opportunities to express agency, and how tutors can do the same.

Part one introduces the concept of agency and its link to motivation.
I once worked at a job in a museum. I was about 16 so I didn’t have much responsibility, but I was in charge of restocking the postcards.  I had to identify which postcards needed topping up and then search all of the postcards in the storeroom to find right ones.

One day I realised that if the postcards on display were in the same order as the postcards in storage, then my job would be far easier. I spent an afternoon reorganising the display postcards. Once I was done, if I needed to restock postcards on the third shelf then I could go to the third box in the storeroom.

postcard rackEven though this was a small thing, and largely inconsequential, it would save me time and effort. I was quite pleased with myself.

The next day I came in to work and was devastated to find that the postcards had been put back into some random order. The manager said that she’d noticed I had changed the order, and she’d put them back because they were ‘better that way’. I was too young and foolish to delve any deeper.

Instead, I stopped showing any initiative and ended up leaving a few weeks later for greener pastures.

Agency and motivation

When I was working at the museum I had very little agency. Agency can be defined as ownership over your actions, and the ability to show initiative. Of course we all control our actions at a micro level. I lift my arm, I type these words, I look at the screen. But sometimes these micro actions fit into larger actions that we own. Other times we are simply contributing to actions that someone else owns. 

By changing the order of the postcards I was expressing agency over the small action that was my own – restocking the postcards. Now, perhaps there was some larger action that I was not privy to that the manager was working within. Maybe she had the postcards displayed in a certain way for a reason. I wish that she had shared that reason with me, and tried to understand my reasoning.

Instead, she took away my agency. She showed me that I had no ownership over the action of restocking postcards, and that I was simply there to follow a process like a robot.

I didn’t even need to know the why behind the action, I just needed to do it.

I quickly lost motivation (for an already boring job) and soon left.

Daniel Pink argues that people need three things to be motivated. These are:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

Here I want to focus on autonomy, as it is very similar to agency. In fact Daniel Pink defines autonomy as acting with choice, and of course we can see that choice and ownership over our actions are closely related.

My manager took away my agency, and in doing so destroyed my motivation. Using Daniel Pink’s model we can see that my manager took away any chance for mastery and any sense of purpose.

I sought mastery over the postcard restocking process (as lame as it may sound) by trying to find a way to do it more efficiently. My purpose was faster restocking of the postcards. As soon as I lost the autonomy to make decisions (express agency) over my role the whole motivation structure fell apart.

In one sense we could take Pink’s model and claim that agency forms an overarching category for motivation, and within agency exists autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Agency and education

I’m using my story of postcards as a 16 year old to illustrate how important it is to give students agency over their schooling. Restocking postcards might seem like some pitiful action to gain mastery over, but in the context of an entry level job it might have been all I was really capable of anyway.

You can probably see that the postcard incident was a missed opportunity for my manager to introduce me to the wider purpose of the museum (and the role of postcards within the museum).

In this series of posts we will explore what agency in education means, and how parents can provide their students with opportunities to express agency, and how tutors can do the same.

Part two here (this link will activate once posted – Jesse 17 May 2016).

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