School & District Management Opinion

2018 - The Year of Agency, Take 2

By Beth Holland — December 28, 2017 5 min read
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A few days ago, a colleague asked if I had come across any end-of-year posts summarizing the edtech advancements of 2017 and projecting to 2018. The request made me look back through my own articles to see when I last wrote anything similar. In December of 2015, I wrote The Year of Agency for Edutopia. I realize that since then, the word agency has reached buzzword status, but not in the sense that I had hoped.

At the time, I defined agency as the opportunity for students to act independently and to assume control of their learning environment. In writing that post, I naively believed that 2016 might be the year that education conversations would move away from tools, apps, devices, and “integrating technology into the curriculum” towards changing the notion of education itself. My hope had been that schools would shift from places of “teaching” to communities of learning.

Just over a year later, Sean Michael Morris - director of the Digital Pedagogy Lab - framed the idea of agency in a new light. He defined it not as “giving control” or assuming power, but as discovering the relationship between authority and freedom. He cited the work of philosopher Paulo Freire and described agency as both the freedom that comes from learning and a deep understanding of imposed limits. In this sense, agency emerges through knowledge and wisdom, ultimately allowing students to gain mastery - not of content or competencies or skills - but of their own critical thinking.

Author and educator, Will Richardson, quoted Morris in his post Playing at “Agency just a few days later. Richardson warned that agency, this ideal that I had hoped for in 2016, had fallen victim to the same fate as most initiatives in education. Rather than change the environment itself, agency had become enculturated into existing systems and structures.

For the past two years, agency has become synonymous with “choice.” Not real choice, more like the kind where you ask a child if they prefer blueberries or strawberries even though you could care less what they choose as long as it is fruit. As Richardson wrote, in this same vein, we have started “playing at agency” through choices of technology or how to consume content. Some students might gain full freedom, for short periods, through a Genius Hour or a Maker Course. And yet, in each situation, agency is bounded by the institutional norms of traditional education.

In reflecting on the writings of both Morris and Richardson, I realize that agency can only develop when students exist in an environment of collective capacity - when they see themselves as a community of learners working towards a shared objective and understanding. Not an “objective” like demonstrating an ability to conjugate a verb, or regroup numbers, or describe the events leading up to the start of some historical calamity, but one that students themselves identify as a community. If we want students to take agency, to assume control over their own learning, then classrooms need to embrace a culture of shared intellectual growth and deep respect of the individual voices that contribute to the development of the group.

Skeptics may say that I am writing another idealistic end-of-year post, and they may be right. Within the current institutions of school, this vision of agency may only be possible in pockets, in the classrooms where teachers close the door and do what they believe is best for their students despite - or in spite of - external constraints such as mandated curriculum or standardized tests. For decades, there have been calls for reform, and lately for “transformation,” but never for a change in the institution that perpetuates these norms and values (Chubb & Moe, 1990).

A few years ago, a report from researchers at McKinsey described how the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better (Mourshed, Chijioke, & Barber, 2010). They explained that schools, as systems, progressed along a continuum from Poor to Fair, Fair to Good, Good to Great, and Great to Excellent. The three American systems in the report included Boston Public Schools, Long Beach Public Schools, and the Aspire Charter network. Each had progressed to Good though none had achieved greatness. Great systems possess a common language of pedagogy beyond just isolated instructional strategies. Their leaders and educators regularly and openly share their practice, and they operate as a professional community rather than a bureaucracy. Excellent systems then leverage that shared language, culture, coherence, and community to innovate and systemically make improvements (Mourshed et al., 2010).

According to the Worldwide Educating for the Futures Index, the systems best prepared for the future are those that ensure students learn how to learn (Walton, 2017). Excellent systems create conditions where students engage in critical thinking, ask complex questions, seek out novel solutions, co-construct new knowledge, and ultimately develop their own sense of agency within a community of learners. For 2018, my hope is that education leaders will start to challenge the institution, to demand the development of a language of pedagogy within their districts and schools, and to model transparency and sharing in support of building learning communities. I hope that educators will collaborate, communicate, and share their practice for the betterment of these communities. Finally, I hope that the outside stakeholders - the parents, school boards, politicians, business leaders, and the rest of the civic community - will recognize that it is time to challenge the institution of school and demand that leaders, as well as educators, do so.

Once again, I hope that 2018 will be the year of agency, but this time, not just for the students.


Chubb, J. E., & Moe, T. M. (1990). Politics, markets, and America’s schools. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute.

Mourshed, M., Chijioke, C., & Barber, M. (2010). How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from //www.mckinsey.com/industries/social-sector/our-insights/how-the-worlds-most-improved-school-systems-keep-getting-better

Walton, N. (2017). Worldwide educating for the future index. The Economist Intelligence Unit. Retrieved from //dkf1ato8y5dsg.cloudfront.net/uploads/5/80/eiu-yidan-prize-educating-for-the-future-wp-final.pdf

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