Agency

In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

My daughter asked me to teach her 4 her old son, my gorgeous grandson, how to write numbers. Now I willingly take every opportunity to teach. A comment was once made that if I could I would teach a goldfish to dance. It was made after I had spoken about how I had trained my cat to do tricks like a dog. She would sit, roll over, wait etc. Jess, was a delicious cat who would do anything to be stroked. That was the was the way I trained Jess. Strokes in exchange for doing the trick.

I think it is clear that we would not use such a simplistic behavioural technique to teach children in school. Although all teaching will have some element of reward based training. In teaching we would be aiming to support intrinsic rewards, the value a learner puts on the success they gain from being able to complete a problem, for example.

So what does this have to do with agency? My grandson, Kyran (pronounced as in Kieran), said he did not want to learn how to write numbers. He and I have a great relationship so after asking him why. He said that he could not do it. I said that he could as I would teach him and related how I had taught him other stuff. To count to 100, build a very tall lego tower and also, critically, to type his name and to recognise numbers on a computer. He learned this stuff quite easily so I knew he certainly could write numbers.

He was choosing to avoid writing numbers. It was not that he could not. I said it was that he could not write number yet. I’ve done the growth mindset training 😀.

So I was then thinking about which number he should learn first. He is four years old so I choose 4. Not written like that but as three lines, two vertical and one horizontal. He likes being four years old. I drew the number 4 and explained the vertical and horizontal parts. He holds the pencil poorly but that will come in time. He immediately drew the number 4. Lots of praise (a bit like stroking the cat!). He can now write the number 4.

I then asked what number he would like to do next. He said 5. Too hard at the moment, I said so we drew the number one. Great success. Bit more practice and then there will be more tomorrow.

If I were to teach secondary pupils then I would not do much more for a reluctant pupil. Am I allowing a child to have agency? Is it harder to get young children to accept their responsibility for learning? Is that why agency seems to be a more important issue for teachers of young children than for teachers of older children? Do some teachers see valuing agency above valuing responsibility? Or what?

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