I've been challenged to think a lot about agency, or epistemic agency (and even shared epistemic agency) through my Knowledge Building Communities research over the last three years. I listen to the frustration that those who embrace future focused education and modern learning practices and pedagogies express, about those teachers who hold back, or for whatever reason don't engage.
I think too about my own initial difficulties with taking risks with all aspects of my teaching practice. I think about how teachers have to make a choice between giving themselves to an initiative, or holding back due to the fact they are, on the whole, exhausted from juggling what teaching has become in secondary school settings.
Many teachers are often nervous, watchful, or resistant in their practices. Even plunging headlong into something apparently 'innovative' can leave a teacher plagued with doubt, and nervous about the risk of change. I wonder what the interaction is between our education system, and the impact it has on teacher agency? What has happened to full teacher agency? Why aren't all teachers super excited about their jobs, continually investigating how learning happens, what learning means, what knowing means? My own experience of being an educator is one of submission to a system that seems to demand just that little bit more than what I'm capable of managing.
Its no wonder, I don't think, that activating agency in students seems to be at the heart of effective teaching. Self-motivated students, happy in their learning, curious and driven to discover meaningfulness and a connection to the world that gives them a sense of connection and efficacy... how do you teach agency? How do you teach epistemic agency particularly? Can you?
The elephant in the room? Image Source
What have we created in our education system? Is submitting your agency to another actually at the heart of our schools? Our society? If you submit to your teacher or "the system” (hegemony), you can learn safely; but if you are active in your learning, responsibility then moves from teacher to learner, then learning becomes risky, learning is not ‘safe' anymore, you are functioning outside the accepted system.
No wonder so many students demand to be told what to do, and think that learning is memorising what a teacher says. Do we require our learners to submit to known knowledge, and call it learning? Do we teach students (and ourselves as learners too) that a critical element of learning is submission? When we talk about passive learners, active learners, and agency, are we in effect talking about a politicising of learning?
Though I haven't more then skimmed a few ideas of French philosopher Michael Foucault, I'm sure he talked about the relationship between power and knowledge, and the use of social institutions as a form of hegemonic social control?
When I started to understand what Knowledge Building Communities theory and pedagogy was about three years ago, I remember getting the feeling it could be a powerful tool to destabilise what 20th century learning had become. Now I'm pretty convinced this approach to teaching and learning activates the ideas and vision of a 21st century education that produces epistemic agents that improve their knowledge and understanding through the catalyst of a community. What I didn't expect was that it would do the same for the epistemic agency of the teacher.