My Inspiration - Readiness for the World Beyond High School
My interest in the topic of this project is directly related to the fact that I, as the co-teacher of the only 12th-Grade Humanities class that our school offers, am one of only two teachers that all seniors are guaranteed to see. This makes me something of a gatekeeper for their entry to the outside world, and makes me responsible for making sure that my students have the skills they need to be successful in the outside world. Our students, like most students, have grown accustomed to the last 13 years of having adults that would seek them out to teach them how to be successful in challenging situations, but such things simply aren’t as available once they leave high school (actively involved family members and support systems, for those fortunate enough to have them, notwithstanding). Since my responsibility is to make sure that students know how and where to figure out how to be successful in the events that will occur in their lives, finding a way to better help students develop agency skills became paramount.
Human agency is a relatively simple concept, defined as the “initiative and capacity to act in a desired direction or toward desired goals” (Toshalis and Nakkula 2012 pg. 27).The development of agency skill in the classroom however, defined in this context as a student’s willingness to seek challenge, solicit and respond to feedback, and persevere in the face of academic adversity, has long been a problem in high school classrooms. Historically, formal grades and the weight that they possess (access to premier colleges, academic scholarship consideration, parent approval, etc.) have been the primary driving force in keeping students accountable for their own learning. Grades, however, purely by their inherently external nature, do not work to help all students value and develop persistence in the face of education’s intimately internal challenges. In fact, the structure of grades has been shown to have largely deleterious effects on the achievement and willingness to learn of some groups of students. (Kohn 1999, Deci and Ryan 1985) If external rewards and punishments don’t work, then how can we encourage students to challenge themselves and grow?
Humans are born with many of the skills associated with agency (namely, a sense of curiosity, interest in exploration, and a desire to learn about the world around them), and this is what causes toddlers and children to constantly test the world around them even in the face of challenge. However, the structure of traditional education has been shown to result in a steady decrease of student motivation over time (Lepper, Corpus, & Iyengar 2005). As such, if we intend to have students continue to develop these skills of agency, we must create educational experiences that match the purpose and authenticity of the learning experiences that developed these skills in the first place.
Efforts have been made to teach students the skills associated with agency, as well as to give them structured opportunities to practice these skills. Formalized opportunities to get peer feedback and structured worksheets with which students can reflect on their own academic performance are examples of such structures. Others, such as Rector-Aranda and Raider-Roth (2015) have shown the ways in which structured, semi-authentic role-playing lessons can also be used to help students practice agency skills. While it is true that a certain amount of education is needed when it comes to any new skill that a student might use, over-formalizing any process runs the very serious risk of having students not develop an understanding of the true purpose of the skill itself. In short, the problem with formalizing a process in class is that it removes the process from the context in which it naturally lives, which robs the student of the ability to identify when the process could be used in their unguided, real life. Plus, a lack of understanding leads simply to a lack of motivation. The question is, therefore, what can we do to encourage students to practice agency skills authentically in a classroom setting?