One of the things I’ve come to believe over the past year is that agency is at the heart of powerful learning. It is the defining element of what we describe as learner-centered. Agency distinguishes learner-centered environments from school-centered. Out of this belief has developed a natural curiosity about agency and formal leadership.
If we want our classrooms to be cultures of learning where young learners regularly exercise agency, shouldn’t formal leaders be focused on creating the same culture throughout the school/district where everyone – including other leaders and teachers – exercises powerful levels of agency?
This is a question that, I believe, is at the heart of leading learner-centered environments and one that my colleague, Lynn Fuini-Hetten, and I have been exploring through our work on the Shift Your Paradigm podcast.
Using the Practitioner’s Lexicon as a guide, here are some thoughts on what distinguishes agency as an element of formal leadership:
What agency in leadership is…
- having available freedom of choice in areas that matter to the leaders, teachers, learners and all stakeholders in the school or district. Choices are co-created with stakeholders (including other leaders, policymakers, teachers and learners) based on input and feedback. Think “design thinking.” Think of this distinction as the “what.” Think of this, also, as a necessary external condition outside of the leader.
- having the capacity/will/motivation to exercise choice. This is a necessary internal condition. The spark to act on available co-created choices comes from inside the leader.
- recognizing that this is one of the learner-centered leadership mindsets that takes time and effort to develop though iteration, reflection and learning. Learner-centered leaders will grow into this way of thinking.
What agency in leadership is not…
- figuring out what others want
- implementing initiatives according to someone else’s prescription
If we want to increase the level of agency throughout the organization, what are the barriers blocking formal leaders from exercising agency and creating the conditions for it?
- Dominant Paradigm – This is the school-centered paradigm of regulation and system requirements: standards, curriculum, grades, grade levels and choices created solely by policy-makers and other leaders. The dominant paradigm doesn’t want us to make choices. It just wants our compliance. Learn what Iowa BIG (a public school that understands agency) is doing to push back on the system with alternative choices and taking action to create a system with agency at its core. Read A School of Our Own: The Story of the First Student-Run High School and a New Vision for American Education, where a high school students created a learner-centered school within a public high school. (Podcast interview coming soon on TLTalkRadio.org.)
- Fear – Fear of accountability, in the negative sense. The term accountability more positively refers to responsibility and is tied closely with agency. Responsibility can be scary because we have to own our actions when things go right, and when they go wrong. We fear not having that “out” of blaming someone else. It’s now totally on us and not the system. We also fear not getting it right the first time – of failing. A lifetime of working in a compliance system has conditioned us to believe we could be sanctioned if we don’t comply to the letter. That fear causes us to surrender our agency and control, even when we know it is not in the best interest of our learners. In an upcoming episode of the Shift Your Paradigm podcast, Nancy Otero, Founding Director of Project Based Learning at the Portfolio School in New York City, encourages us to create prototypes of ideas/choices, reflect upon that work, learn and create further models. Taking small steps with prototypes can diminish the fear of failures and risk of negative accountability.
- Loneliness – Lynn shared this idea recently, and I think it applies to why we don’t exercise agency when we probably should. Making the choice that goes agains the dominant conversation about education and learning can feel lonely. A powerful way to break that loneliness is to engage the local community in conversation and build the relational element that will break the loneliness and move your leadership and organization forward. At the same time, engage the larger national and global community, contributing to the work of elevating the non-dominant conversation – learner-centered education. Both Lynn and I have found our work on the Shift Your Paradigm podcast has helped us connect with and learn from others working in the non-dominant paradigm and exercising agency in their leadership in amazing ways. We have also discovered two valuable mentor texts: Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging and Suzie Boss’s All Together Now: How to Engage Your Stakeholders in Reimagine Your School. (Podcast interview coming soon on TLTalkRadio.org.)
What are the barriers blocking you from exercising agency in your leadership? What are the observable outcomes when we exercise agency in our practice as school leaders?
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