The problem of agency

Yesterday, John Warner responded to an Anya Kamenetz story on Purdue’s Course Signals initiative. Course Signals reported successes have been questioned, but I want to focus on something else. Warner writes:

For example, what if one of our goals for students is the development of agency, the ability to negotiate and exert control over their own lives? What if we believe this is an important goal because it is significantly correlated not only with success, but happiness and well-being?…What if we believe that failure is a productive part of learning?  What if we worry that their adult lives will not come with Course Signal warnings?

It’s at least implied here that the sort of things Course Signals does prevents students from developing their own sense of agency.  That may well be so.  I also agree that failure can be a valuable part of learning.  However, for failure to be a catalyst for learning, failing has to be low risk.  For most students, it is anything but.

Students may learn from failure that they are on financial aid probation or suspension, and thus can no longer receive funding.  Even if that isn’t the case, lifetime Pell limits and the 150% rule place strict boundaries on the amount of failure one is permitted to learn from.

Warner suggests that intrusive support doesn’t foster learner agency, but he doesn’t recommend an alternative.  Most of the time, we encourage agency by giving freedom to students and hoping they make good choices.  Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t actually do much to help a student who doesn’t know how to manage his or her life and learning figure out how to do it.  For these students, agency has to come in small doses.  You can allow them to pick their own topic for the major project, but they need a detailed road map explaining all the steps and how to do them.  You probably need to make those intermediate steps graded assignments in their own right, so you can see if a student is falling behind.  Wait a minute, that sounds a little bit like Course Signals. I suppose you could encourage agency by making students create their own plan and identify their own milestones.

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