An Agent for Agency (A new term for an enduring idea)

August 28, 2013


Paul CurtisAbout a year ago, I started to hear a new term being thrown around education circles … agency.  In most dictionaries, agency refers to an organization or entity such as a government agency.  In the world of education we mean it as the capacity of the learner to act as an advocate for their own success.  This includes more concrete things like turning in complete homework on time or doing your best work and less measurable things like persistence, resilience and a growth mindset.

This summer, New Tech Network launched its reimagined School Success Rubric that describes the knowledge, skills and attributes required to thrive in college, careers and civic life.  In a nation that is currently very focused on content standards and testing each student’s level of knowledge acquisition, New Tech Network has sought to balance that equation by focusing on agency and drawing attention to those attributes that research is telling us are key to success.

New Tech Network is also committing to the idea that agency is something a person can develop over time.  Carol Dweck’s work on mindset shows us that even the language we use to reward a learner’s success has an impact on how they define success and can influence how they process failure in the future.  It turns out, praising a learner for his or her natural talent and ability actually sets them up for failure.  Because they believe success is based on innate ability, when they experience failure, they assume it’s because they don’t have the ability to be successful and give up.  A learner praised for success resulting from hard work come to understand failure as a temporary setback.  They experiences failure as an obstacle to be overcome by hard work and will double their efforts to meet the challenge.

The research is pretty clear, personal attributes have significant influence on success and unless we pay closer attention to develop them, our students will be handicapped.  New Tech Network has chosen to focus its attention on a few attributes that we think will have the biggest impact in our classrooms and beyond.


“Students are very confident in many settings and demonstrate the attributes of highly effective people including resilience, patience, adaptability, and persistence.”


“Students see challenges as learning opportunities and believe that if they work at something, their performance will improve.  They believe that they are capable of achieving at high levels across a broad spectrum of disciplines.  Students regularly refine their work and reflect on their performance.”


“Students demonstrate the capacity to be self-directed in making choices that will affect their current and future success while seeking the advice and guidance of trusted allies.”


“Students accept the responsibility of their actions, and although they recognize external circumstances, focus on their own choices and behaviors instead.”

Not surprisingly, there is nothing new on this list.  Educators, employers and parents would probably come up with these same attributes in almost any century. These are enduring attributes that cross all disciplines, career fields and social context.  So then, what’s the big idea behind agency?  I think the big idea is that agency is developed not inherited.  Teachers and schools systems can have a significant impact on the development (or repression) of these attributes.  If we pay attention to them, we can grow them.  Who doesn’t want a room full of learners who are confident, self-directed, responsible, and eager to learn?