agency vs entitlement

airnz-sick-pilotEarlier this year I was on a flight from Auckland to Canada which had to make an unscheduled stopover in Hawaii to offload a passenger who had become seriously ill. I was very impressed by the way the Air New Zealand staff handled the incident and went about making sure every passenger was catered for in terms of their plans once they arrived in Vancouver, and whilst there was the inconvenience of having my sleep disrupted and having to wait for a bit in Vancouver for a new onward flight to Toronto, the general response of passengers was one of understanding and tolerance given the plight of the person needing to be offloaded – although I was within earshot of one person speaking quite angrily to his colleague about how he was now going to miss his onward flight, and how inconsiderate it was to divert the plane for the sake of just one sick passenger… (and on he went).

I was reminded of that incident last week when I read an article in the NZ Herald titled “Chaos, re-booking and check-in ‘chaos’ for passengers after flight to Hong Kong returns with sick pilot.” I guess in this age of so much air travel such events will happen more often – in this case, a pilot who became ill. This time, it seems, the incident wasn’t handled as smoothly as it was in my case – based purely on reading this article – for example:

“It’s flipping bonkers here,” said the passenger. “Only two people on at Air NZ, one man screaming and swearing in line that he’s going to sue, kids asleep everywhere.”

Seriously? Someone was threatening to sue? Who? And for what? And why??

The point of my morning reflection is that all of this reminds me of the work I do in schools on a regular basis at the moment, helping design learning for students where they are given more choice, responsibility and ‘say’ over their learning – i.e. more agency.

The simple definition of agency means that you have choices and the ability to act on those choices. In this modern age of travel we are privileged to have so many choices available to us, including modes of travel and places to travel to. If we decide to travel by air our choices extend to where in the plane we might sit, what movies to watch and what sort of menu we’d prefer to be served for instance.

But agency isn’t about making these choices based purely on our own preferences and needs. The process of making these choices will necessarily take into account the preferences and needs of others who are sharing the experience – and will be limited by choices made on our behalf (i.e. by the airline) about the seat fittings, the range of movies on offer, and the temperature of the cabin etc. We’ll take our turn to visit the bathroom and conform with requests to turn the lights out during ‘sleep time’ etc.

Expecting to have everything available to us when we want it and how we want it isn’t agency – that’s entitlement! A key focus of agency is responsibility – to self, to others and to the environment we share. A part of being agentic involves understanding and working within the constraints of ensuring that what we want doesn’t impinge on or deny the rights of others

As teachers and schools make changes to the way they work with their learners – moving from a largely ‘transmissive’ mode of teaching, shifting the locus of control in the classroom increasingly to the learner, offering him or her a greater degree of choice and ownership over what is learned and how it is learned etc. – it is important that this view of agency is maintained.

Generally this process is resulting in greater levels of engagement and participation in learning, leading to increased levels of achievement. It’s not always an easy road to get there however, with some educators not appreciating their role in the process, mistaking their  supporting this shift in ownership for an abdication of responsibility. Providing students with the opportunity to have more control of their learning and to take greater responsibility for all aspects of that is not about simply letting go and dropping them in the deep end. Neither is it about pandering to the specific needs of an individual student at the expense of all other learners in the cohort.

To neglect the focus on the broader definition of agency will result, as illustrated in the airline delay stories above, in the individuals mistaking the privilege of agency for the right of entitlement. There is  close relationship between the fully realised characteristics of agency and the development of collaborative practice – for me the two go hand in hand. To be fully agentic means you are not only experiencing the personal fulfilment of being able to act on the choices before you, but you acknowledge and respect the concept of the social contract that enables us to exist in a synergistic way with those we share your environment with.

Sadly, this confusion exists in many areas of our society today, with the focus on ‘self’ and the sense of entitlement evident in so many areas – this is why the focus on learner agency in our education system is so important – and even more important, that it is done with a deep understanding of what agency is all about!

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