Part 2: Toward a Culturally-Responsive Understanding of Student Agency

Insights   11 September 2018
By Jennifer Davis Poon, Center for Innovation in Education

 

As educators, we must consider these questions with urgency because otherwise, we risk viewing student agency through a dominant cultural frame of reference.

Jennifer Davis Poon
FELLOW, CENTER FOR INNOVATION IN EDUCATION

This article is the second part of a two-part series exploring student agency as it has been defined through decades of research and how we can apply the lessons learned in a culturally-competent frame.


When researching my previous article on the meaning of “student agency,” I sifted through mounds of academic literature and many leading practitioners’ working definitions to suggest an emerging consensus that can guide the development of agency in students. In doing so, a subset of voices stood out to me for questioning the cultural frame of reference that informs how each of us understands agency. Even if we can find consensus around a theoretical definition for student agency, will we all agree on what it looks like in action?

More specifically, in what ways might a student’s identity—including gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other factors—shape their expression of agency? In what ways might adults’ sociocultural identities influence how we perceive student agency? As educators, we must consider these questions with urgency because otherwise, we risk viewing student agency through a dominant cultural frame of reference.

Speaking on race, Edward Fergus, a black Latino male, confronts colorblindness, which he defines as the personal and institutional bias that endorses a dominant cultural frame of reference and prevents people from understanding the actions and motivations of people of color.

“If you are not seeing my color,” he says to a white female friend, “that means you are treating me like yourself, which means that at some point I will do or say something that does not fit the image of the white woman you were treating me like.” To disregard sociocultural identity is to misunderstand the motivations and behaviors of others, especially those who have been historically marginalized.

Frame of reference matters when we’re looking at agency. As I described in the first article of this series, student agency is more than a fleeting behavior. “Agency” is defined by scholars as a four-part concept including an individual’s ability to set advantageous goals; initiate action toward those goals; reflect and revise course; and internalize self-efficacy.

 

Educators are—and should be—striving to see student behavior as a complex product of many personal and situational factors that include but are not limited to one’s race and gender.

Jennifer Davis Poon
FELLOW, CENTER FOR INNOVATION IN EDUCATION

Agency is not just about acting but about acting in the service of goals that are determined to be advantageous. Deciding what is advantageous is contextual and value-laden in ways that affect how people of different backgrounds perform—and perceive—agency.

Let’s look at a hypothetical learner-centered environment somewhere in America. Students are huddled in groups working on final projects. In the corner, one group’s progress has been halted by a disagreement over direction. One group member, Mark, proposes a solution and, immediately after sharing the idea with the group, brings over the educator to solicit feedback. Another group member, Lai Yun, was working on a different idea, but she decides not to share it because everyone already seems enthusiastic about Mark’s idea. Davontae, a third group member, has yet to engage.

Who is demonstrating agency, ownership, and responsibility for their learning?
If reading this hypothetical description caused your blood pressure to rise, it’s no doubt because this fictional scene is laden with unfair stereotypes. The “self-effacing Asian female” and the “disengaged black male” are typecasts representing biases that culturally-aware educators seek to overcome.

Educators are—and should be—striving to see student behavior as a complex product of many personal and situational factors that include but are not limited to one’s race and gender. Still, in our attempt to see past stereotypes, we should not go to the opposite extreme of disregarding diversity altogether. We must seek to understand individuals for who they are, including the ways that their race, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors influence how they experience and navigate everyday life.

 

We must ask: Is a student who chooses to relinquish their interests for the purpose of maintaining group harmony in fact acting with purpose-driven agency?

Jennifer Davis Poon
FELLOW, CENTER FOR INNOVATION IN EDUCATION

Research on agency and identity raises questions about how culture influences how people make decisions about what goals and actions are desirable. For example, researchers Markus and Kitayama (1991) note a difference between Western and non-Western cultures in the extent to which desired goals are individual versus collective. They suggest that because Western culture considers people to be unique and distinct individuals, Westerners tend to value the promotion of individual goals, self-expression, and “saying what’s on your mind.”

By contrast, Markus and Kitayama suggest it is more typical of non-Western cultures to perceive the self as interconnected and interdependent with other people in one’s social group. Therefore, non-Westerners tend to value fitting in, promoting others’ goals, and “reading other’s minds.”

While it would be foolish to categorize all people based on blanket assumptions—that is stereotyping at its worst—such cultural analysis begins to shed light on how two individuals could arrive at strikingly different notions of what it means to act with agency.

As Hernandez and Iyengar (2001) explain, for those with an independent or Western-like notion of self, “agency will be experienced as an effort to express one’s internal needs, rights, and capacities and to withstand undue social pressure.” That is, to have Emersonian self-reliance.

On the other hand, for those with an interdependent or collective notion of self, Hernandez and Iyengar contend agency is exercised when one seeks to “be receptive to others, to adjust to their needs and demands, and to restrain one’s own inner needs or desires.” That is, to practice Confucian altruism and restraint. And, while some might think it desirable to pursue actions that are both self-serving and benefit the greater good, Hernandez and Iyengar’s research suggests that this, too, is a Western notion.

To non-Westerners, “it may be regarded as selfish, immature, or disloyal to act in accord with personal attitudes—or even to express such attitudes—if they conflict with the maintenance of a smooth, social equilibrium.” Therefore, we must ask: Is a student who chooses to relinquish their interests for the purpose of maintaining group harmony in fact acting with purpose-driven agency?

 

Indeed, peeling back layers of bias from our interpretations of student agency can surface many questions that aren’t easy to answer.

Jennifer Davis Poon
FELLOW, CENTER FOR INNOVATION IN EDUCATION

We must also seek to disentangle our understanding of agency from historical and hierarchical dynamics of power. Does our definition allow us to consider the ways in which our country’s history of racism and male chauvinism has produced structures and systems that constrain some individuals’ freedom to act?

And, when individuals set goals and take action within these constraints, do we identify their actions as valid expressions of agency, or are we biased toward only those actions that would be performed by unconstrained members of power?

In the words of Caroline Hill, founder of the DC Equity Lab and 228 Accelerator, “the agency needed to survive looks different than the agency needed to thrive” but both should be understood as agency (personal communication, October 13, 2017).

Indeed, peeling back layers of bias from our interpretations of student agency can surface many questions that aren’t easy to answer. For example, when students in learner-centered environments are identifying life goals or career pathways, is there a universally correct way to accommodate the preferences of their parents; or need we be more mindful of the ways that different cultural groups navigate parent-student relationships?

When we try to observe agency through student behavior—like in this recent study—is it sufficient to measure signs of engagement, effort, and “good conduct;” or should we seek a more culturally-relevant understanding of students’ non-compliance? What is the possibility that a seemingly disengaged student, like Davontae in the example above, is embracing what Kevin Cokley calls a “larger movement of African American agency that is demanding of more culturally appropriate and relevant education?”

 

To quote Edward Fergus, proponents of student agency “run the risk of building more educational reforms that see marginalized populations as the problem.”

Jennifer Davis Poon
FELLOW, CENTER FOR INNOVATION IN EDUCATION

There is one thing we should not take lightly: that in the absence of collectively pursuing a culturally-responsive understanding of student agency, our national discourse defaults to a white-affluent frame of reference.

A respected report on student agency by the Chicago Consortium on School Research (CCSR) takes an admirable step forward by focusing on students’ integrated identity, defined as “a sense of internal consistency of who one is across time and across multiple social identities… [that] serves as an internal framework for making choices and provides a stable base from which one can act in the world.” Even so, this same publication writes that “a wide range of cultural traditions, values, and expectations can play a constraining or enabling role to the development of agency” (p. 21, emphasis mine).

Perhaps unintentionally, the latter statement seems to define agency as a white cultural phenomenon that other cultures can impair. The publication goes on to suggest some students face “very real challenges to developing agency” because they have been exposed to violence, stress, and “limited access to experiences and opportunities that allow children and adolescents to explore, learn, and try on different roles and identities.”

To be fair, the report’s authors are presumably reflecting on the very real constraints to building social capital that members of non-mainstream sociocultural groups experience. My point is not at all to disparage this important CCSR report but, instead, is to urge all of us not to conflate social capital with agency. The accumulation of white-affluent social capital is an important enabler to economic mobility but it is not, by any means, the only valid expression of agency.

Let’s go back to the learning environment described above: are Mark, Lai Yun, and Davontae demonstrating agency, ownership, and responsibility for their learning? I certainly can’t tell you. In fact, we have little way of knowing unless we seek these students’ own perspectives on their goals and actions.

Educators, we must take care not to be the sole arbiters of what agency looks like. Instead, if the goal is to start measuring students’ progress toward agency as a key outcome for school-based learning, let it be through conversations with students, undergirded by mutual trust. Only in reciprocal discourse with students (i.e. with the “agents” themselves) can we truly understand—and advise—their goal-setting, action-taking, reflection, and self-efficacy. We can get better at this by practicing non-evaluative, open-ended questioning; sharpening what the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) observation tool calls “regard for student perspectives”; building better relationships with students; and establishing a culture of trust and collaboration.

Lastly, for those who lead or influence broader education systems, let’s join local communities in intentional, culturally-responsive, color-brave conversations about student agency. Otherwise, to quote Fergus, proponents of student agency “run the risk of building more educational reforms that see marginalized populations as the problem.” Let’s examine student agency as a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that requires each of us to step out from behind our singular perspectives.


Care to build-on or push-back? Tweet your thoughts to @JDPoon!

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