Alan McLean describes AGENCY as,

“…Agency, which is basically self-belief, a sense of competence, a sense of self-efficacy, a sense of control. I know how to do this job, I know how to read, I know how to do geography well. The opposite of Agency is apathy.”

It follows, then, that if one of your groups or students is demonstrating a distinct lack of ‘bothered-ness’, then some reflective questions you can pose are:

‘How do I develop a sense of ‘can do’ in my lesson design?’

‘What do I need to do or be like to encourage high levels of self-belief in my students?’

‘How do I need to design learning to deliberately replenish students’ reservoirs of self belief?’

‘How might my language (through questions, oral feedback, written feedback and direct instruction) overtly encourage high levels of self belief and self efficacy?’

‘How can I communicate in a very deliberate way what SPECIFICALLY is required to think and behave like a geographer  / mathematician / artist / scientist…?’

‘What are the characteristics of somebody who can think like this, perform this, analyse this…really well?’

Captured from The Observer 28th October 2012

Judi Dench captured from The Observer 28th October 2012

Quality Learning Conversations

High-agency behaviours are described by McLean in much of his work as:

  • Getting stuck-in
  • Having the ability to innovate
  • Rising to the challenge
  • Creative
  • Take risks
  • Try something new
  • Wanting to improve
  • Showing that you are getting better
  • Wanting to continue to improve

So adapting some of this language when we are in lessons and providing feedback and encouraging self-assessment can be a way to start working on Agency as one of your MLGs.

This is particularly helpful for tutoring and mentoring conversations to try and develop a very focused and specific language of learning and progression with students. Using coaching techniques also comes in handy here and asking students to rate their willingness to ‘get stuck-in’ on a scale of 1-10 and then asking them to come up with the evidence they may have for this can lead to an enlightening conversation. McLean suggests keeping it very solution focused, so if a student assesses themself as 4 out of 10 for getting stuck in, you can respond that 4 is better than 3, but what would you need to do to get a 5?

Owning Your Ambition

Bradley Wiggins, the team leader and ‘arrow-head’ of the Sky Pro Cycling Team, has been on a personal journey to get to the point where he was ready to be the team leader and achieve the successes that were to come his way this summer. Interviews with the team psychologist, made it clear that the role of Dr Steve Peters was integral to all the riders, but in particular, with Bradley Wiggins. Whilst Bradley’s talent is unquestionable in terms of cycling ability, he has worked with Bradley on his levels of self-belief and, as Peters refers to them, his ‘inner chimp’ to really exploit the potential of his talent. There’s a useful explanation of Peters role and his view of the ‘inner chimp’ on the Sky Pro Cycling website and he’s written about it in his book, “The Chimp Paradox”. According to Steve Peters, we are ruled by our un-thinking, reactionary emotions when faced with unfamiliar or challenging situations. Consider your first day of school (as a pupil or an NQT) and you’ll soon start remembering not what happened, but how it felt. That’s the chimp for you. it has no language, no ability to rationalise, it is our inner-most hub of feelings and reactions to the world around us. It is this that is often the determining factor in how well, and, at times, if, we learn.

As the trainers talked about Bradley’s approach to becoming integrated into his new  team and responding to his training plan, they used the word, “compliance”. They said that once all riders, including Bradley, had ‘complied’ to their individual training programmes, then success would inevitably follow. In the sequence that followed, this is exactly what started to happen. Even to the point of Bradley surprising everyone when he won his first ‘bunch’ sprint finish on one of the stages on the Tour of Romandie prior to the Tour de France.

But back to our  learning agenda and that word, ‘compliance’. It feels uncomfortable to talk of any form of compliance when we’re discussing learning. For me, it conjures up the concept of ‘yielding’ or ‘acquiescing’ or even ‘subjugation’. It suggests a pathway to passivity, as opposed to encouraging, if not demanding, active engagement in a process or with a system.  So as I watched the programme, I struggled to find a way in which the concept of compliance might ever be applied to learning and what we ask our learners to do. To what, exactly, must they become compliant? But then, never one to walk away from a thinking struggle, I started to play around with the idea and see if there actually was a way to apply the philosophy of ‘compliance’ in learning. So here’s what I’ve come up with…

Readiness to learn

How can we encourage learners to take responsibility for their own attitude to learning in each lesson? Well, the readiness to learn self assessment scale works well here and also contributes to the other components of motivation that Alan McLean identifies and that underpin the philosophy of Marginal Learning Gains; affiliation and autonomy.

Perhaps if learners are charged with the task of designing their own learning plans and are genuinely empowered to follow, amend and implement these, for themselves and if they comply to this, their own plan, perhaps that’s a way to adapt the concept to learning? Stephen M.R. Covey talks about the need for us to make an explicit commitment to ourselves as the very first step in achieving trust, in his book, “The Speed of Trust”. Before we can trust others, whether individuals or organisations, we must be able to trust ourselves. This means that when we say we are going to eat our five-a-day, we need to do it. Only by being committed to our own goals and making these a priority, he argues, will we be able to really know what it means to completely trust others to do the same. The “Road to Glory” documentary depicted compliance as a positive act, as a way of reducingintra-personal conflict (with oneself, and particularly, the inner chimp) and of giving in to the ‘best’ way. I had a conversation with @lucysweetman about this and she used a lovely phrase in reflecting back to me what I was saying. For the team of cyclists, their compliance was all about ‘owning their ambition’. I love this phrase and it certainly resonates with the focus of so much of my work around motivation, confidence and self-directed learning. The practical application of this concept would need to be informed by a programme of Aggregation of Marginal Gains…

How manageable would it be to ask every learner to design their own personal learning plan informed by specific, individual goals that incorporate even the tiniest marginal gains? What would this look like? To be an effective learner in (x) subject would obviously have to include knowing the technical nuances of the subject, the skills related directly to this subject and being able to apply these in a variety of different topic areas. In addition, at a micro-level, it would also be explicit about the need to arrive to the lesson on time, with an open-mind and readiness to learn, demonstrated by bringing the correct equipment, knowing what was expected and listening to others’ ideas, contributing to class discussions.

Do learners ‘own their ambition’? Where is this already happening, and if so, how effective is it? Do we ask the learners how effective their learning regime is? What ‘gains’ do their existing plans already include and how could we include some micro-gains? If they are not complying with their learning plan, what can we do to help them engage with it? Who designed the plan and who takes responsibility for monitoring it?

6 thoughts on “Agency

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