Agency, Dignity, and Grace

by Marie Bjerede, January 31, 2018


Every person deserves dignity.  Yet it is something that it is all too easy to strip away from young people.  Make a joke at the expense of an awkward teenager because embarrassing them is funny.  Change the story of what your 5-year-old did because it is a better (funnier (more humiliating)) story that way.  Push a toddler into a meltdown by being cold, distant, and demanding that he tell the truth.  Shaming, belittling, or dismissing young people is, in effect, an attack on their dignity.

This is something that happens too frequently in schools – not as the result of malice, but as a side effect of systemic structures.  Students who know that they don’t understand the material are called out to answer questions or perform tasks in front of their peers.  Grades create a ranking of human beings that is internalized as a commentary on their worth, not on their work.  Students must ask permission to speak, to use the bathroom, to stand, to drink water and are told what to do, where to do it, and with whom.  Their preferences are irrelevant in the face of classroom management and school structures.

When young people are offered dignity, it is a form of grace, as in an unearned gift.  Indeed, dignity is not something that can be earned, though it is something that can be taken away.  A teacher sees a student reads poorly and gives her an ipad to record and listen to her own voice rather than asking her to read out loud in class.  Another knows a student had trouble at home last night and doesn’t demand that he perform.  A school puts restrooms in the classrooms and water fountains where every student can use them at will.  This grace is particularly meaningful when a student is feeling vulnerable and could easily be wounded with just a word.

Beyond test scores, beyond student performance, beyond deeper learning, beyond the development of workforce skills, the simple support of human dignity that is offered by agentic pedagogical approaches is a compelling reason to employ the approaches that support student agency – to systemically offer this grace to students in order to help them keep their dignity intact.

Agentic approaches such as Project Based Learning, Inquiry, and Design Thinking put the student as the motivator of the work, promotes self-efficacy and genuine empowerment, and recognizes student strengths.  This is a powerful shift from controlling the student to giving up control in a way that promotes student ownership of their own learning, resilience, and a sense of competence, all of which feed a child’s dignity. This shift indicates a change in the mindset of the teacher from one of control to one of trust and makes it easier for her to be gracious and to protect the dignity of her students at all times, including when they are the most challenging.

Dignity should never be stripped from a child.  To protect that dignity, approaches that support their agency are ones that offer far more grace than traditional school systems and classroom management.  If for no other reason (though there are many) they are the right thing to do.

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