The Willpower Gap – Misinterpreting Student Agency

by Marie Bjerede, August 4, 2018

This article was first published in Getting Smart on February 19, 2018

There is something about how people learn that involves a balance of activeness vs passiveness, self-direction vs micro-management, ownership vs compliance, intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. Something based in interest and engagement and basic psychological needs such as autonomy, mastery and relatedness. Something that leads to curiosity, creativity and thriving.

It is something that is all too often lost in translation.

I write a great deal about student agency, by which I mean when students of their own volition extend the learning experience. This could mean exploring further in a topic area than required by an assignment, getting up on a Saturday to work on a project just because it’s compelling, learning something outside of school such as video editing, suggesting a new way to demonstrate mastery, or any of a number of other acts. I always say that agentic students have taken ownership of their learning, not just their grades.

But when I look at what people write about student agency, I see definitions like: “Learner agency is the capability of individual human beings to make choices and act on these choices in a way that makes a difference in their lives.” In another example, agency is described as being associated with the following characteristics: Punctuality, Good Conduct, Effort, Help Seeking, and Conscientiousness.

These framings of student agency miss the point entirely. They come from a framework where the teachers and parents set the goals and students are asked to be independent and self-directed in achieving them, even though the work might be tedious and uninspiring. It’s as though the goal is to teach students that life is work and work is something you don’t want to do, so you may as well get used to it now and develop the discipline and willpower to persist in things you do not like.

But where’s the joy? When I talk about agency, I am talking about work that is joyful, that feels like Papert’s hard fun. The gamification movement has tried to instill into education the agency that students experience when playing video games, though it often fails as it becomes a thin veneer of points and levels pasted over the same tedious work and passive learning experiences of traditional teaching.

Others suggest that we need to support student passions – that this is the way to get them inspired about school work. This can work sometimes, for some kids, but unfortunately it is too easy to take a topic where students have passion and apply it to work that remains uninspiring. It is also a significant burden to place on students to expect that they have passions. Instead, why not take the fascinating topics from standards and let them be interesting?

What too many ideations of student agency miss, is that at the heart there is a core of volition. Of desire or curiosity or interest. I repeat, “Agentic learners have taken ownership of their learning, not just their grades.” How do you know if this is happening?

Look at how much willpower it takes for your students to do their work. On a scale of 1-10, do they fall on the side of “I hate this and it takes everything I’ve got to make myself do it” or “I would do this even if I didn’t get credit?”

Think about it like exercise – do your students feel about homework the way many people feel about exercise? They buy into the goal of being fit, and they truly hold that as a goal, but it takes every ounce of willpower to meet it. Or are they like athletes who take joy in what their bodies can do and are always seeking ways to eke out just a little more performance? Willpower is a limited resource – we only have so much of it. Someone who hates exercise is not going to become a world-class athlete (unless their mindset changes).

Someone who has to use all their willpower to complete their homework assignments isn’t going to explore topics for fun or suggest interesting ways to demonstrate mastery – their resources are depleted by simply complying with the minimal requirements. However, in a classroom where work and the environment is structured to foster agency, students are more like those world-class athletes – they enjoy their work and are interested in it.  The learning is meaningful to them for its own sake.

In practice, of course, the willpower metric lies on a spectrum. There can often be some willpower required to get started until intrinsic motivation takes over due to the design of the work and the appeal of the topic. Even the most agentic classrooms will have some rote work required, and the most rote classrooms will have glimmers of engagement. And, of course, learning work ethic and self-discipline is important as well.

But when definitions of agency lead to work that is driven purely by willpower, those definitions need to be reconsidered. The agentic classroom should be hard but fun for teachers and students alike.

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