Understanding Agency Part I: What is Agency?

AgencyEarly on in our project, we put forth the hypothesis that developing a sense of personal agency may be one of the most significant benefits of engaging young people in making and design thinking learning experiences. This hypothesis is based on the following two-part if/then statement:

  1. By developing a sensitivity to the design of the objects, ideas, and systems in their worlds, young people may develop a sense of agency towards the design of those same objects, ideas, and systems, and…
  2. If young people develop a sense of agency towards the design of the objects, ideas, and systems in their worlds, then they can effect change for themselves, their communities, and the their broader environments.

This hypothesis—as simple or as complex as it may seem—is at the core of the Agency by Design initiative. While we believe it’s a powerful—and hopefully plausible—postulation, we also recognize it begs the most fundamental question: What is “agency?”

During one of our earliest research trips to the Bay Area the Agency by Design team visited the Athenian School’s Makers Studio to gain an initial understanding of what happens in authentic maker learning environments.

While at Athenian we learned from instructor Bruce Hamren that one of the core outcomes he has for his students is fostering within them a sense of “I can do that!” As we heard variants of this idea expressed at other sites we visited, we came to the realization that the “I-can-do-that!” spirit that Bruce mentioned was actually a way of talking about student agency.

Of course, human agency is a far more complex concept than the phrase “I can do that!” suggests. As such, our team has been focused in part on understanding what agency means, how we will define agency for our project, and how we may go about empirically investigating agency in maker and design thinking learning environments.

So far, our literature review has led us to consider agency from the perspectives of psychology, philosophy, sociology, phenomenology, and even neuro-physiology. As we delve deeper into the scholarship on agency, we’ve also committed ourselves to situating making and design thinking learning experiences within the context of agency frameworks and conducting thought experiments that explore the nature of this elusive term.

In future installments of this serial blog post we’ll highlight our emergent understandings of agency and outline the evolution of our thinking. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you: How do you define agency? and, How might agency be fostered in young people through making, designing, and hands-on DIY learning experiences?

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About Edward P. Clapp

Edward P. Clapp is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Project Zero research specialist working on the Agency by Design initiative. In the past, Edward has worked with Project Zero as a research assistant on the Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education project. Edward’s current research interests include collaborative approaches to creativity and innovation in arts teaching and learning environments, particularly as these concepts relate to leadership, quality and excellence, and institutional change. In addition to his work at Project Zero and HGSE, Edward is also an Editorial Board member of the Harvard Educational Review where he serves as the Co-Editor of the HER special issue “Expanding Our Vision for the Arts in Education.” In 2010 Edward edited the anthology 20UNDER40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century, a collection of twenty essays about the future of the arts sector written by young and emerging arts leaders under the age of forty. In addition to his academic pursuits, Edward has also published his poetry and fiction in national and international literary magazines and has had his plays produced Off-Off-Broadway in New York.

5 thoughts on “Understanding Agency Part I: What is Agency?

  1. I’m glad I diverged a little in my searching today, arriving at this site. What is agency indeed, and how might we define this slippery concept in a way that does justice to the multi-faceted and connected elements? We could think of the concept at the macro level like a rhizome (Deleuze), or a ‘tangle of spaghetti’ (Malaguzzi), where related notions mesh. It becomes hard to consider them seperately, so a thread of concepts surrounding agency might be will*action*choice*desire*autonomy*identity*subjectivities* freedom*ethics*status*citizenship, all of course within complex contexts such as knowledge/power/discourse. In short, agency cannot really be defined in short, and will look or be thought about differently through various knowledges. Is agency purely a personal power, or, as I suspect, developed through relations with people, materials and space?
    At a micro level agency can be thought of personal powers (Butler) or a meeting of culture and psyche (Nsamenang) as the desire to belong and the will to be unique drives our action.
    Learning environments in ECEC (early childhood education and care) that are based on play and inquiry can tap into the multiple expressive languages, creativity, and divergence of thinking so bountiful in the early years. As these spaces are highly relational and collective, they are a good start to thinking about what agency is and what it might ‘look’ like. The difference with looking at agency of a child is the contested idea that children don’t really have agency, or that ‘it’ is different and emergent. I wonder if as we move into different or new environments, challenges and new thinking, that agency becomes emergent in all of us.
    My Phd research is on agency in early childhood, and the journey through the literature has been most fascinating- philosophy, sociology, education, psychology- but have gone elsewhere to consider what’s missing in these accounts, namely Indigenous and non-western constructions of the child. I still hesitate to say what agency is, but one way it can be thought of is the desire and capacity to act wilfully as an individual and collective sense, for oneself and through and with others (Nsamenang). It seems deeply connected to sense of self and identity. The challenge is to consider the complexity of the meaning of collective and ‘social’, as much of what we think of as agency is tied up in the social.
    Perhaps I’ve raved enough, but I’m very interested in the direction(s) your project will take, and wish you well.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and incredibly insightful comment Sue. Indeed, agency is a tricky concept to pin down—but we’re excited, as you are, to delve into the array of literature on this multi-faceted concept. It’s also exciting to hear about your research on agency in early childhood. This brings to mind the idea of development for me. Just as you note that agency will be perceived differently within different bodies of knowledge, I imagine agency will also take different forms through different stages of development. We’d love to hear more from you on this concept, and encourage you to follow along as we add new posts to this blog space. Thanks again for sharing!

  3. Pingback: Articles of Interest June 21, 2013 « National Creativity Network

  4. My interests can utilize your concepts in integrating art with all other subject areas. How we can connect and communicate through the timelines is a construct of cognitive interactions. Please enjoy my video that enjoins the connections of science and the arts.

  5. Pingback: Understanding Agency Part II: Putting an Abstract Concept into Action | Making Thinking Happen

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