With a name like Agency by Design, it goes without saying that agency is a central element of our work. But as we’ve noted in our earlier Understanding Agency posts, the word agency is not so easy to define. While we’ve set our sights on reviewing agency-related scholarly texts, we’ve also engaged in two pilot activities to see how our colleagues in Oakland—and students here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education—understand this important concept.
To do this, we developed a series of short narratives that we call the AbD “agency vignettes.” Within these vignettes, fictitious characters engage in specific acts situated within a variety of settings. The purpose of the AbD agency vignettes is to use hypothetical scenarios as a way to test ideas about agency and, specifically, to discuss variables at play for “ranking” agency in action. However, the degree of agency exhibited in each vignette is not so easy to gauge. The intentional ambiguity in the agency vignettes has led to some powerful discussions concerning the nature of agency.
This past March, we shared these vignettes with members of the Temescal Learning Community (TLC). To begin, we hung a clothesline up in a classroom and used it as a spectrum stretching from low, to medium, to high agency. After the TLC teachers read each vignette, they were asked to pin their names on the clothesline in a manner that corresponded to the agency they identified in each piece. Invariably, group members expressed differences in opinion—sometimes to great degrees. Participants had an opportunity to explain their decision, ask one another questions, and ultimately, change their positions on the clothesline if they wanted. It was fascinating to see how each member of the group either held their stance, or changed their position.
In a conversation before this activity, TLC group members identified terms like “empowered to make change,” “responsible risk taking,” “having a sense of self-worth,” and “cooperative” to describe the concept of agency. Following the session, TLC group members used a different set of words and phrases to describe agency, such as “reactive,” “initiative,” “perseverance, stamina, steadfastness, and resilience,” “access to resources,” “an ability to identify and overcome hurdles,” and “being quick to act early.”