Giving Control and Taking Control: Student Agency and Education

When I first started teaching in 2005, as a very shy and extremely nervous casual tutor at Deakin University’s Geelong Waurn Ponds campus, I never thought about student agency. The undergraduate students I was ‘responsible for’ were always happy – even enthusiastic – to be what some judgementally (but probably accurately) describe as ‘spoon-fed’ the required information, the required way of doing things, the required means of completing the assessment tasks (and at a times, as a by-product of these things, the ‘required’ manner in which to think). The strongest card I had in my hand was that I would use my ‘Study Notes’ documents as a carrot to ensure – with generally positive success – ongoing tutorial attendance. I would only email these to students who attended; my taking of the roll consisted of me getting students to write their email addresses down in addition to their names, and I would forward them the document later that night.

I’m not criticising this practice; it can actually be a quite effective pull-factor in getting students to class – a worthy end in itself. Yet this strategy does have its limitations, and I saw it becoming less effective for me as time went on both as a casual tutor and later in my role as lecturer and Unit Chair, which necessitated me making all of my teaching materials available to all students without any attachment to attendance. Even before this, I asked many groups of students throughout my years as a sessional tutor about what happened to the Study Notes I sent them. I consistently found that very few recipients would ever actually open these documents that had laid bare the tutorial plan I’d used with its extra theoretical content, case studies, study questions, video links, assignment advice, and so on. But students still liked to have them; they even seemed to provide a sense of ‘security’. Not unlike my collecting of Ultra Fleer X-men cards in the 1990s, there seemed to be a strong desire to ‘collect the set’. At least my cards were read multiple times after they were sleeved; undoubtedly, few graduates would still have my Study Notes archived somewhere, no matter how hungrily they were craved for them at the time…

X-men Cards.jpg
Photograph by Adam Brown, 5 May 2016.

This is just one example of the (flawed) student reliance on the teacher that I find myself rallying against more and more as the years go by. I don’t say this to lay the sole blame on students either; educational systems have long been the bastion of rote learning and all its differently mutated descendants – and I was complicit in reinforcing the dominance of this species for long enough myself.

Now the empowerment of student agency is not only an internal mantra, but has seeped more and more explicitly and transparently into my pedagogical approach. Students shouldn’t rely on me because they can’t afford to rely on me – not only because I cannot possibly be an ‘expert’ in and on this immensely complex digital media world, but also because authentic learning about this world can’t be secured by being told about it by someone else. Any endeavour to ‘give’ people control always requires those same people to take control, and this goes hand-in-hand with the promotion of student learning by making, doing, sharing, and connecting. Employing gamification in my teaching across various media platforms by introducing a virtual currency or points system I called ‘Tiffits’ has certainly enhanced student learning in these ways this trimester, as I outlined in a recent video, but the actual outcomes comprise the all-important end game. The Tiffit tally is redundant once the trimester ends; it’s where that tally took people that I’m more interested in.

Students thrive when they take control; it’s after all what a university education – any education – is, or should be, designed to allow them to do. There are boundaries that this agency must take place within of course, but the notion that the teacher alone must set these boundaries may well threaten the whole undertaking from the beginning. Curriculum design, after all, can be as organic as student learning – and I’ve seen many examples of this kind of learning of late. I could point to numerous examples of student agency producing unexpected, productive, and highly valuable outcomes throughout the past few months alone, but its manifestation has been no clearer this week than in what has been hashtagged the #StudentOnlyChallenge. It would be wrong for me to describe what this is; instead, I should let the media (or rather the students) do it for me…

The ‘disappearance’ of the teacher in such circumstances is never literal, but backing away to figuratively – and sometimes actually – watch from a corner (or outside the classroom window as it may be) does have its merits. Every Twitter conversation, every exchange of ideas on SoundCloud, every interaction on YouTube that I’m not a part of reveals the power of student agency. And the creative, collaborative, and collegial environment that this engenders is where I get most of my ideas and energy from (the rest comes from Tiffany). So the last point to make is that students are not the only ones who benefit from their creative freedom; as can be seen in my two latest Digital Media Snapshot videos below, it also inspires their teachers…

I’ve been done with spoon-feeding for a while now. I’m still happy to feed students things – as long as they feed me in return. That’s how it should work. That’s the only way it can work.

Thanks for reading.




9 Comments Add yours

  1. Great read once again, Adam. I was present at a high school parent session last night for The I CAN Network where my daughter works as a mentor. The I CAN Network is a support network run for autistic people by autistic people. Your last comment here resonated with last night’s presentation. I CAN’s mentors (my daughter, age 20, and her colleague, age 19) learn as much from the kids they mentor as the kids learn from them.

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Thanks Mary-Anne, great to hear it resonated. That sounds like a fantastic program – great to hear your daughter’s doing such valuable work! 🙂

  2. Funnily enough I also have a collection of those X-Men cards 🙂

    1. Adam Brown says:

      I’m missing Bishop!! Not really fussed anymore, but back then: #Arrgghhh! 😀

  3. Learning with you is real fun… i am personally not a fan of spoon feeding and closed range of knowledge like book scripts . Doing ALC203 last trimester has really evolved my personality in my day today life as well ! I am more interactive with people now and more confident with online engagement and interaction!

    1. Adam Brown says:

      That is awesome to hear – thanks for the comment Shivangi! You’ve come leaps and bounds from where you were, and I’m sure you’ll go further still! 🙂

      1. Thank you for the encouragement! 🙂

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