Agency and Education

Shane Smith

Keywords: Agency, Education, Children

From young ages, we start to learn from our parents, learn from our peers, and our educators. We are sponges. We listen and observe in order to survive. We learn in different manners depending on what our parents do. We also learn without our parents present. The ability to learn and act upon those lessons is part of our rhetorical agency. In this chapter, I explore the theory of agency and its application to the learning environment for children. I argue that in terms of education and peer-to-peer collaboration, agency can lead to more engaged learning throughout school and beyond. Creating environments where children can use their agency to shape themselves and their thinking can lead to a more engaged society. Early education creates a culture that sticks with students for the rest of their lives.

When thinking about college students, there is a wide array of attitudes. Being an athlete in a university, my experience is different than that of a normal college student. Typically, one assumption is that athletes are less likely to go to class, do their assigned work, or that they just show complete disinterest in things that are outside their sport. Then I think of the typical Wake Forest student, strong grades, strong class attendance, and desire to participate in class. While this is hypothetical, the attitudes toward schoolwork can be traced backed to students’ agency in the classroom at a young age.

Athletes often learn at a young age how to overcome physical and mental challenges adaptively. There is no guide to blocking the right way every time in football. Or to throw a strike every time you pitch a ball in baseball. However, strong athletes find a way to do their sport uniquely, almost self-tailoring education to sports. Comparing this to school and early education, there is a way to face challenges in school through instruction. The teacher creates lesson plans for each child and expects the homework to be done in the same way, showing their work to get correct answers. Homework prepares students to take tests, so the teacher prepares them for evaluations of how well they retain the skills they practiced. The teacher often is evaluated on how well their students are doing in the class, and how they are ready for the next year of schooling. This whole model of education is something that creates college students overly worried about deadlines and good grades. There isn’t any yearning for learning something new. They learn the class material because of what they had already excelled at in high school, which stemmed from their grades back in Pre-K. This may seem like a stretch, but there is a connection. A cookie cutter school system may create very good workers, but there seems to be something missing. Jennifer Adair argues that “the importance of early grades is not about the test scores young children produce, but about the range of capabilities they are developing” (Adair). The idea is that their early education can be more about how much they can do, not what they are capable of quantitatively assessing in education. Adair ran a study that concentrated on a first grader named Mary, in Texas. Adair writes about:

Student agency, or the agency children might use in their learning. Examples of young children using their agency include children being able to help determine unit topics; experiment and engage in open-ended exploration and conversation; plan projects or help their friends with ideas; explore materials, text, and other resources to generate content; and use their curiosity as motivation and inspiration for inventing, planning, designing, and problem solving. Having agency in their learning makes possible the types of learning experiences that expand children’s capabilities beyond the acquisition of a narrow range of content.

In this first grade class, teachers let the kids think of new ideas to learn new things. An example would be that the class wanted to create volcanos. A student saw a picture of a volcano in a book and asked Ms. Bailey, the first-grade teacher, if they could build replicas. Ms. Bailey, believing in the study and that children should create learning opportunities for themselves, agreed. The students created these volcanos. There were changes in behavior from Mary after she completed this science fair activity. She changed her education profile, on her own terms: Learning and explaining what her volcano does, helping other students in areas where she wouldn’t have before. Teachers saw Mary taking strides in her learning, compared to earlier concerns about her “tested” numbers. Mary created and worked on skills like “cooperation, collaboration, modeling, project development, and student-initiated discussion, as well as thoughtful responses to criticism, sharing and revising ideas, gathering support, and making testable inquiries” (Adair). This is all from letting the students take interest in something. There is no test for these characteristics to be quantified but that’s the whole point.

Our early education prepares us for the real-world scenarios. A second research study by Imam investigated “the rarely discussed role of shared leadership in the successful completion of these types of projects” (Imam). This is about construction projects and how effective and high- quality they are once completed. Imam concluded that shared leadership creates more motivated students, whose psychological needs were met much more than when being told what to do. There is a shared level of knowledge that creates a more level-playing-field in the work environment. The people that know more are going to be the ones in power. If there are a couple people in charge, they can support others by demonstrating approachability and flexibility when it comes to things like construction. Not the actual building, but in the ways they can be more flexible and get around obstacles they encounter.

Back in the classroom, there is one more study that support the importance of agency. Two teachers saw how the current curriculum didn’t take into account that students don’t come from the same homes. According to Miller, the teachers required feedback from their students about lesson plans and what they would like to learn about. After these ideas showed promise, there were other things that they noticed. The teachers noticed that the students would be great with reading and writing, but never had the opportunity to share with classmates or to write and read what they wanted. Telling a first grader that they can read whatever they’d like could backfire, but only for a short time. Children are curious. So, these teachers gave more opportunities for research projects based on the students’ choosing, including book clubs and independent readings. This required more time for projects and a different set of tools to complete, different from normal assignments. This example demonstrates that students learn in grade school how to adapt and find a source for their project. They embark on a book that can teach young teens morals in ways that they may not be able to learn at home. These educational opportunities create a lot more than an assignment for the children.

There is so much in our life beyond the numbers that surround our lives. Our salary, our cars, houses, how many friends we have, what your last round of golf was, or how many miles till I hit empty in my gas tank. Our lives are about how we seek opportunity and solve challenges; how we face adversity and if we accept the gifts of coincidence; and how we embrace these people-to-people relations to better ourselves.

As a society today we are all entangled in one another. At times, students walk on eggshells in the Wake Forest classrooms. In creating more independent and deep-thinking children, we can create more open mindedness as well as strong and motivated people. Education isn’t about sitting in the classroom and doing your homework. The education of young people must create questions for their students to answer on their own, for them to be able to work with one another and figure things out. Students should apply and research an idea, as I am doing now. If students do this, and more importantly if teachers can think about their students’ growth the quality of our education and the quality of students can improve here at Wake Forest and beyond.

Works Cited

Agency and Expanding Capabilities in Early Grade – ProQuest. Accessed 12 Oct. 2021

Imam, Hassan. “Roles of Shared Leadership, Autonomy, and Knowledge Sharing in Construction Project Success.” Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, vol. 147, no. 7, July 2021, p. 04021067. ASCE,

Miller, Samuel D., et al. “If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, You Might End Up Where You’re Headed! Teachers’ Visions Transforming Praxis Through Agency.” Peabody Journal of Education, vol. 96, no. 4, Aug. 2021, pp. 360–75. Taylor and Francis+NEJM,

Muñiz Castillo, Mirtha R., and Des Gasper. “Human Autonomy Effectiveness and Development Projects.” Oxford Development Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, Mar. 2012, pp. 49–67. Taylor and Francis+NEJM,


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Shane Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book