Lay an egg … Lay an egg … Lay an egg …
I don’t know if David Shrigley had schools in mind when he drew this image, but it’s a perfect picture of how it must feel to be a school child in America. (For that matter, what it feels like to be a teacher or school administrator.)
Do we want to raise a generation of young people that excel in dutifully following instructions to achieve prescribed outcomes on predetermined timetables (lay an egg … lay an egg … lay an egg)?
Do we want to raise a generation of young people who can read a changing landscape, assess resources and needs, decide what’s next, and collaborate, if necessary, to accomplish their objectives effectively?
We can’t really cultivate both kinds of people. Kids either learn to do precisely what they’re told and do it well, or they learn to exercise their own judgment.
The more demands we place on children to be productive by our standards, the less they are able to practice the supremely important art of defining and achieving their own objectives within their own living contexts … AND (and this is a big one) the more cranky they become because their most fundamental need – to exercise and develop individual agency – isn’t being met.
Individual agency is an evolving and mutually enriching conspiracy between our aims and our actions. It’s the capacity to assess a situation, decide what we want to do, and do whatever needs to be done to accomplish that objective in the given circumstances. It both requires and enhances the sense of efficacy.
Every living being strives for greater levels of agency from the moment of conception.
is an evolving and mutually enriching conspiracy
between our aims and our actions.
Young humans can neither experience nor cultivate agency without genuine enfranchisement in the enterprises of the communities in which they’re expected some day to show up as competent participants. Our responsibility, as adults raising juvenile humans, is to give them increasing entitlement to make significant choices, register positive and negative feedback, manage consequences, and learn to modulate their behavior adaptively. We have to relinquish control of their objectives, directions and timetables so that they can log hours driving their own train. If we release them into the world without those crucial hours of supervised piloting, they come to adulthood inept.
When learning communities are obliged to demonstrate efficiency in reaching as many externally-defined milestones as quickly and as competitively as possible, educators must be in perpetual command & control mode to fast-track measurable growth. This is the era in which great teachers are recognized for their ability to divert learners past potentially imperfect and unpremeditated interactions that are mud on the wheels of progress.
But these unplanned interactions are precisely the conditions that call for the exercise of the competencies (judgment, focused effort, resourcefulness, reflectiveness, accountability for consequences) that social integration and individual agency are made of.
Suboptimal conditions and unfortunate choices have to be recognized as the occasions for self construction. That can’t happen if suboptimal conditions are designed out of the education system. Rookie decisions made by novice humans in unexpected situations precipitate reflection and recalibration – two mental processes that help us develop agency.
The adult promoting young people’s agency is not responsible for plotting the optimal course of rapid advancement (Lay an egg. Lay an egg. Lay an egg.), but rather for providing generous space for unplanned, non-linear, potentially chaotic processes that require the individual and collaborative exercise of muscles of discernment, judgment, and decision.
The customer may want more eggs quicker, but the farmer concerned about the quality of his produce knows he must safeguard untouchable, internal “slow cooking” processes with long, patient nurturing … far in advance of any measurable, ready-to-package outputs.
Likewise, the public may demand that schools provide a continuous record of discrete and comparable outputs from children, then further mandate these be done on universal and shrinking timelines. But parents and educators who wish to foster thriving and adaptive learning cultures must find ways to safeguard children’s internal and hard-to-name processes.
Our children are diminished as able actors in the world every time we hurry them along the primrose path … every time we deny their authority to influence and increasingly self-direct their own interactions with environment and culture … every time we fail to hold ourselves accountable for honoring their biologically ordained need to be the architects of their own wheel house.
Illustrations shamelessly screenshotted from the IG oeuvre of the brilliant @davidshrigley