Lay an egg … Lay an egg … Lay an egg …

@davidshrigley had a whole lot more than schools in mind when he created this image, but I’ve never seen a more apt depiction of what it must feel like to be a student in this country. For that matter, of what it feels like to be a parent, teacher, or school administrator.

Somehow we let ourselves be convinced that our collective objective is to set more goals and reach them faster so we can get to other, higher, better goals, sooner. 

We are raising young people to excel in dutifully following instructions to achieve prescribed and rigorously assessed outcomes on predetermined timetables (lay an egg … lay an egg … lay an egg).

Could it be that we instead want to raise young people to be able to cultivate their own continuous health and growth within a changing landscape, assess resources and challenges, bring to bear concrete skills-in-the-world, decide what could or must happen next, and collaborate, if necessary, if possible, to accomplish their objectives?

We can’t really cultivate both kinds of people. Kids either learn to do what they’re told and do it well and graciously, and be accountable for being productive all of the time … or they get to practice exercising their own judgment and stumbling over their untied shoelaces.

The more we train children to avoid the obstacles we anticipate and the more demands we place on them 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 autonomy and 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 enter a situation, assess the environment, decide how to act or what to do, then do what needs to be done to accomplish the objective in the given circumstances. Agency both requires and enhances our sense of efficacy.

Every living being strives for greater levels of agency from the moment of conception.

Individual agency 

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 appropriate (both positive and negative) feedback, note and manage the 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 piloting their own planes. To the extent that we release them into the world without those crucial hours of supervised piloting, they come into 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 prescribed academic growth. The No Child Left Behind act crystallized 2000 – 2012 as the era in which teachers were lauded primarily for their ability to divert learners past myriad potentially imperfect and unpremeditated interactions to climb the ladders of publicly-sanctioned progress most efficiently.

But unplanned, confusing, novel interactions are precisely the conditions that call for the exercise of the competencies (judgmentfocused effort,  resourcefulnessreflectivenessaccountability for consequences) that social integration and individual agency are made of.

Suboptimal conditions and unfortunate choices are the occasions for self construction. That can’t happen if all suboptimal conditions are designed out of the education system so we can push them up the ladder faster. Rookie decisions made by novice humans in unexpected situations precipitate reflection and recalibration – two mental processes that help us develop agency. Where does education grant space for that?

The adult promoting young people’s agency is not responsible for plotting the optimal course of rapid advancement (Lay an egg … Lay an egg … etc.), but rather for providing generous space for unplanned, non-linear, potentially chaotic processes that require the individual and collaborative exercise of  the muscles of discernment, judgment, decision, and action.

The customer may want more eggs quicker, but the farmer concerned about the quality of her produce knows she 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, linearly growing demonstrations of acquisition from children, and further mandate these growth curves be achieved on universal and shrinking timelines. If you’ve raised children, this is nuts. Parents and educators who want 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 press hard to hurry them along the primrose curricular path … every time we deny their authority to determine their own interactions with environment and culture and respond to naturally-occurring feedback for their choices.

What we adults should hold ourselves accountable for, is honoring each child’s biologically ordained need to be the architect of their own wheel house.

Illustrations shamelessly screenshotted from the IG oeuvre of the brilliant @davidshrigley


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