Understanding Agency Part II: Putting an Abstract Concept into Action

AbD researchers describe how their use of agency “vignettes” help them gain new understandings around the concept of agency.

A teacher in the Temescal Learning Community analyzes an AbD agency vignette. (Click on this image to read a sample vignette. How would you rank the agency expressed in this scenario?)

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. 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.

TLC educators adjust their positions on the Agency Continuum.

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 phrase 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.”

We found it curious to note that placing agency in action through our vignette exercise prompted the TLC educators to describe agency in terminology that had less to do with generic empowerment, and more to do with contextual issues, such as an ability to overcome obstacles, persevere in the face of uncertainty, and an almost cunning ability to seize opportunities and navigate complex waters.

AbD researcher Edward Clapp unpacks the agency vignette exercise with the TLC educators.

About a month later we tried the same exercise with Harvard Graduate School of Education students in a Project Zero class entitled “Perspectives on Learning.” Here, students likewise established their positions on the degree of agency expressed in each vignette, engaged in discussion, and then shifted their positions.

We mixed things up this time by asking students to articulate their understandings of agency on concept maps before and after the activity. Students mapped out their understandings of agency in black ink before the activity, and then in blue ink after the activity. When students recreated their web-like maps of agency after the vignette exercise, we found that their understandings once again moved from generic terms such as autonomy and empowerment, to more action-oriented words and phrases such as “cultural capital,” “capitalizing on resources,” and “building on opportunities.”

A graduate student in the Perspectives on Learning class maps his understanding of agency before (black ink) and after (blue ink) AbD’s agency vignette exercise.

In both trials of our agency vignettes exercise we saw that participants emphasized the role of context in their assessments of agency after they engaged with these activities. In both cases, engaging with examples (fictitious as they were) of agency in action complexified our participants’ understandings of agency.

While we can’t draw any firm conclusions from these pilot studies, we are eager to build on what we’ve learned as we apply a “maker” lens to our thoughts on agency and push our thinking forward during our second year of action research with our colleagues in Oakland. As we take this next step forward, we’re interested in hearing from you: When have you seen agency in action? What did it look like?

This blog was published on October 7, 2013.
Authored by
Edward Clapp

Edward Clapp is a Principal Investigator on the Agency by Design project.