Students as Consumers, or as Agents?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the topic of student agency.

To what degree are students allowed to act from their own agency in schools? Here, I define agency as the ability to create your own world, the sense of power that we gain by acting as agents of our world.  Yong Zhao writes about the importance of students becoming ‘entrepreneurial.’  This is exactly the sense of agency that I am pointing to.

Is there a more important ability needed?

The answer to the question, “To what degree are students allowed to act from their own agency in schools?” is very little. Today we view students as consumers. The neo-liberal view of the market as the prime organizer of all value has certainly invaded the way we imagine schooling. (And, to see the logical, scary end of this type of vision, see the Governor Rick Snyder’s plan for Michigan here.) An education is now something to be consumed, bought and paid for as a market item, paid for if not with money then in time, and the material gain comes in the form of some sort of credential a degree, or a certificate that somehow gives a superficial credence to educational experience. Student as consumer assumes passivity on the part of the student. The student as consumer is a recipient of the educational content, simply the object of the instruction that can thus be quantified and measured. (And thus punished and/or rewarded via the market, which can then exacerbate the shift occurring from public good to private profit. Your market values at work.)

In opposition to this way of imagining school, student as agent of his/her learning recognizes that a student has dreams, desires, passions, and these are always necessarily the driver of all authentic learning. Learning here assumes a way of being. The student as agent doesn’t simply consume a prepackaged delivery of someone else’s pre-determined content, but creates the content, analyzes the content, questions the content, manipulates the content, and constructs the content. In this way of imagining education, the student is the driver, and his or her agency is the most necessary development. Understanding of content is always important, but the purpose of content usage must be attached to student desires in order to drive learning. Otherwise content is just one more abstract, unquestionable given that serves other people’s interests.

I think of this as I read the excellent interview with Noam Chomsky, Work. Learning and Freedom. The questioner begins the interview by referencing what the philosopher Frithjof Bergmann calls “the poverty of desire.’ Essentially, Chomsky addresses the question by showing how schools train students out of their own desire, so that they no longer know what it is they want. (It’s certainly not difficult to make the connection between this ‘poverty of desire’ and the corporate need to fill that void via marketing. This student passivity, student as consumer, certainly keeps the economy working.) In pointing to NCLB as a model for what education has become, Chomsky says schooling

“..is training to pass tests and the teachers are evaluated on how well the students do on the test – I’ve talked to teachers who’ve told me that a kid will be interested in something that comes up in class and want to pursue it and the teacher has to tell them- ‘you can’t do that because you have to pass this test next week.’ That’s the opposite of education.” Chomsky continues, “…the social system is taking on a form in which finding out what you want to do is less and less of an option because your life is too structured, organized, controlled and disciplined.”

And schools are a huge part of this all too controlling ‘social system.’

Noam Chomsky

How can we begin to trust student learning enough to give them the control needed to experience their own agency and live through their own desires?

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