Why We Talked About Student Agency
Donavan mulls over what he thought of when deciding with Leoson and Pauline on how the vast topic of education could be opened.
Even after a quarter of my life in the education system, I find I have more questions than answers about the objectives of the education system and the conflicts that lie within.
I felt that school was largely a linear journey, with only a few options offered. In P3, there was a Gifted Education Programme (GEP) examination, and in P4, there was streaming. However, no matter what we chose, we had to study English, Mathematics, Science and Mother Tongue as our examinable subjects. As a student, I cared nought about anything else except passing examinations and moving onto the next stage.
On receiving my PSLE results, I saw my T-score, and checked up a booklet of secondary schools. I simply matched my T-score to a school that was conveniently located, thus ending up in Clementi Town Secondary School. Secondary school threw some more choices to us. We had to pay attention to some of our choices. For one, we had to pick a co-curricular activity (CCA) which would be assessed under the LEAPS framework. Those who performed well could improve their O-Level score. Also, we had to pick some subjects to read at the O-Levels. Some like me picked "Triple Science" and others picked POA, among other combinations. Some more decisions to make, but life is largely still linear.
The point of recounting my formative years is to have a rough gauge of agency. What does student-centric agency look like, and how do we know if a student is ready to decide on his/her next step? In short, we are not exactly sure.
Student-centric agency could be interpreted as the ability for students to pick what they want to learn, for as long as they derive meaning in their learning journey and outcomes. Often, these are self-initiated. But how do we know what we want to learn?
One of my university professors likened learning to a four-stage process. He opined:
1. You don't know what you don't know.
2. You know what you don't know.
3. You know what you know.
4. You don't know what you know.
Broadly speaking, one starts from ignorance, then moves onto awareness, followed by competence and mastery, in my view. One of the most important activities of a child's formative years illustrates this point.
When a toddler wants to move, he/she begins by crawling. But at some point, said toddler learns how to walk. But walking does not come naturally to the toddler; the toddler must know what he/she is unaware of before he/she can walk without falling down.
The process of learning how to walk involves the development of gross motor skills, which can be defined as an action requiring large muscle groups. Walking can be divided into several gross motor skills, such as putting one's foot forward and keeping balance. These are picked up in other activities a baby does, such as crawling and standing independently, which are developmental milestones.
However, removing all of the developmental milestones, walking is intimidating. Adding these milestones provides the toddler an awareness of what a toddler needs to learn before moving onto the next objective. This is difficult, and requires some guidance and feedback. Sometimes, the feedback is automatic (e.g. falling over because of poor balance), while other times, some guidance is required (if a toddler keeps falling over because the toddler wants to walk before he/she can crawl, such falling over is unlikely to be helpful)
Eventually a toddler can walk, and before we know it, runs faster than the parents in the household. Congratulations, the toddler tried harder. But it shows that developmental milestones (i.e. guidance), coupled with student-centric agency (a toddler repeatedly falling and learning what not to do to walk) leads to a positive outcome, i.e. a toddler figuring out how to walk.
My view is that formal education, such as schools, have a purpose in providing sandboxes for students to exercise their agency. Just like a toddler walking, students will not always succeed when embarking on their respective journeys. And that is OK. In fact, we do not do most things we did as students in the workplace. I have not tied a single knot so far in my workplace despite being a Scout, and the only structures I build these days are sandcastles in the air, but that does not mean my Scouting journey was useless. On the contrary, Scouting provided many opportunities to test soft skills like leadership, curiosity and negotiation. Learning those skills in a safe environment meant I was not a pushover in the workplace.
However, this does not mean we neglect basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. We require some pre-requisites to help build upon the foundation required to learn. For instance, studying the immune system requires an understanding of different domains of biology, such as cell biology and biochemistry. One cannot go far without understanding said domains. Formal education helps consolidate these pathways, and helps identify skills required for as broad a base of the population as possible. That is why primary school can feel rather rigid, as it focuses on basic skills such as literacy skills to communicate and numeracy skills to make sense of quantitative data.
We move into a question of what we want to learn beyond the basics. Student-centric agency re-emerges when we examine how we chart our course: the intrinsic motivation to learn beats any extrinsic motivation that could be offered. But intrinsically motivating someone goes beyond simply teaching a subject. It simply means keeping the flame of natural curiosity alive. Easier said than done, however. There exists competing demands in an education system such as the need to assess if formal education has delivered a standard of literacy and numeracy skills. That we do quite well, topping the PISA charts. But other traits, such as curiosity, are harder to measure, which is why it does not always end up at the discussion table especially when funding and public policy objectives are to be considered. This becomes particularly strained once one leaves formal education, because there no longer exists a system to hold us accountable to keep learning.
This is what motivated orienteering January’s live stream around agency, but it left me with many more questions than answers. Agency does not guarantee any outcome, but only suggests the possibility of a range of outcomes. Yet, public policy is outcome-driven, not process-driven, and the electorate judges an education system not so much by process, but by outcomes, in a variety of ways. Can our people get good jobs with the degrees that we have? Do the degrees we have fit what our economy requires? And what happens if the forces of agency point in directions quite different from our economic and/or political reality?