30 SES 06 B, Student Voices in ESE
Secondary school students are granted few opportunities to change their world, yet they are expected to engage fully as citizens the moment they leave school. This issue is growing starker with multiple global crises contributing to mental health concerns. This situation stimulated a practical project designed to promote student agency by supporting student-led, community-based projects, planned and supported within the secondary school context. This research ran alongside the project in order to investigate (a) the impact of implementing these projects on the students involved and (b) the implications of this for their teachers.
One significant dimension that connects these interlinked challenges is agency, that is, the capacity to innovate and effect change. Campbell (2009) differentiates between the power of agency (Type 1) and agentic power (Type 2). Type 1 reflects an ability to act freely, which can bring about change in the individual, whereas Type 2 refers to the ability to act in the face of structural constraints, thereby bringing about change in society. While the focus of the Project was initially student agency, it was conducted within the framework education for sustainable development (ESD). Conceptually, ESD can be viewed as a combination of two approaches: ESD 1, a largely instrumental approach emphasising knowledge about sustainable development and the promotion of preferred behaviours, and ESD 2, which explores the contradictions inherent in sustainable development and seeks to ‘learn our way forward’ into new ways of doing things [Vare & Scott 2007). Discussions of agency and ESD were not familiar to the participating teachers on the Project so to clarify the approach the action-oriented concept of action competence (Jensen & Schnack 1997) was introduced.
The ESD literature suggests that agentic actions have been encouraged as a stimulus to student learning in the context of various issues such as climate change (Blanchet‐Cohen 2008; Trott 2020). In these cases, the emphasis has been on the issues rather than an open-ended process to developing agency per se. That said, these projects simultaneously promoted agentic action leading to observations such as young people ‘discovering themselves and carving a place in the world’ (Blanchet‐Cohen 2008: 272).
The research approach was based on Cultural-historical Activity Theory, which explores the learning generated through multi-layered interactions within a given activity system (Engestrom 1987). This involved discussions in project meetings that were critical in revealing some of the power dynamics between teachers and students. Activity Theory also identifies contradictions between different elements of an activity system as opportunities for learning. Two significant contradictions that arose in the research were (1) between the rules governing the operation of schools and their aspiration to innovate with community-based learning and (2) between the project objective of developing student agency and that of the wider system of the school with its focus on individual student achievement.
The data highlighted positive impacts on students’ ability to work together and on the quality of their thinking. Further analysis suggested that the three interlocking aspects of making connections, planning ahead and taking action were fundamental to achieving these positive outcomes. For the teachers, learning to step back and do less proved to be the greatest challenge both personally and professionally.
Being unable to observe people’s thinking, we adopted an interpretive approach to understand the context and perspectives of our research subjects. This avoided the positivist habit of imposing an external structure on subjects that might predetermine the parameters of findings. The question required us to understand learning at individual and institutional levels and possibly the wider educational system. With this multi-layered interaction in mind, the research was framed using Cultural-historical Activity Theory (CHAT) as described by Engeström (1987). CHAT explores actions and relationships at three levels: the individual, the collaborative (e.g. within a school department) and the systemic (e.g. the school and community) paying attention to cultural and historical dimensions of the activity system elements: i.e. tools; rules and culture; division of labour and community. There were considerable differences between the participating schools but with small numbers of students involved in some cases, no attempt was made to differentiate data between schools. Project meeting facilitated workshop discussions with students and teachers together, something akin to the 'change laboratory' described by Englund & Price (2018). We took a Phenomenological approach (Sohn et al. 2017), i.e. looking across the whole process. More specifically, focus group discussions were held with the students and teachers who attended two transnational meetings (25 students and 17 teachers in total). Additional data came from interactions with 80 students who attended a five-day gathering towards the end of the project. Participants completed consent forms and parents of all students gave their consent to audio and video recordings. Discussions were transcribed and codes identified using both an emic approach (identifying and clustering emerging themes) and an etic approach (using the pre-existing framework of the activity system).
In terms of agency, students sensed a shift in power relations, remarking on how teachers listened to their opinions. To stimulate student agency, it was clear that the project had challenged existing practice. Interestingly, teachers who appeared more authoritarian at the project outset experienced the greatest transformation. That said, ceding power did not come naturally, particularly where this challenged notions around student safety and teacher responsibility. The research noted examples where teachers’ professionalism became the very means by which they withheld power from their students. This called for unlearning without becoming irresponsible. One approach was to make professional responsibilities more explicit and thus available to be shared. The data revealed how involving students in developing their own community-based projects brought benefits to them and very probably to wider society. It also identified possibilities for teachers’ continuing professional development which raises awareness of the ways in which they both promote and deny student agency. Findings also exposed the need for cultural shifts, even in schools already predisposed to running such student-led projects. While there is no suggestion that schools should replicate the Project, which had the luxury of external funding, the three elements of (i) connection, (ii) planning and (iii) action are worthy of careful consideration as they can be achieved at any scale and in any context. Schools wishing to nurture student agency require a culture that supports the professional agency of teachers themselves. This has implications for policy, which in turn requires compelling evidence to support it. This research contributes to the evidence that is essential if schooling is to evolve into something recognizable as learning as sustainable development.
Blanchet‐Cohen, N. (2008) Taking a stance: child agency across the dimensions of early adolescents' environmental involvement, Env Ed Research, 14:3, 257-272, DOI: 10.1080/13504620802156496 Campbell, C. (2009) Distinguishing the Power of Agency from Agentic Power: A Note on Weber and the "Black Box" of Personal Agency. Sociological Theory, 27:4, pp. 407-418. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40376120 Englund, C. & Price, L. (2018) Facilitating agency: the change laboratory as an intervention for collaborative sustainable development in higher education, International Journal for Academic Development, 23:3, 192-205, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2018.1478837 Engeström, Y. (1987) Learning by Expanding: An Activity - Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research. Available online: http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Paper/Engestrom/expanding (accessed on 17 July 2018). Jensen, B. B. & Schnack, K. (1997) The Action Competence Approach in Environmental Education, Env Ed Research, 1997, 3:2, 163-178; published online 2006 at: https://doi.org/10.1080/13504620600943053 Sohn, B. K.; Thomas, S. P.; Greenberg, K. H. & Pollio, H. R. (2017) Hearing the Voices of Students and Teachers: A Phenomenological Approach to Educational Research. Qualitative Research in Education, 6(2), 121-148. doi:10.17583/qre.2017.2374 Trott, C. D. (2020) Children’s constructive climate change engagement: Empowering awareness, agency, and action, Env Ed Research, 26:4, 532-554, DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2019.1675594 Vare, P. & Scott, W.A.H. (2007) Learning for a Change: exploring the relationship between education and sustainable development; Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 1:2, 191–198
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