Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Personal Agency

I have spent much time of late thinking about personal agency. It appears to be one of the common threads intersecting different projects for different areas of my professional life.

According to social cognitive theory, we are driven not just by inner forces nor controlled by the environment and social forces but also have the power, the personal agency, to choose our actions. This power to originate actions for specific purposes is the key feature of personal agency, according to Albert Bandura. Bandura is one of the most eminent psychologists of our time and the most cited one living -- and he is the father of social cognitive theory.

Bandura tells us personal agency is when we deliberately choose an action, monitor the results and adjust accordingly. This agentic capability means we influence events around us and contribute to the shape of our lives. There is variation in our individual levels of personal agency and this has a direct impact on our ability to exert influence on our lives. Low level agents think about their actions in terms of details and the methods necessary -- essentially focusing at a low level on the actions to be performed. In contrast, high level agents are able to look at the big picture and determine what the actions mean beyond the immediate result and what effect it will have. No surprise then that high level agency is more impactful.

We develop personal agency across many action domains by experimentation, observation, and adaption of these experiences. This development process begins in infancy and continues throughout our lives but clearly for some people it does not progress beyond low level agency. Personal agency can be promoted if others provide scaffolding for the agent, essentially offering a series of experiences that gradually increase in challenge, and/or provide support. These types of experiences are natural progressions for many life experiences in school, sports, and life skills, for example.

So what differentiates those high level agents from the low level agents? Was there a failure in their early support system? Did they need more or different support than they received? Either or both may be a cause, but Bandura tells us that there is a great deal of research that supports the fact that experiences where we have a lack of control can undermine our level of personal agency.

Fascinating stuff, eh? But it is more than theory. This theory is well supported by decades of research and personal agency impacts real-life issues such as our academic success, professional achievement, and social engagement. As a writing teacher I am especially interested in social cognitive theory and the issue of personal agency. Certainly both have implications for the teaching of writing. I think increasing our (my?) understanding of how personal agency is developed and fostered could be key to helping my students move from struggling to skilled writers. Certainly the implications go beyond first-year writing classes when we study the differences between low and high level agents.

Extensive research has been done on the writing processes of struggling writers and I can quickly see the parallels between those processes and Bandura's description of low level agents. Understanding why those struggling writers have remained low level agents is just as important as understanding the actions we can initiate to help them make the move to high level agency.

The pedagogical choices we make have strong implications for effective changes in our students from low to high level agency. We know the lack of control undermines personal agency. We know giving the opportunity to choose actions, monitor results, and make adjustments accordingly contributes to personal agency. Furthermore, we know the progression from low to high level agent requires scaffolding and support as well as guidance and feedback.

I'm already thinking about how this will change my own practice as a teacher. It certainly makes clearer to me some of the problems with transfer. Once you have reached high level agency then it is easy to transfer skills from one writing context to another. You are skilled at reaching into your bag of tricks, selecting the most appropriate tools for the task at hand, monitoring the success of those tools, and then making adjustments as necessary. The problem, I think, is that low level agents (the majority of my students I suspect) not only have a more limited set of tricks and tools but are much less successful at monitoring and adjusting as necessary and do not put all the available tricks and tools to appropriate use.

I definitely see a connection here between helping increase personal agency and effecting transfer -- and Bandura has helped me understand more clearly how agency can be fostered. The question is to what extent.

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