Agency is the capacity to choose and act on your own behalf, and may be a hallmark of life. A rock just sits there, but living creatures can do things, can take actions. Even bacteria detect and move towards nutrients, making choices and taking action in a primitive sort of agency.
In human beings, agency is conscious and even self-conscious: we can reflect on how and why we make particular choices and take particular actions. If agency is a distinguishing feature of life in general, reflexive agency may be a distinguishing feature of humanity.
Agency is like muscle: both require exercise to develop. Both weaken if not used. Sitting still, you can watch a video or read a book to learn about muscle, but you can only strengthen your own through use. On the other hand, physical inactivity deadens muscles, just as restraint of choice and action deadens agency. Inactivity and restraint are sometimes necessary or wise, but greatest growth is prompted by conditions in which choice and action are exercised.
Because agency entails choice, there is the possibility of mistaken choice, or error. If you can choose, and if your assessment fails to match the reality, then your choice may lead to something other than what you anticipated. A bacterium may sense and move towards a higher concentration of glucose, but swirling currents may hide the actual source. Or the bacterium’s detection or direction may be wrong. Either way the bacterium goes hungry and we call it a mistake.
Agency and mistakes go together. But if agency is reflexive, if the agent is self-aware, then mistakes provide crucial feedback to improve future choices. Practice of reflexive agency, including or especially mistakes, thus tends to awaken self-awareness, increase fitness, and contribute to fulfillment.
Conscious attention is a primal expression of human agency. Moment by moment, you alone choose the focus of your attention. Nobody else can do this for you, nor can anyone deny it to you, nor can you escape it. Choice of attention is your sovereign and inalienable birthright, and your natural functioning. Focus of attention may be the most basic choice you make, countless times each day.
Agency in general, and choice of attention in particular, forge the foundation on which your life is built. Development of children’s healthy, robust agency is thus essential to personal fulfillment and meaningful engagement in society.
At The Circle School and other self-directed, democratic schools, agency in community is the heart of our daily practice. Children come to school and live their lives — choosing, experiencing, reflecting, and choosing again — mindful or reminded of the community around them.
The capacity to make wise choices, to learn from mistakes, and to lead one’s own life: these are fruits of practiced agency, vital to happy, productive life filled with meaning and purpose. Cultivation of agency should be at the heart of children’s education.