Questions, Agency and Democracy

Sir Isaiah Berlin, quoting the Greek philosopher Archilochus, said that the “fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In order to make our democracy work better these days, we need more of both kinds of people; hedgehogs who can stay focused and foxes who can nimbly apply and adapt.

For more than two decades, I’ve been working with my colleague, Luz Santana, and others at The Right Question Institute on one big thing; on how to foster, nurture, develop, and enhance “agency,” the ability of all people to think and act on their own behalf. While we’ve been working on finding creative ways to foster “agency,” we’ve been impressed by hundreds of thousands of people working in classrooms, social service organizations, adult literacy programs, and community health centers who are “foxes” who know how to adapt the one big thing — agency — and nurture it across so many fields and communities, in this country and beyond.

Why is the focus on agency worth two decades of work? We first picked up on its importance from parents with whom we were working as part of a drop-out prevention program in Lawrence, MA. They named a problem, an obstacle to participation that researchers, scholars and activists had missed: Not knowing what to ask, not knowing how to come up with questions, keeps people from participating in any decision that affects them.

We continued to learn from parents in Lawrence and then from many other people with whom we’ve worked all around the country and beyond; residents of homeless shelters in Kentucky, adult literacy students in Indiana, welfare recipients in New Hampshire, Mexican immigrant parents in New Mexico, patients at community health centers in the Bronx and sugar cane plantation workers in Hawaii. Here’s the one big lesson we’ve learned:

Agency begins with being able to ask your own questions and continues with the ability to participate in decisions that affect you wherever and whenever they are made.

That’s the one big lesson from nearly three decades of work and it has implications from the micro level of our daily lives to the highest levels of decision-making in our democracy. For it’s possible to imagine a dictatorship that discourages citizens from asking questions, but we should not accept a democracy in which questions cannot be asked.

A strong sense of agency, and self-efficacy on a fundamental level is actually a precursor, a foundation for more effective action on any level of our democracy. It’s the beginning of the journey towards democratic action, not its completion. Skip over it however, and you get pretty much the status quo we’ve got today. If you’re happy with that, don’t bother to read on.

How do we translate this one big idea, one big lesson into action? We’ve been working on trying to answer just one question in the simplest way possible:

How can we democratize access to the deceptively simple yet very sophisticated skills of question formulation and effective participation in decisions?

Let’s focus here on just the first skill; question formulation. It is no small matter to teach the skill; it’s often developed only through high levels of professional education and with years of experience. Indeed, access to them can be difficult and costly. In 2002, The New York Times asked college presidents what should students learn in four years of college. There was a consensus that students could not come out of college knowing all there is to know so college should, according to Leon Botstein of Bard College, “engender a lifelong habit of curiosity, as opposed to becoming more convinced that you are an authority.” He went on to say students should learn “analytical skills of interpretation and inquiry. In other words, know how to frame a question…You should not be dependent on the sources of information, either provided by the government or by the media, but have an independent capacity to ask questions and evaluate answers.”

Nancy Cantor, then the Chancellor of the University of Illinois, said, there is no “pat answer anymore…so the best we can do for students is have them ask the right questions.’’

The college presidents are correct to emphasize the importance of learning the skill of question formulation, yet a survey of college students done by the University of Washington shows that “only about one-quarter thought their college experience had taught them how to frame their own questions.”

Something’s not right.

We have seen that the problem begins long before college and there’s a need for all students to develop the skill, beginning in kindergarten all the way through high school and on to college, graduate school, in civic space and in the workplace. We have been struck by how easily teachers can make it happen. In the five years since publication of our book for teachers, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press: 2011), more than 200,000 educators around the world have begun to deliberately teach students to ask their own questions; something the college presidents said students might only learn to do in college. The teachers’ determination to teach the skill, though there is no mandate or requirement for them to do it, is inspiring; a testament to just how much teachers are doing on their own to improve education while many around them, who know not of what they speak, continue to disparage educators and public schools.

We need to constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to teach the skills and not just to students but to adults as well. We see frontline workers teaching the skill in a variety of settings, similar to how staff working at a homeless shelter in Louisville, KY, made the teaching of the skill part of their ongoing work with residents. One resident in the shelter said after learning to ask her own questions about her children’s education: “Now, I’m going to do whatever it takes to get the information I need.”

Nancy Rodriguez, one of the parents in Lawrence many years ago who taught us so much put it quite clearly: “I just woke up now to realize there are a lot of people making decisions that affect me. They need to hear from me. I need to make my voice heard. I need others to do that with me.”

How do we foster this kind of determination, this sense of urgency to take action and the confidence that one can indeed do it? Do like the hedgehog and stay focused on the big goal — fostering agency — and follow the lead of the foxes, finding many ways to teach the skills that promote agency - anytime, anywhere and as often as possible.