The Cognitive Dissonance of Student Agency

As an educator, and someone who is friends with educators, I tend to be generally aware of what’s trending in education. These days, it seems as though many people are rallying around student agency as the next magic bullet to ‘fix’ education. The theory goes something like this:

student agency → motivation/engagement → grit → a growth mindset

What’s weird is how many of these people cite Dewey and Papert in their arguments for student agency—when neither Dewey nor Papert focused on student agency at all in their arguments. In fact, anyone who understands what Dewey and Papert actually wrote would realize that they would take issue with the idea of putting student agency front and center.

Seymour Papert was a professor of applied math and education at MIT, co-invented the Logo programming language, and wrote Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, a book which has influenced generations of educational thinkers, especially in STEM. Some makers consider him to be the father of the maker movement.

Here is the central metaphor in Mindstorms: Learning math in our world is like learning French in an American middle school classroom, but learning math in Mathland is like learning French while growing up in France. Kids in France don’t learn French more easily and naturally than kids in America because they have more agency. Restructuring education in America so kids have more agency won’t enable an American kid, who is intrinsically motivated to learn French, to learn French as easily and naturally as kids in France. Agency has nothing to do with it.

Papert is making the argument that learning is natural and healthy when we’re immersed in an environment rich in cultural materials we can use to construct the intellectual structures we need. Kids in France learn how to speak and be French largely on their own because they are surrounded by the cultural materials they need. Meanwhile, because American kids grow up in an environment lacking those materials, they have to rely on formal instruction instead—which is far less effective and can result in some nasty consequences. The key to learning isn’t agency; it’s growing up in a culture which nurtures our intellectual growth.

My discussion differs from most arguments about “nature versus nurture” in two ways. I shall be much more specific both about what kinds of nurturance are needed for intellectual growth and about what can be done to create such nurturance in the home as well as in the wider social context.
Thus this book is really about how a culture, a way of thinking, an idea comes to inhabit a young mind.

In case that wasn’t clear enough, Papert makes it even more explicit:

But “teaching without curriculum” does not mean spontaneous, free-form classrooms or simply “leaving the child alone.” It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture. In this model, educational intervention means changing the culture, planting new constructive elements in it and eliminating noxious ones. This is a more ambitious undertaking than introducing a curriculum change, but one which is feasible under conditions now emerging.

If kids grow up in an environment immersed in materials they can use to construct the intellectual structures they need, they’ll have agency because they’ll be able to learn on their own simply by interacting with the environment. But if those materials aren’t present in the environment, and so far they’re not, student agency won’t help. Student agency results from a rich and healthy culture/environment; it doesn’t create one.

John Dewey was a philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer who founded the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and wrote numerous books on education, including The Child and the Curriculum, Democracy and Education, and Experience and Education. Some consider him to be the father of the progressive education movement.

Dewey believed we learn from and are shaped by our experiences—and because learning is an active process, we learn most effectively when those experiences are personally meaningful and interesting, so we are active participants rather than passive observers. However, Dewey also explicitly warned against treating all natural impulses and desires as equal:

Natural impulses and desires constitute in any case the starting point. But there is no intellectual growth without some reconstruction, some remaking, of impulses and desires in the form in which they first show themselves. This remaking involves inhibition of impulse in its first estate. The alternative to externally imposed inhibition is inhibition through an individual’s own reflection and judgment. The old phrase “stop and think” is sound psychology.

For Dewey, experiences can be either educative or mis-educative. Educative experiences enable us to develop habits of mind we need to act intelligently and purposefully—with self-control and agency. Experiences which are mis-educative, on the other hand, can retard our growth and cause us to act without forethought. As novice learners, children really aren’t in a position to evaluate whether experiences are educative or mis-educative; therefore, it falls to the teacher to guide students toward educative experiences.

The effect of over-indulging a child is a continuing one. It sets up an attitude which operates as an automatic demand that persons and objects cater to his desires and caprices in the future. It makes him seek the kind of situation that will enable him to do what he feels like doing at the time. It renders him averse to and comparatively incompetent in situations which require effort and perseverance in overcoming obstacles. There is no paradox in the fact that the principle of the continuity of experience may operate so as to leave a person arrested on a low plane of development, in a way which limits later capacity for growth.
On the other hand, if an experience arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative, and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently intense to carry a person over-dead places in the future, continuity works in a very different way. Every experience is a moving force. Its value can be judged only on the ground of what it moves toward and into. The greater maturity of experience which should belong to the adult as educator puts him in a position to evaluate each experience of the young in a way in which the one having the less mature experience cannot do. It is then the business of the educator to see in what direction an experience is heading.

Agency doesn’t result from freedom; true agency results from mindfulness and a deep understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Children develop agency as a result of educative experiences; student agency doesn’t make experiences educative.

It’s fascinating, and mildly perplexing, how people advocating for student agency can cite Dewey and Papert without triggering cognitive dissonance. Their arguments for student agency are inconsistent with what Dewey and Papert wrote, but somehow, they’re still able to assimilate those theories into their pre-existing mental models without detecting the obvious conflict. I believe it’s this suppression of cognitive dissonance which is preventing us from understanding and grappling with the complexities of education.

To put it in Dewey’s frame of reference, we are engaging in mis-educative experiences which are causing us to develop habits of mind that suppress our sense of cognitive dissonance. To reverse things, we need someone who can guide us to educative experiences in which we can develop habits of mind that embrace cognitive dissonance. This is an essential component of vertical learning theory.