We recently hosted a Webinar featuring Dr. Flavia Videl and Dr. Susan Tsao Esty who are the pedagogues facilitating the peer-to-peer sex education program called Yes+ (Yes Plus). The Yes+ program is a peer-designed peer-led program with adult support that covers a broad variety of topics related to sex and sexuality. The program explores individual values and beliefs about these topics with the intention of developing in students the skills needed to navigate healthy relationships and manage one’s own sexual health. It inspired us to think of the wider societal impacts that can be drawn from programs of this nature, programs which esteem student agency.
The difference between student voice and agency
Agency is a carefully worded choice here. Despite the terms ‘student voice’ and ‘student agency’ being interchanged seamlessly throughout educational literature, these terms often vary in their pedagogical outcomes.
Student voice has been ratified into education legislature globally in accordance with the UN convention on the rights of the child (UNCRC) which includes article 12: “the provision that children have a right to express their views and have them taken seriously in accordance with their age and maturity”. Including student voice within education is a safeguarding mechanism aimed at protecting children and valuing their agency. Problematically, the tokenistic outcome of many student-voice initiatives is widely discussed across education literature. This tokenism takes on many forms, from a democratic window dressing feature of school-governing bodies, to using student voice as teacher performance data for upper management rather than valuing student input. In a guide published by UNICEF the author, Gerison Lansdowne – founder director of The Children’s Rights Alliance in England – comments that of all the legislature article 12 “has proved one of the most challenging to implement”.
Student Agency, on the other hand, denotes action. Programs like Yes+ build student agency into their foundations; rather than only providing space for children to speak with no guarantee their voice will retain power, programs designed and led by students are real opportunities to exercise and explore one’s agentic capacities. These programs ultimately empower youth to recognize their innate capability and to value their unique insight as powerful knowledge, as well as to practice self-navigating their autonomy.
Why is student agency important?
From a pedagogical standpoint, we learn best by experiencing, engaging, and applying ourselves in situations. Traditional learning environments, which position students as passive receivers of knowledge, can limit the depth of the learning experience for students by restricting their engagement. By utilizing student agency in the teaching of consent in the Yes+ program students have the opportunity to practice navigating how consent interacts with their subjectivities as well as the values and beliefs of others in safe spaces that are welcoming, diverse and inclusive. Opportunities like this allow students to understand what differences look like and how our subjectivities shape diverse attitudes to the world. The likelihood is that when students grapple with consent in their real-lives their classroom experience would have better equipped them with the tools to navigate and manage healthy sexual relationships.
Student agency is about giving students tools and information and then allowing them to choose their own path. These approaches more accurately mimic real life as students will ultimately have to navigate decision-making for themselves. By allowing students to design the direction course curricula the content of the programs more accurately reflects the lived experiences of students. In the Yes+ program rather than avoiding the uncomfortable conversation about pornography, or utilize a one-note fear-mongering approach, the program instead recognizes that pornography is ultimately a source of sexual education for many young people, and instead equips students with tools to critically unpack this content. Peer designed programs provide better learning opportunities as the content is more relevant in the lives of students.
Student agency and social transformation
Students are powerful change-makers that have the potential and capacity to lead positive change in schooling environments as well as the outside world. Consider how Greta Thunberg sparked a global climate change movement, or how youth-led protests such as the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, anti-monarchy protests in Thailand, or anti-police brutality in Nigeria have destabilized engrained political structures and forced global conversations. Students as powerful change-makers is not a new concept either, the South African youth-led protests in the 1980s — known as the Soweto Uprising — were a key moment in amassing the global support needed to dismantle Apartheid.
Fostering student agency is ultimately a theory of change. Peter McLaren, esteemed scholar and revolutionary pedagogue, writes passionately on the issue. In a world facing immense social and environmental issues we have a responsibility to provide supportive spaces where students can challenge the status quo and ultimately enact the change they hope for as future leaders of our world.
“Time and again, experience shows that children – even very young children – given the time and opportunity, demonstrate not only that they have views, experiences and perspectives to express, but that their expression can contribute positively to decisions that affect the realization of their rights and wellbeing” – Gerison Lansdowne