On Agency, Lost and Recovered

The most important skill to your child’s success and happiness is not taught in schools. It is not her ability to write a five-paragraph essay, repeat what she read in a textbook, follow instructions, or remember the quadratic equation. Nor is it her ability to “deconstruct” literature, immerse herself in Chinese, or code.

Instead, the most important skill to your child’s success and happiness is agency.

Agency is the capacity for and willingness to deliberately reshape the world. You know a high-agency person from her bias for deliberate action. A high-agency person sets her own goals and realizes them by any means. In your career, it may be the colleague who always seems to figure out what others gave up on. In your personal life, it may be your friend who pivots careers and stays up late studying to conquer something he never knew before. In your family, it may be the cousin who studied your grandmother’s diagnosis and managed to get her an appointment with the leading specialist next week. A high-agency person can be more subtle, like the other cousin who quietly visits your grandmother every morning, takes her for a walk, and makes her feel happy again. But whatever their ways, high-agency people move mountains.

You also know exactly who is not a high-agency person. It’s not your colleague with a defeatist attitude who can always come up with an excuse for why something cannot be done. It’s not your relative who accepts an unhealthy job or unhealthy relationship as a fait accompli. And it’s also not your peer who does what she’s told, even if she does so well. Studying for the SAT or going to graduate school may take horsepower, but it often reflects an ultimately passive view toward life. “If I just do what I’m told better than everyone else, I will be successful and happy.” But she won’t.

Sooner or later, I’ve come to believe, a person’s capacity for agency will define them. If your child is high-agency but lacks a skill that she needs, she will find a way to get that skill. If she’s low-agency, life is too dynamic for her other skills to be enough. When she faces inevitable hardships, obstacles, and tragedies, her agency will get her through them. Agency is the truly indispensable skill.

So what is the American education system doing to cultivate agency? The most charitable answer is: very little. The less charitable answer is that the American education system actively suffocates agency.

For the most formative years of most Americans’ lives, the education system places them in desks under fluorescent lights in sterile rooms where they are judged almost entirely by their agreement to follow instructions and ability to do so. The American education system does not invite students to ask why they are doing what they are doing, but instead tells them what to do with little explanation. It does not prepare students for the unexpected, but instead presents them with artificially closed systems in which nothing will go wrong. And it does not cultivate resilience, but instead rewards excuse-making with special accommodations and adjustments.

If you reflect on your childhood and education, you’re likely to notice a pattern. At first, you spent your days playing with friends, drawing, making play-dough figures, inventing outdoor games, getting dirty, completing jigsaw puzzles, and maybe even choosing to read. In preschool, you likely had some freedom to get up from your seat, roam the classroom, speak to your friends, and independently pick out new activities from height-adjusted shelves. But soon enough, your days became curated; arts-and-crafts once done for their own sake suddenly have an obvious curricular agenda, then disappear altogether; you were trained to raise your hand in order to speak; you were required to write form-essays judged by their conformity to a predetermined structure; and you were given worksheet after worksheet to complete in the same way as every other student before you.

Your choices dwindled year after year up through high school graduation. We were all led down a path of passive participation. Our agency was squashed or left dormant just in time to enter “the real world” when agency is most needed.

This approach to education has consequences. In January 2020, a startling study came out of Yale University. Over 20,000 teenagers were surveyed about their high school experience, and the overwhelming majority of students described their experience using just three terms: tired, stressed, and bored.

The survey results, however, do not surprise anyone. They merely confirm what we all already knew from personal experience: When you spend over a decade of your early life paradoxically “training for the real world” in a class where you must raise your hand to get permission to speak, must ask an authority figure whether now is a good time to relieve yourself, and must enroll in coursework predetermined for you — you’ve been robbed of your natural and basic instincts to actively engage. The result is a student body that consists of mostly the anxious and the apathetic.

The student who would have written a short story ripe with imagery is reading a dull textbook about identifying it elsewhere; the student who would have built a rocket is doing old experiments in a controlled lab. This isn’t to say that reading about literary analysis or performing controlled experiments are wastes of time. But in our education system, they are presented as mandatory, without question. The student curious enough to ask for an alternate assignment may get lucky, but she is the exception, not the rule.

Beyond the individual costs, our society suffers too. If someone lacks agency, what kind of employee would they be? Could they adapt to the constant automation of common industries? Would they go out of their way to help someone for whom one step would make all the difference? Would they get involved in their local politics? Would they feel a reason to simply vote?

Of course, schools have not vanquished human agency from the face of the Earth. We live in the era of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg. Regardless of what you think of them, these are high-agency individuals who built high-agency teams that changed the world. And we all have peers or relatives who we look up to for their agency. But what if society had more high-agency individuals? What technologies would be developed? What masterpieces would we see in the arts? How would industries transform? The invisible deficits are all around us.

This isn’t how it has to be. Humans have long found ways to protect and cultivate agency and a new wave of education-technology start-ups are doing it again. They are providing for students what schools today fail to provide—an approach to education that puts student agency at the fore.

I’ve worked for two of these companies and my experience has made me optimistic. The first is Polygence, an online one-on-one program in which teens create and execute projects with the help of someone experienced in their field. Polygence exists to “turn passions into projects.” The genius of the Polygence program is two-fold: 1) students choose their passion to pursue and 2) students must make something, anything, to showcase what they learned. In order to be admitted to the program, teens have to answer the question “What do you want to learn?” And to graduate from the program, teens leave with a tangible project they can point to and display in a personal portfolio – whether it’s a podcast, an academic research paper, a prototype, a piece of art, or a computer program.

I started working for Polygence as a part-time mentor myself. My first mentee was interested in biochemistry, and particularly the leptin cycle, the biochemical mechanism that makes us feel full after a meal. Instead of reading about it in a textbook handed to him by a teacher, he had to research it himself. And instead of answering questions on a test, he chose to turn his studies into a published children’s book. Throughout the entire project, he was challenged to execute this ambitious project—and become a teen author—with nothing more than guidance from me. For instance, when he was unable to access certain research papers, I didn’t just give them to him; he emailed the authors requesting a copy. When he was unsure about results in a study, we discussed it, but he ultimately reached out to the researchers to get their insight. And, when it was time to actually publish his children’s book, he independently determined all the steps to self-publishing through Amazon. After he made more than a dozen submissions, Amazon finally accepted and now sells his book: The Adventures of Brandon and Gigabit. The agency he displayed throughout his project was far beyond what I saw among my high school peers over a decade ago.

Polygence in its best form challenges students to be resourceful, take ownership of their work, and cultivate the agency that will set them up for success in the real world. When students graduate from Polygence, they’re in awe of what they accomplished and realize that there’s no reason to stop. Sometimes they  continue their projects after the program ends; other times they start new ones altogether! Some students are simply grateful for the opportunity. All of them, however, carry a newfound confidence to pursue their next endeavor.

In the edtech space, self-directed education is becoming more common. In addition to Polygence, programs like Sora School, Prisma, and Primer, are all encouraging students to explore a wide variety of interests while fostering student agency through projects.

My experience at Polygence also showed me how far we still have to go. After interviewing hundreds of students who were coming to Polygence, I started to notice a few trends among teens. Most prominently, I saw students struggle to know what they were curious about. They had never been asked to think about it before! I also got the sense that for those students who did know their interests, they weren’t always comfortable voicing them. Our education system made them afraid of being judged as having a kookie idea or a silly interest. These students were too self-conscious of being the least bit different to pursue the project idea that they would be most committed to.

These trends are a reminder that agency is more than simple execution. In addition to their successful execution, high-agency individuals are not afraid of sharing unconventional thoughts, improbable goals, or seemingly simple questions. I started to wonder, what would Polygence projects look like if the students were completely unhindered and followed their instincts?

And around the same time, I found Synthesis, which seemed to cultivate that very quality. Synthesis is an entirely new kind of education. It is a program that invites 8- to 14-year-olds to collaborate in a series of game simulations. The game simulations are designed with complexity and rigor. They present unexpected obstacles, nuanced situations, challenging trade-offs, and points of total confusion. The kids aren’t told how to play the game and nobody instructs them on how to win. Teachers act more like facilitators, asking socratic questions and cultivating an environment where students can learn from one another. The students have to figure everything out from testing hypotheses and communicating their findings.

And they have to do so collaboratively. A typical session at Synthesis reminds me of the engaging seminar discussions I had in my graduate studies at St. John’s College – a great books program where students are challenged to grapple with difficult texts without authoritative instruction. Around the seminar table and at Synthesis, students share ideas, pose questions, provide counterpoints, and puzzle through difficult concepts together.

Best of all, students do figure these games out. They think of solutions that nobody had told them about. They learn how to engage with the unknown. They overcome problems that once felt insurmountable. And they discover how to never give up. In many ways, Synthesis is the perfect primer for practicing agency.

Synthesis is fostering a generation of kids who do not raise their hands or expect an authority to provide answers. In fact, one of the axioms of Synthesis is to “Seek good explanations,” which never means follow someone’s advice blindly. In one of my first sessions as a teacher, students had come up with a game plan to beat a collaborative challenge, but then one student went rogue mid-game. He deliberately took a different course and the students failed the challenge. We debriefed afterwards and the student who deviated from the plan was forced to explain himself. It was an incredible moment for a ten-year-old: he cautiously detailed why he wasn’t sure the original plan would work and wanted to try another strategy (and didn’t foresee that it would cause his entire team to fail). A few students were mad, but most wanted to hear him out. They asked him questions like: Explain your alternative strategy to us. Why did you think it would work? Could it work even while executing a different strategy, simultaneously? They seemed to know that solving problems would require openness to the possibility that going rogue is the right thing to do. Synthesis instills this lesson in students before they’ll need it beyond the game simulation, in the real world.

I also like to think that we all can take steps to bring back agency, whether in our own children or in those around us. The easiest way is to start modeling it yourself. Send a cold-email, sign-up for the hobby course you’ve always wanted to try, apply for the unconventional new job you’ve dreamed about, have the uncomfortable conversation, or push through the seemingly impossible deal at work. And then share your story with those in your community. As you model being a high-agency individual, you might just inspire someone else to do the same, even if they don’t have the practice.

Staci Hetzel
Staci Hetzel
Staci Hetzel is a start-up generalist currently overseeing teacher recruitment at Synthesis—an online enrichment program designed to cultivate student voice, strategic thinking, and collaborative problem solving. Before joining Synthesis, she was the first employee and Head of Academics at Polygence, an online research mentorship program for high school students. Follow Staci on Twitter @Staci_Hetzel.
Explore additional categories