from soft skills to agency

I’m very pleased to see a blog post by Andy Calkins, Deputy Director of the Next Generation Learning Challenge, entitled “It’s Time to Trash the Terms ‘Non-Cogs’ and ‘Soft Skills.'”

Partly in response to the hegemony of standardized testing, some organizations and individuals have been pushing for “non-cognitive” or “soft” skills (e.g., collaboration, grit, participation) as important measures and goals of education. Theirs is a valid goal, but I agree with Calkins’ critique of the terminology. The kinds of skills that have been named “non-cognitive” actually require advanced cognition; the skills that have been labeled “soft” are, in every sense, quite hard.

But it’s not his critique of terminology that makes me recommend Calkins’ post. Rather, it’s the alternative master term that he recommends to replace “non-cog” and “soft.” Calkins chooses “agency,” which is indeed an apt word for the individual student outcomes that have been overlooked in the era of narrow assessments. Agency comprises an individual’s ability and motivation to interpret and change the world. But it is not an only individual matter. Agency has to be political (in the broadest sense), because individuals are truly effective as agents when they work together.

Thus we can say that citizens have agency; and people who exhibit agency in public contexts are citizens. Doris Sommers, who visited Tisch College earlier this week, would argue that citizenship is “cultural agency”: intentionally shaping the common world together. And Harry Boyte and Blase Scarnati write, “Agency can be understood as a form of empowerment that has conscious political dimensions, or as effective and intentional action that is conducted in diverse and open settings in order to shape the world around us.”

In We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For (pp. 27-8), I write:

A master question for social theory during the twentieth century was structure versus agency: whether people’s voluntary choices made any difference in politics, or whether underlying “structures” determined everything. This question divided, for example, French existentialists (who preached the value of intentional political acts) from French structuralists (who thought that political events, including major elections and revolutions, were superficial perturbations on the permanent structures below). But the question for the twenty-first century should be different: not how much impact agency has, but how that impact can be expanded. The reason to expand it is not that agency is intrinsically good. Hitler was an effective political agent. Rather, deliberate and effective human action is one necessary condition of a worthwhile human life. If there is no agency, life can have no point.

In the context of education, “agency” moves us from a purely individualistic framework to a recognition of collaboration, social capital, networks, public discourse, and other outcomes for groups and communities.

This argument is important coming from the Next Generation Learning Challenge, which is influential, hard-nosed about measures and methods, and involved with enhancing students’ success as currently measured. (For full disclosure, the NGLC funded us for a randomized experimental test of iCivics’ Drafting Board module, which we found to be effective.) It would be easy and unremarkable for me–a civics and democracy guy–to endorse agency. For the NGLC to choose it as a master term is much more valuable.

See also: “from the achievement gap to empowerment