Agency and Autonomy? Two Significant Learning Conditions

Agency and Autonomy? Two Significant Learning Conditions

In a way, there is nothing (no one thing) very complicated about parenting. Each bit of awareness-raising information is pretty straightforward.  BUT ... each is impacted by many other bits in differing ways that can cause unpredictable and undesirable results. And, now as a grandparent, I keep finding more "opportunities" to see that what I thought yesterday isn't the whole story.

Here is something new for me: In human behavior, what is the difference between autonomy and agency? See if you find this useful in nurturing your child's (or your own) sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.

I recently attended an early childhood education conference and was attracted to a session that I thought was going to be about preschool children and the significance of autonomy, a seemingly overlooked human drive.  This session was lead by the most delightful, wise, and observant XX-year-old I have ever had the opportunity to meet - Sydney Gurwitz Clemens. Right up front, she told me that autonomy is not the same as agency.  That hooked me, and I thankfully stayed for it. At the end, I thanked her and said, "I've never heard agency discussed before in early childhood. Do you know who else is doing that?" She answered, "I'm the only one." As soon as I got home I begin to explore the difference between these two and share them with you below - in the hope that Sydney and I can create some classes to empower parents.  In the meanwhile, she and I are planning to do a few joint public educational conversations with parents in the near future.

I wrote the following after a few back-and-forth emails from a close friend and linguistic mentor regarding my initial thoughts.  Thanks, Kevin K!

Agency is an innate urge and intentional action, such as to explore, test, or produce a particular effect for one's own goal or internal learning process. Agency is a capacity, and thus underlies under all external conditions and circumstances. It is used as an essential experimental, explorative, and inter- and intra-active learning and integration process that can be interrupted by external demands or perceived threats (relational or physical). It is frequently interrupted by parental and educational agendas (when its value is not seen or understood).

Autonomy is a freedom of a person to choose an action or to locate oneself within existing external limitations. There are degrees of autonomy (wide ranges of limitations) under differing circumstances.

Agency in action builds intrinsic knowledge and skills, while autonomy allows or restricts the range of knowledge and skill-building possibilities. We could say that being in a traditional school classroom involves a loss of autonomy - the loss of choice of where one is and what one can personally choose to do given the rules and expectations of that classroom and school (external to the student's choice of interests). Agency determines what we focus on within the available options.

On a daily practical level with young children (and others):

Agency is disrupted when we (me included!) start talking to or making demands or requests of our young children when they are playing or working on their own. Also, helping or coaching them without being asked, and giving answers when unasked, are other frequent ways we may interrupt their development. Sometimes it is necessary, and under some conditions, even frequently, but doing it under other conditions without being aware of it has negative relational as well as lessening intrinsic learning, as I observed after cogitating on it:

I know it doesn't work for me to start talking to my adult family members when they are working on their computers or doing their own art project, nor does it work when one of them just starts talking to me "out of the blue." I don't get consciously angry (but others may), but when I think about it, I am annoyed (okay, so I do get angry). I am now more aware to try to remember that young children get interrupted from their important "work" that I might not even think matters. How rude of me!  At least now I apologize, even to two-year-olds whom I don't know, when I interrupt them just to be friendly!

I invite and welcome you to comment on this.


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