Agency and the Rise of New Power

Surprisingly, it wasn’t Deputy Headmaster Rohan Brown abruptly cutting a student’s hair that was front page news, but rather what came next.

It was a day in early March when school photos were being taken, and as the young lad walked through the front gate of Trinity Grammar, a prominent boy’s school in Melbourne, Brown noticed the length of his hair. As he had done on other occasions, he pulled a pair of scissors out of his pocket and snipped a lock of hair. Only this time, it was captured on a fellow student’s iPhone, posted on social media, and within days Brown was dismissed, after more than thirty years teaching at the school.

However, that was not the end of the story but rather the start, with several weeks of student-led protests, meetings, and online petitions to “Bring Brownie Back” which reached out to drive strong parent support. Within weeks Brown was reinstated, the Headmaster resigned together with several School Board members.

Now in light of the massive student-led protests calling for action against gun violence across America in the same month, the Brown story pales in significance. Or does it? They are just two very public examples of the influence of agency, and its impact on power and authority.

The impact of the shift in agency across society and its influence on traditional roles and hierarchies is outlined in the newly released New Power: How Power Works in the Hyperconnected World and How to Make It Work for You. This is a book by two young people who have “the chops.” Jeremy Heimans is a lifelong activist and the co-founder and CEO of Purpose, an organization that builds and supports social movements around the world, while Henry Timms is president and CEO of the 92nd Street Y, a visiting fellow at Stanford, and co-founder of #GivingTuesday, an international day of philanthropy. Their message is a simple, but very powerful one:

Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.

New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

No-one gave the students “permission” to protest, nor did they have to be “empowered.” And whether or not it is a “revolution,” as the Economist by-lined, is not the point. The impact of student agency on classroom practice is a but a small piece of a much larger shift far beyond our classrooms, and it will inevitably drive a dramatic change in the practice, form, and function of our schools.

So it’s worth reflecting on how power is defined in your school? Is the concept of new power just as significant as for teachers as it is for students, and if so, how does that influence the role of leadership?

We can’t take these questions lightly, because they are fundamental to many of the core assumptions we have about our traditional models of school. There are some who see agency and the associated shifts in power as subversive as and it threatens their very identity as a teacher, but if viewed through a broader lens they are both exciting and inspiring.

But let’s be clear, this is not Summerhill, because this is not the ‘70’s, and it’s not simply about student’s doing whatever they want, whenever they want. More importantly, it’s not just about schools or the shifting role of teachers, students, and leaders. This is about how traditional roles are changing every aspect of our lives. In our workplaces, in our homes, and in our schools. If we fail to acknowledge this, we are failing to prepare our students for their lives ahead.

… the rise of new power is shifting people’s norms and beliefs about how the world should work and where they should fit in. The more we engage with new power models, the more these norms are shifting.

 Indeed, what is emerging—most visibly among people under thirty (now more than half the world’s population)—is a new expectation: an inalienable right to participate (18).

You’ll be familiar with many of the examples they quote, and in some cases, they are easy to dismiss. Sadly we acknowledge that at this time, the US student protests have only had a minimal impact on gun control in the US, and for all the hype about the role of social media in driving the Arab Uprisings, much of the politics there has reverted to norm, or worse. That is not the point. This shift is about a change over time, and it is not about technology. Rather, it’s about the role it plays in enabling agency and the new power structures that will continue to influence every aspect of our lives.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented shift in authority and power, and it is important that we understand both the depth and breadth of that shift. It is being used for both good and evil, as Heimans and Timms outline in detail;  influencing democratic elections and raising millions for charities, reforming the Catholic church and promoting terrorism, used by Lady Gaga and her Little Monsters and growing new political movements like GetUp.

So in responding to the inevitability of this shift, we need to think carefully about designing modern learning environments that more appropriately reflect the shifts in power and authority that agency drives.

Many schools are already responding, some of whom have worked with us in Change School. For some, it’s meant flattening the leadership structures within schools to better reflect Kotter’s Guiding Coalition, while for others the focus has been on building shared understanding about learning across a school community leading to a student-led more inquiry focus.

The opportunities are endless.

Five for Further Reading

  • Escaping the Echo Chamber– Some say it’s because we like the sound of our own voices, but this longer article from Aeon takes a closer look at why we choose the online communities we inhabit.
  • This is What Learner Agency Looks Like– Kelly Young at Pioneering always has some great stories from the “coalface.” This one looks closer at Norris Academy.
  • Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends– Just in case you missed it, this Recode article shares all the links from Meeker’s presentation, which is always worth looking over to abreast of trends.
  • On BloggingDoug Belshaw quotes a great piece by Jim Groom:” It’s just a shiny version of what’s in my head.” If you don’t subscribe to Doug’s newsletter, it’s worth considering.
  •  The importance of early childhood and elementary school intervention-“We can’t become a nation of equal learners until we become a nation of readers.”

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Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

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