By Anindya Kundu

Sociologist of education & postdoctoral research scholar, New York University

We are privileged to live at a time with many resources and technologies that exist to aide educators, but sometimes these advancements can carry an ironic cost: They can be distracting to the basic aims of education. As districts debate over which learning management systems (LMS) are best for their classrooms, the basics behind how learning actually happens can get lost from the forefront of cost-benefit discussions. Promoting student agency, the amount of influence students have over their own life, including their ability to navigate challenges and locate resources for themselves, should remain a focus within the changing trends of education.

Recently I visited some school districts to discuss the growing buzz around the concept of “personalized learning.”

This approach wishes to cater to each student’s strengths by creating programs for students to advance at their own pace as they pick up new competencies. But even these conversations can skew the fundamentals of what it takes for a student to have a personalized learning experience.

Primarily, a student needs to be challenged thoroughly and routinely but not overbearingly. Technology offers resources to create tailor-made tools to help children pick up where they left off and track their progress. But that’s not enough. Students needs to feel that their developing interests are recognized and attended to. This is nurture and it is only possible through the attention of another human—a teacher or a mentor.

Balancing the resulting implicit technology versus teacher debate is realizing that they are not mutually exclusive. When teachers and teaching resources work in harmony, students are the greatest beneficiary. Their agency grows. They take steps toward learning how to be their best selves.

I tell the story of “J-Stud” to professionals who want to learn about promoting student agency. A Black student from Jamaica Queens, J-Stud (an alias from his rapping days) had Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) up into high school. He got used to sitting in the back of his classes and scribbling away in his notebook without looking up. One day, his English teacher took notice and asked to see what he was writing.

She saw pages upon pages filled with rap lyrics that showed giftedness and literacy. She seized the opportunity to offer him a deal. From our interview, he told me:

One stipulation was, “You have to go to class, J-Stud. You have to literally go to class in order for me to continue to work with you.” She gave me the opportunity to go into an actual recording studio and put my music on a CD. I got to perform in front of a bunch of students in a music class. I got a standing ovation. Having that mentor who is still very near and dear to me helped put me on the right track.

That “standing ovation” and his teacher noticing his hidden strengths remains one of the most important experiences of J-Stud’s life. He eventually became an intern at that same recording studio and through meeting adults there, he realized that he was interested in accounting and finance. His studio mentors put him in touch with professionals in banks. He worked at those banks while completing his associate and bachelor’s degrees.

Today J-Stud is a vice president at one of the country’s largest financial institutions. The last time I spoke with him, he was still living in Jamaica to set an example that the kids from his neighborhood are not used to seeing. J-Stud and his English teacher personify that agency is driven by genuine relationships. It can be contagious and generate more agency for others.

For our diverse learners we should work to see strength in that diversity. The goal then becomes to create scaffolded lessons to get students from where they are to where they need to be. Attention to students’ origins and who they are as a person helps them develop goals that make education relevant to their lives.

I always say that schools and districts cannot do this work alone because they have too much on their plates. Moreover, relationship building at the systems level can lead to large-scale, generational impact. Recently in Memphis, I learned about the new River City Partnership between their Shelby County School District and the University of Memphis. The program is recruiting passionate high school students who are interested in urban education to become college “scholars” who will be trained (through courses in education and local history) and certified to go back and teach in their own inner city. This grassroots program also provides scholarships to the cohorts to ensure that debt will not extinguish their passion.

When we broaden our concepts of schooling and think towards a P-16 or a P-20 approach, we better cater to the ideas of lifelong learning and positive social change. As an academic, I can tell you that we are incredibly guilty of furthering isolations. There are conferences, papers, and professor titles (higher education versus urban education) that separate us from each other. Yet our aims largely appear to be the same, and we should look for more ways to collaborate.

In the end, true success is not just getting our students into college; it’s making sure that once they’re there, they have the tools to keep climbing and working towards fulfillment. At every level, we have to make sure our students know how to leverage resources, locate mentors, and establish their own networks. This currently goes unspoken with more privileged schools building it into their hidden curriculum. But for everyone else, these tangibles are free to relatively inexpensive to incorporate and must be explicitly stated as desired outcomes.

Isolation is the enemy of agency. Students need to know they are supported from all over to remain motivated to contribute back to society. Given the almost weekly scandals in education, it seems that these are turbulent times in education, but that’s nothing new either. While we wait for the rest of our country to catch up and learn to value education as a necessary social good for all, we can keep fighting to keep our communities cohesive.

Fostering agency can help ensure we will have the type of educated citizenry we need to tackle the challenges of the future. The goal of education is to allow students to flourish by helping them find their voice, discover their strengths, and ideally, to contribute back in some meaningful way. That to me seems like the power of “personalized learning.” When accomplished, education becomes the most important function of our society.