Why we should be teaching about voice and agency in schools

Melissa Kandido, English teacher at Qatar Academy Sidra in Doha, discusses the importance of fostering skills in recognising one’s voice and agency, and how schools can effectively implement teaching on this topic

Students play a key role as participants in social movements worldwide and are often at the vanguard of them. Yet, most school curriculums in the UK and internationally don’t teach students how to voice their agency effectively.

Schools are increasingly thinking about agency and voice, but questions remain about how, when and where to introduce this into curriculums. This has been challenging but, in light of the central role that agency and voice will play in pupils’ lives now and in the future, warrants the attention of educators. Solutions are not necessarily as difficult as they first appear.

Semantics as provocation

Gammage, Kabeer and van der Muelen published a seminal paper in 2016 entitled Voice and Agency: Where Are We Now? which argued that voice and action are facets of agency and encompass both the individual and collective exercise of agency. Voice integrates not only representation but the capacity to act with purpose. In other words, students must not only speak, they must also be heard. They must also feel empowered, enabled and encouraged to act upon that which they speak.

Youth activism has been a potent force throughout modern history. During the Vietnam war, students protested in anti-war movements, pushing many universities to limit on-campus recruitment; in the ’80s, student activists marched against apartheid in South Africa, demanding that universities cut all ties with the country.

Throughout their school years students also engage as social, political and economic actors, demonstrating their capacity to spur social change. More recently, we have seen young voices lead movements, from Malala Yousafzai, who at the age of 11 spoke out against the Pakistani Taliban banning girls from school, to Greta Thunberg, who started lobbying against climate change aged 15.

Ridhima Pandey, Marinel Ubaldo and Ayakha Melithafa – all of whom are young climate change activists – likewise bring more than just their voice to engage issues, they also show action as part of engaging their agency.

Teaching protest in action

At Qatar Academy Sidra (QAS) in Doha, I recently introduced a new teaching unit on voice, agency and protest, as a way to teach students the importance of their voice and equip them with the skills to make positive changes in their communities.

Centred on the recent Black Lives Matter protests, the unit gave students the chance to examine agency through a variety of text types, ranging from fiction and poetry to opinion pieces by leading writers and activists.

Students also analysed photo essays, listened to podcasts and heard from guest speakers, including writers and activists for equality and other human rights issues. After examining the intertextuality of these works, we then went on to broaden the scope to the Arab Spring, climate change, the Vietnam war and Afro-Brazilian protests.

What makes the nature of modules like this effective is their liminality into a variety of concepts. I have found that curating bodies of work for my students to read and analyse that tackle current, local or global events makes the learning more authentic. Each cohort has its own collective personality, so depending on what they’re like – and the country and context I am teaching in – the reading materials can change to resonate better with the class group.

The same can be said for different age groups. This particular unit was designed specifically for English language and literature students aged 16–18; however, it could be easily integrated at all levels of secondary education – for instance, I am currently creating a similar course for a class of 13–14-year-olds.

It’s important for students to engage with both current social situations as well as those in our collective past, despite the challenges we face when discussing hard truths.

By teaching voice and agency, we provide them with a means to do this. Focusing on the Black Lives Matter movement, among others, this unit enabled students to engage with international issues at the heart of society, in addition to examining the power of multivocal rather than univocal spaces in media and around the world.

It’s important for students to engage with both current social situations as well as those in our collective past, despite the challenges we face when discussing hard truths

How will I use this in the ‘real world’?

This is a question that many teachers will recognise, and one that I revel in because it suggests the student wants to see the application of their efforts in real-life contexts. From my experience, students want their academic endeavours to connect to that which lives outside of the classroom walls.

The module was also built to encompass wider conceptual questions, such as what does it mean to have voice, what is agency, when do you choose to use it, when do you silence it and when are you silenced?

One of the broader concepts we explored with the help of Qatar Debates – a member of Qatar Foundation – was ‘clicktavism’. Clicktavism refers to supporting a political or social cause online by means of social media or online petitions. As younger generations are more connected than ever, it is vital for educators to teach them the role that social media, and other forms of activism, can play to help them use their voice.

By helping young people to understand their own agency and voice, we can prepare them for future challenges and give them the skills and tools they need to speak up for what they believe in.

Students are not the future – they are the now

QAS educates citizens of the present, not the unnamed future post-graduation, but the now of agency and voice. Students need not wait for a future moment to engage their voice and our programmes instil that there is a now/present tense to this rather than a future-based time frame.

From racial inequalities to the climate crisis, students have a voice, and as educators, we can provide platforms and opportunities for them to be heard. Integrating learning with voice, agency and protest into the school curriculum helps to build students’ interpersonal, communication and interpretation skills, which will transfer far past school and their academic life.

Let’s give them tools to engage in discourse that avoids dichotomous ‘either-or’ responses and allows for a ‘both-and’: multiple truths so that agency is a lived reality, not a term we just read about in headlines.

You might also like: Inquiry-based learning: an important shift in practice

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