A Challenge to Our Community: Make Connections Across Disciplines

This post is a follow-up to “Breaking Down Silos with the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative.”

The Importance of Agency

Agency is a key driver of student-centered learning. It’s what makes change happen. While young people can generate ideas, believe in themselves, and know how to communicate and engage in technical work, agency is the will to get it done. Agency transforms confidence, dreams and skillsets into meaningful actions. The possibilities for learner agency depend on context—the topics students seek to learn, the people who engage with them or facilitate their learning, their environment, resources available to them, and even how they feel.

Despite a shared understanding of the importance of agency as a driver of student-centered learning, education researchers have not clearly defined how best to identify and measure agency. It could be as simple as quantifying an uptick in the number of requests a young person makes to lead their own learning, or how often young people seize opportunities and carry them through to completion.

To address this challenge—to figure out how best to identify and measure learner agency—I suggest we need to look beyond the field of education.

Exemplars Beyond the Education Field

In the research world we are rewarded for staying in our silos, confining our research and publications to our respective academic disciplines.  In my own work as a professor of education, I’ve had the good fortune to be able to consider the range of theories and disciplines that could help answer complex questions. In doing so, I’ve discovered that relationships among diverse fields of study can offer synergistic examples of the patterns of life, while bringing fresh perspectives and new approaches to problem solving.

Consider as an example the mathematician Barbara Shipman, who had a lifelong interest in bees. The confluence of her mathematics knowledge and her curiosity about apiary habits led to her astounding discovery that the ritual dance pattern of honeybees aligns with discoveries of six-dimensional geometry.

My own first synergistic discovery occurred during my early years as a professor of education at Penn State. I found myself in a rural community where, by chance, I met scholars across campus in the Agricultural Extension program who studied positive youth development and youth-adult partnerships. I learned that our respective research findings—while based in very different fields—were remarkably aligned. My research on “student voice” up until that point stemmed from a school change perspective. I used sociological organizational theory to explain how young people’s participation in educational change processes impacts the youth involved and the organizations. Diving into “youth-adult partnership” focusing on afterschool and 4-H programs, I found topics very similarly focused on youth leadership and change processes.

Both sets of scholars—those in education and those in agriculture—studied how change efforts improved with the increased voices of young people. The positive youth development of young people grows by participating in organizational work. Young people gain in ABCDs—Agency, Belonging, Competence and Dialogue across Difference. Organizations also can benefit from youth involvement, as long as care is given to how such partnerships are formed.

In discovering the synergies of these separate but complimentary research efforts, I recognized the value of translators of research—people who can connect fields of work together, for example by linking different disciplines of scholarship or by helping school teachers at different grade levels deepen their practices by drawing on each other’s work.

Looking Across Disciplines

I’m currently working on several projects focused specifically on learner agency. As a Students at the Center Distinguished Fellow, I’m helping to support JFF’s sponsored research on Implementing and Measuring the Effects of Student-Centered Learning Practices Via a Networked Improvement Community, led by Carrie Scholz and Victoria Cirks at the American Institute of Research. I’m also working with Griptape, an organization that helps young people develop their own learning plans, separate from school activities. Working with Mark Murphy and the Griptape team, we are noticing a shared sense of the importance of agency as the driver of youth-driven learning. Members of the Griptape Learning Accelerator are also writing and thinking about how to expand our understanding of learner agency.

As these conversations continue, I find myself once again looking across disciplines and projects to gain even greater knowledge of agency and other terms that may be interrelated. For example, ideas from areas such as transformative leadership in business or positive psychology may suggest how best to identify and measure learner agency. I challenge all of us in the education field to push beyond our silos and harness the power of interdisciplinary scholarship as we seek to put students at the center.


Dana Mitra is a Students at the Center Distinguished Fellow as well as Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Education Policy Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. She has published over 30 papers and two books on the topics of student voice and civic engagement.

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