ABC of INQUIRY – ESSENTIAL AGREEMENT
“To Foucault, language is an instrument of power, and people have power in a society in direct proportion to their ability to participate in the various discourses that shape that society.”Freedman and Combs
ESSENTIAL AGREEMENTS: Co-constructing a constitution…
Essential agreements are like collaboratively constructed learning community constitutions. They can be a tool based in equity or a carefully disguised set of rules that learners are tricked into creating under the guise of collaboration and fairness.
When creating genuine essential agreements, the leaders, mentors and teachers of a group need to consider the levels of power(often hidden)and choice held by all participants and how these influence the level of responsibility each member can individually be held accountable for.
Underlying every essential agreement that is created is the question “Where should the gaze of accountability be focused?”
- ADMINISTRATION Greatest choice +Greatest power = Most responsibility = Most significant ability to respond and bring about change.
- TEACHING STAFFA lot choice + A lot of power = A lot of responsibility = Significant ability to respond and bring about change.
- PARENTS Some choice + Some power = A lot of responsibility to provide voice for students = Significant ability(depending on resources)to respond and bring about change.
- STUDENTS Limited choice + Very limited power = Limited responsibility = Limited ability to respond and bring about change.(And yet this is where the gaze of ‘failure to be responsible” usually falls).
Genuine essential agreements are collaborative, co-constructed by all members in a learning community, embedded in practices that value equity, fairness and recognise the opportunities and limitations of each member’s ability to respond or have their voice heard. Ethically created essential agreements help learning communities become robust, resilient and responsive. They are developed when trust relationships are established and co-constructed between all members in the learning community.
Essential agreements with ‘responsibility’ at the centre
The students are asked to collaborate and create essential agreements that make the class work well. The students will often give the ‘right answer’ and then be held accountable against these agreements for the rest of the year.
What remains hidden in these agreements is that the ‘idea of right answers’ can be subtly guided by the teacher’s questions; can be influenced by what ideas are reified in conversations or documentation. Hidden agendas for ‘right behaviours’ creep in and hide the power relationships in the context of the class and school system. The focus becomes about behaviour and accountability. Students know the rules, but not the power relationships; they have some choices, but not an awareness of the fact that the gaze of responsibility falls in their lap, without anyone glancing at or turning the gaze to towards other people and the systems of power it is embedded in.
Essential agreements with an ‘ability to respond’ at the centre.
The students are asked to collaborate and create essential agreements that help develop communities of practice where relationships of trust and hope inform their interactions.
Before the process begins, the teacher reflects on what actions and choices are non-negotiable, they reflect and identify the positions and relationships of power and choice in the class and school systems. During this reflection they develop an awareness of their own agendas and can choose to position themselves as open-minded in the ensuing class discussions. They can make this visible to the students or just be alert to how it is influencing the process. They can value the voice and ideas of the less powerful participants when exploring ideas and hopes that inform essential agreements.
During the process of establishing an essential agreement, students examine the power/choice relationships and balances. The teacher can carefully identify what actions and areas they actually don’t have a choice in because of bigger systems and rules. When power relationships and limits of choice are made visible, students become more informed participants in the process.
When students engage with the developing of an essential agreement by exploring what it is they can respond to, what is it that they do have a choice in, there is a shift from control and management towards a commitment to practices that are inclusive and fair. Students have more connection, more ownership, a greater ability to respond, they can be responsible for change because they understand what it is that they can personally do to bring about change. In this setting responsibility is about change and collaboration, it is not about management and control. This approach builds relationships of trust and reduces the need for micromanagement or punitive consequences. The idea behind the essential agreement is no longer rule making or control; it has become about community building. It becomes about examining and naming practices that support trust and practices of fairness. The focus is now on “What can I respond to and how will I respond to it?”. It is about connecting all in the learning community with practices that they val
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