Children Caring Powerfully: Agency in Imaginary Communities – by Dr Becky Parry
This blog is exploratory and the ideas are ‘in development’, but they were inspired by discussions with Imaginary Communities (IC) practitioners as part of the evaluation of the second year of the residency programme, funded by The Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
Creating manifestos for embedding care
At our Care and Creativity: Think-In in 2022, we created manifestos for embedding care into the work of Chol. Groups of practitioners, teachers and critical friends worked in groups, producing three distinct manifestos. In the process of devising these manifestos, discussions became animated. One group especially wanted to acknowledge that putting care at the heart of practice in education was counterculture from the priorities of schools, needing to focus on attainment. There was anger in the debate about the way education policy has made it harder to start with a focus on the needs and interests of individual children. It became important to acknowledge that prioritising ‘care’ was not necessarily a warm, fuzzy aspiration, but instead an incredibly difficult challenge.
Working within the current education system
When each group shared their manifestos of care, there was a clear frustration with the lack of agency and autonomy arts educators have when they are working within the current education system. In England and Northern Ireland, agency and autonomy are not currently a priority in education policy and curriculum, and this is evident in the education resources being created for schools. The Primary Knowledge Curriculum, for example, promotes the need to ‘deliver’ a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’ which it sells to schools as online packages of content. The use of the term deliver here is important because it positions teachers as conveyors of information and children as consumers. In this model of learning, neither children nor their teachers need autonomy or agency to learn, they need to be compliant. Compliancy is achieved through extrinsic motivation and self-regulation, so that the only decision children and teachers need to make, is to pay attention and follow instructions. Not doing so would be treated as disobedience or disruption.
Teaching for the development of agency
Considering these two concepts and the very different perspectives of the purpose of education that underpins them, led me to think deeply about a moment shared at our Think-In by Erika, an Emotional Health Worker involved in one of our partner projects.
“I know him very well. I’ve worked with him for quite a long time, one-to-one. He comes from a very challenging background. He’s got lots of challenges himself. And he had taken on the mantle of the Lord, the king of the world that we’d made up. And all the other groups were going up and making representations to him and trying to get him to come and join. And he was saying, ‘No. I’m up here. I’m above you. I’m in control and I’m not gonna join.’
And all of the other groups went up and made these representations. They were being really creative and really thoughtful, But they were coming up with ideas like, you know, ‘I can use my magic spell to overcome your power’.
And then he would come back with something about my power’s greater than your power and all this. And it got to the point towards the end of the session where it felt like he was not going to come and join the group. And I was sensing, that’s not a great place to end, actually.
And then this idea was brought up about, well, why don’t we just make it really fun down here? So, we’ll actually encourage him to come and join us by it just being fun. And so, we started having this party and we were jumping and whooping. Dancing about. And then he did come down and he, and he did change his mind and it was a really amazing moment for him, for the group.
And care really came into it. It was just this really amazing moment. That young person, he’s lived a lot of his life not having any control and having a lot of really difficult, really difficult circumstances. So, for him, being in control was a very powerful moment for him, and it was very important. He was embodying something that he maybe doesn’t get to do in his real life, but the fact that we as a group could do something that actually let him come away from this control that he had and come and join the group in this sort of celebratory way just felt monumental.
And I actually get, I’m getting a bit emotional thinking about it. It felt really, really powerful.“
Agency and compliance
IC creates many such powerful moments and it is really important to take time to unpack why they are so powerful. What strikes me, as I read Erika’s account, is that this was a moment of both agency and compliance. The boy took the decision to comply, to join in and relinquish power, not due to self-regulation or conformity to arbitrary rules, but in order join a group of people who were inviting him to play and dance with them. The compliance came as a result of a collective act of compassion by the community.
IC creates these moments of tension, through narrative decision-making, in a similar way to practices observed in research by Anna Pauliina Rainio at The University of Helsinki. In her paper focused on agency and resistance Rainio states:
The problem of promoting student agency is that, although personal sense and motivation are crucial for learning and development, the need for control and order in classrooms often makes it hard for teachers to give space to them. To develop more meaningful educational practices, there is a need for a thorough understanding of the ways through which teachers and students deal with and momentarily overcome this contradiction in their classrooms and are able to enact or promote agency.
(Rainio, 2008 p.115)
Imaginary Communities: placing children in a shared fictional world
Like the play world based on ‘The Brothers Lionheart’ by Astrid Lindgren in Rainio’s research, IC places children in a shared fictional world and, in these worlds, practitioners see agency manifest in quite different ways. Rainio divides these into the following:
(a) agency as self-change and as transforming the object of activity
(b) agency as becoming a responsible and intentional member of a learning group or a classroom and thus a member of a society
(c) agency as resistance and transgression: transforming one’s relation to and position in an activity and thus transforming the dominant power relations
The boy Erika described was exercising agency in all three of these ways. This has provided an exciting lens for reflecting on IC practice. Often the focus of creative work with children and young people is about voice – giving voice to those who have not previously been heard. This is a discourse of arts education which is rhetorically deployed in some problematic ways, glorifying the role of the artist who is ‘giving voice’. A focus on agency shifts the focus onto the community, offering invitations to individuals to participate in a shared fictional world. In that world, knowledge is co-constructed by the drama practitioner, the teachers and the children, so that practising agency is inherent to the pedagogic process. If the group decides that the river in their world is flooding its banks, it must also decide why and what the impact is and what they will do about the flood. And, often, these narrative events require research to inform the decision-making, enriching cross-disciplinary learning in a situated and intrinsically motivated way.
Clear potential for learning
It’s important to acknowledge that focusing on agency in an education context which valorises curriculum delivery, can be counterculture and it is therefore not easy. Teachers and headteachers find themselves having to battle to find space and time for this work.
But, if we consider the fictional worlds the children regularly create for themselves, the potential for learning is clear. In IC, children might find themselves in a magical forest or a desert island, but they might also create for themselves Ancient Greece or Tudor Britain. Having agency in these imagined worlds is a potentially powerful opportunity, creating a space for research in ways which bypass the usual learner hierarchies and behaviour expectations of classrooms. Care in IC is therefore not only compassion or comfort, but is the development of empowering practices where knowledge is co-created and criticality is encouraged.