Defining “Agency-Based” Education

By Rebecca Bocchino

What is “agency-based” education as opposed to constructivism and behaviorism, and is there any scientific research supporting these methods?  Addressing these questions requires that we consider the various underlying assumptions of the nature of man, upon which are based the intellectual, moral, and cultural foundations for our differing views of the nature and purpose of education.  It might also help to put the issue of “scientific research”, with its emphasis on measurable, quantifiable, observable, and replicable behaviors, into a more Judeo-Christian perspective.

Behaviorism, as articulated by John Watson and B. F. Skinner, sees man as an object that is only capable of responding to external stimuli.  It claims that man acquired sense organs through evolution, not Divine design, and these sensory organs receive and transfer the environmental stimuli which then act upon the human “object”, causing a response.  Thus, choice and action are determined by the process of controlling and manipulating stimuli, which can be reduced to a science in a laboratory.

In his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B. F. Skinner dismisses any belief in the free will or agency of man, claiming instead that

man does not act upon the world, the world acts upon him. … Freedom and dignity…are the possessions of the autonomous man of traditional theory, and they are essential to practices in which a person is held responsible for his conduct and given credit for his achievements.  A SCIENTIFIC ANALYSIS [BEHAVIORISM] SHIFTS BOTH THE RESPONSIBILITY AND THE ACHIEVEMENT TO THE ENVIRONMENT. (emphasis added)

It is upon this humanist moral foundation that behavioral methods using operant conditioning are based.

Constructivism or progressivism takes the concept of free will to the other extreme by operating on the assumption that man is not only a “self”, but that he possesses within himself all the wisdom and individual determination needed to progress.  InSummerhill, the British educator A. S. Neill counters the behaviorist assumption by suggesting that…

we should allow children to be themselves…renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction…a child is innately wise and realistic.  If left to himself, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing.

From this extreme springs methods such as “whole language” and “fuzzy math”.

Many are united in their rejection of constructivism and progressivism as one extreme, but controversy still exists between the humanist underpinnings of behaviorism and the Judeo-Christian belief in redemption and the nature of man.  Differences arise in how we define the capacity and nature of man:  whether he is a moral agent accountable to a higher, divine law, or a non-redemptive organism to be manipulated, controlled, shaped, and used by an external environment.  Each view is governed by opposing values and uses a different set of standards to measure human choice and action.

Judeo-Christian thought examines both the physical and spiritual nature of man.  Constructivism/progressivism acknowledges both the physical and spiritual, but takes the spiritual nature of man beyond the mark.  Behaviorism examines only the physical and denies the spiritual.  The physical sciences have reduced the nature of man from the wholistic view of spiritual and physical combined to a biological and ultimately psychological science.  Western educational theory has turned away from religion to science as the standard by which the nature of man is defined, and has become preoccupied with measurable, quantifiable, observable, and replicable behavior, effectively divorcing the physical man from the spiritual man.  Skinner himself admitted that behavioral science could not tolerate such an uncontrollable variable as the ‘spiritual man’, because such a perspective would destroy his concept of science.  He said,

There is no place in the scientific position for a self as a true originator of initiator of action.

That statement alone admits the relevance of spiritual man, not the opposite.  Judeo-Christian thought claims on the other hand that man is a moral agent with the capacity to initiate action, discern between good and evil, right and wrong, and to choose between them.

Before considering specific methods or pedagogy, we must first be willing to confront and identify the principles that determine our view of the nature of man and his capacity to determine the moral outcome of his existence.  Once that has been accomplished, we must then determine what constitutes the nature and purpose of education based upon that underlying assumption.  Only then can we truly examine specific methods in the proper context by focusing on the whole individual, rather than the physical man alone.

Reprinted with permission from this website:


  • Jesse Fisher

    Dear Rebecca (and Oak),

    The responsibility for an individual’s education can be in only 1 of 2 places – either the child wields it himself, or an adult does. If we try to convince ourselves that “shared responsibility” for a child’s education is possible, we’re kidding ourselves. The adult is by no means an equal partner and the temptation to usurp total responsibility will be too great to resist (“it is the nature and disposition of almost all men…”). It cannot be a mixture of the two, there is no middle ground between what you label as “the extremes”.

    I agree with you 100% that Behaviorism, which results in shifting the responsibility for the education of an individual to someone outside the individual, is bad. However, what you derisively label “Progressivism” is the only other option. Either we trust the wisdom of the child’s Creator, or we don’t and then try to “manage” the child’s learning. It’s either/or.

    A TRUE agency-based approach would respect what God created as already educated, ie. having come with the tools for life-long learning. As evidence, just look at your own children. To learn the highly complex skills of understanding and speaking a language, crawling, walking and running, your children needed no classrooms, no chalkboards, no homework assignments, and most importantly, no teacher. What they did have, what their Creator gave them, was role models, freedom, and an innate desire to master the world around them. They came with all the tools they need. Why do we think we know better than God? “Be still and know that I am God” applies to education as well.

  • mmr

    I think there is a “middle ground”, just like the article says.

    In our schools (or homeschools), we do not need to mimic the behaviorism or the constructivism models. (isn’t that just like the good cop/bad cop scenario?)

    but rather be guided by both sound faith and sound reasoning. learning does not just come from example, but from form, structure, precedence, and finally, opportunity. (all of which, btw, was needed to learn to crawl, walk, speak, etc.)

    I really like the TJED model.

    now that my children are older (13, and 10) they are naturally becoming more responsible for what they choose to study (which is patterned after the standard form–science, history, etc) enhanced with the skills that I taught them, (in a faithfully patient, uncritical loving manner), that I knew they would need, while they were still young and eager.

    but I came close. my teen– (who I am lucky, still enjoys math, and reading)– tries telling me why she thinks she doesn’t need to spend time on (penmanship, grammar, etc)– because I was so liberal before.
    I think where most people go wrong is trying to teach abstract, and rhetorical (adult) concepts to concrete, logical (children) thinkers. thus the TJED/classical model with an age appropriate level of ‘accountability’.

  • Peter Barnard

    There is a middle ground which is all about how a school organises itself. This has to follow systems thinking and values based culture which we do not have. when this is understood, the rest is easy(er)

    • Oak Norton

      Hi Peter, please read this page ( for an explanation of the term agency. In essence, it means free will. It means using your own intrinsic motivation to direct your learning, seeking truth from original sources, growing your talents and gifts, under the direction of proper guardians. In contrast, compulsory education such as we have now in public schools, forces children into a one-size-fits-all mode of learning. A group of children organized by age goes through the exact same learning of the same curriculum at the same pace, regardless of interests, capacities, and talents.

  • John Brown

    This article does not answer the question at all. I still don’t know what it is or whether there’s any scientific evidence to support it. It feels like the author is eluding the question because there is no evidence for it.

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