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: http://www.learn-usa.com/relevant_to_et/ss&s005.htm