Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 45 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On Agency – and Empathy and Inclusivity


Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 45 seconds

I had a thought this morning, and saw this line from an article that completely helped untangle a puzzle in my mind:

On agency vs inclusivity: “teaching a man to fish is supposed to feed him for a lifetime. Scratch the surface, and we can see that portrays his poverty as caused by lack of knowledge, rather than, say, the fact that there are no fish in the ocean.” (Serene Khader – full citation at bottom)

My thought is not a new one. It’s an old one manifest. I always had concerns about discourses around learner agency. On the one hand, I worry that some discourses about social justice and empowerment/liberation aren’t considering the agency of those whom we are hoping to “help”/support. On the other hand, overemphasizing agency is kind of like supporting narratives of grit and growth mindset without recognizing structural inequalities that limit how much certain groups can do.

I was thinking that literature on the capabilities approach (Amartya Sen but also Nussbaum’s combined capability and Melanie Walker’s critical capability) would be good entry points to unpacking this a bit. And I’m on my way to reading some of the latest on that. I was also thinking that literature critiquing meritocracy would also be relevant here. And then I came across the quote above from Serene Khader (who has a book I just bought called Decolonizing Universalism) which is perfect for what triggered today’s thought.

Today’s thought was coming from these two tweets I posted yesterday:

The first tweet shows my happiness with learner agency: a learner taking responsibility for not doing his best in the course, but appreciating what he learned and not caring about the grade.

The second tweet is about my happiness that no one got an F despite having a few difficult cases this semester and having to put in a lot of effort.

So what gives? On the one hand, agency means students accepting responsibility for not doing well. On the other hand, not failing is my responsibility as the teacher.

But the quote from Khader here explains it perfectly.

I have a number of students in class, most of whom are privileged and have no major issues. They have oceans that have fish, and I want to nurture their agency to find fish and catch them and trust in their ability to figure out what to do with the fish later. But I also had a small number of students who didn’t have access to an ocean that had fish in it, or didn’t have fishing rods. For those students, it would not have been “fair” to treat them equally. It would not have been equitable. This empathy needs to be translated into inclusive practices beyond the course that already had loads of flexibility and choice in its design (which, again, worked for the majority of students).

I originally kept adding flexible design elements into my course to reduce the need to deal with special cases. E.g. many assignments give choices over output as written, oral or visual; same with texts, choices between articles and sometimes between article vs podcast vs video. Choice over topics for projects. And like I said, this worked for most people. Just that some needed something more. And I could pull my hands up and say, “it’s not my responsibility, I gave them many options” or I could face the reality that while they may not deserve an A, they can meet the major learning outcomes in other ways, and pass.

And so I think what I’m saying is that I start out with promoting agency – in an inclusive manner that creates room for people to thrive within their diversity/difference, but I also try to keep a lookout for those who need additional support in order to have an equitable opportunity to get through this, even if they won’t exactly thrive. For now. So there are no fish in their ocean. I direct them to a different ocean temporarily, but long term, they need to find some other way to feed themselves. I wonder if in future I can work on the latter? Depends how complicated and advanced each case is. I learn every semester.

Khader, S. J. (2019, September 13). Why Are Poor Women Poor? International New York Times. Retrieved from

My thought is not a new one.


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