What indicators teach us about learner agency

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

I spent quite a bit of time on the road yesterday, visiting family members and completing a number of tasks. As I drove I became aware of the very large number of vehicles on our roads that have indicators that don’t work. These flashing lights that are a feature of every vehicle on the road, when used appropriately, help ensure traffic flows more smoothly and predictably – and safely – on this communal space called a road.

At intersections, roundabouts and driveways, I found myself having to drive very defensively as I wasn’t sure quite where one vehicle after the other was intending to travel until almost the last minute when the turn was made (or not). Surely the Ministry of Transport’s WoF scheme is intended to ensure such important features of our vehicles are in good working order so that traffic can flow as intended?

I was musing along these lines when my son, who was travelling with me, pointed out that it is highly likely that the problem is not with the vehicles themselves, but with the people driving them. He pointed out that some drivers simply forget to use their indicators, or simply feel they don’t need to use them because they already know where they’re going and that this intention should be already apparent to others around them.

“How can this be?” I thought, “why would anyone think it’s OK to put their personal safety and the safety of others at risk by ignoring a socially agreed on convention designed to mitigate such risk? – and besides being a legal requirement, surely it’s a part of the courtesy we extend to others as we navigate our journey on the shared roadway?”

I’ll leave readers to draw their own conclusions about the rights and wrongs of using indicators on vehicles – but I use it here in an allegorical sense, reminding me of what we mean by the term ‘learner agency’. Used interchangeably with terms such as ‘personalisation’, ‘learner-centred’, ‘self-regulated’, ‘self-managing’ and ‘individualised’ his term has become somewhat popular among educators in recent times. It’s a reflection of the philosophical shift within education from being primarily about ‘delivering’ an education (in the form of a set curriculum based on pre-determined bodies of knowledge etc.) to a focus on learning that takes account of the differences in learner abilities and dispositions, and where the learner is a more active participant in the learning process (as distinct from being simply the ‘receiver’ at the end of the delivery channel).

Yet I find the term, or more significantly, the outworking of the concept, is not well understood. Many educators I speak with (from classroom to policy level) conveniently sum the notion of learner agency up as being about ‘choice and voice”. In other words, it’s about providing learners with more choice, and ensuring we listen to what they have to say in the process. I don’t disagree that these are important aspects of agency – but even these terms have multiple layers of meaning and depths to be explored.

I see a growing tension emerging in discussions around learner agency that reflects something of what I see on our roads. One the one hand, we’re working hard to build the confidence and competence of individual learners through personalised/individualised programmes of instruction – firstly establishing their competence and and then giving them permission to ‘drive their own car of learning’ on the road to greater knowledge etc. On the other, we’ve embraced the importance of collaboration as a key competency in our increasingly complex and changing world and build programmes designed to foster collaborative learning and collaborative outcomes – recognising that we are travelling together on this road to greater knowledge/wisdom etc.

The OECD defines learner agency as “the capacity to behave as purposeful, reflective, responsible social beings, actively seeking to achieve goals that have been understood and endorsed.” For me this definition aligns the two dimensions of the tension outlined in the previous paragraph very well. For the individual there is the need to develop the skills, knowledge and dispositions to be able to operate effectively in such an environment – but then comes the responsibility to recognised the existence of others in this milieu. In a video that I recorded some years ago now I highlight the three dimensions of agency that build the complete picture:

  1. Responsibility to Self – involves the initiative or self-regulation of the learner
  2. Responsibility to Others –  is interdependent. It mediates and is mediated by the sociocultural context of the classroom.
  3. Responsibility to our Environment – includes an awareness of the responsibility of ones own actions on the environment shared with others.

While these words sound good (and even obvious) when read like this, we need to understand that, in our Western culture at least, we are, by nature, very individualistic in the way we operate – from the way we think about wealth, values, employment and things like care of elderly and disabled in our midst etc. Other cultures broaden the moral domain to encompass and regulate more aspects of life. Their default thought setting is about ‘we’, not ‘me’.

As we make learner agency a focus of our programmes in schools and classrooms, we need to understand that this shift from ‘compliance’ to ‘agency’ doesn’t mean we are abandoning rules altogether. Instead, we should be questioning and understanding why they exist in the first place – working to ensure they are ‘understood and endorsed’ as suggested by the OECD, and where they exist to serve the interests of a few, to reject them and build new ways of working.

Thus, as ‘drivers’ of their own learning, learners won’t feel obliged to use their ‘indicators’ simply because it is a ‘rule’ that has been imposed on them and restricts their personal freedom. Instead, they’ll see the use of their indicators as a means of demonstrating the responsibility they have for others on the road, and for ensuring that together, traffic in the environment of the learning highway flows smoothly and without complication.

If you have learner agency on your list of things to explore in your school or classroom in the coming year, my encouragement is that you look beyond the narrow definitions of ‘choice and voice’, and beyond the mechanics of ‘self-regulation’ and ‘self-management’ to seeing these things operationalised within the context of a broader, collaborative and socially-constructed environment where all learners are developing… “the capacity to behave as purposeful, reflective, responsible social beings, actively seeking to achieve goals that have been understood and endorsed.”

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