The concept of learner agency has been central to educational thinking and practice for centuries. The idea that education is the process through which learners become capable of independent thought which, in turn, forms the basis for autonomous action, has had a profound impact on modern educational theory and practice.
One way of thinking of learner agency is when learners have “the power to act”. This occurs when the learner has choice about what/where/how she/he is learning, and has the ability to act on that choice.
For more on this sort of thinking check out the video below that I made back in 2013 when the concept of learner agency was just starting to kick in in many New Zealand schools.
Agency and responsibility
Fundamentally, agency involves responsibility – and to enable learners to experience and develop agency in their learning, there needs to be a shift in the ownership of learning. By this I mean we (as educators) must be designing learning so that there is an intentional shift from us being the font of knowledge and our lessons being primarily about the learners following the path we’ve planned for them (however exciting we think we may have made it) – to where we offer our learners far greater ‘ownership’ of what is happening.
This shift is not an abdication of teacher responsibility however. Teacher will continue to play an important role in the teaching and learning process – it will simply be different. Most often it will mean a greater focus on intentional design, providing greater transparency around the purpose of learning activity and the measures of success being applied and adopting a more pro-active role as mentor, coach, facilitator and/or “fellow learner”.
This ‘shift in ownership’ involves the learner in taking an increasing level of responsibility in her/his learning. The emphasis on learners becoming self-managing, self-regulating and self-directed features in this thinking. Before a learner can exercise agency in their particular learning context they must have a belief that their behaviour and their approach to learning is actually going to make a difference for them in the learning in that setting – in other words, a personal sense of agency.
But concept of responsibility must not stop there. It’s perhaps a weakness of our current system that we’ve put such an emphasis on telling our learners that ‘they can do anything’, and that it’s all about pursuing their individual goals etc. We see evidence of this sort of thinking in the way some educators approach the ‘personalisation’ and ‘individualisation’ rhetoric in our current system for example.
In addition to this personal sense of agency, we must understand that agency is interdependent. It mediates and is mediated by the sociocultural context of the classroom. It’s not just about a learner in isolation doing their own thing and what suits them. Learners must develop an awareness that there are consequences for the decisions they make and actions they take, and will take account of that in the way(s) they exercise their agency in learning.
Thirdly, agency includes an awareness of the responsibility of ones own actions on the environment and on others. So there’s a social connectedness kind of dimension to that. Every decision a learner or group of learners make, and action she or he takes will likely impact on the use of or interaction with the environment they share. Consider the issues in a shared space where there is no responsibility taken for ensuring it is kept tidy and the shared materials returned to their appropriate place after an activity. Or extend this thinking out – consider the impact on the physical environment of decades of consumer behaviours based on extractive industries that are slowly depleting the limited supplies of the earth’s natural resources – or polluting our shared water resources to the point they are no longer usable.
Since I made that video above there has been a huge shift in this direction across our education system. We see this shift given many names – ‘personalisation’, ‘self-managed learning’, ‘self-directed learning’, ‘self-regulated learning’, ‘choice and voice’, ‘individualisation’ and so on. While there are subtle and nuanced differences in each approach, the broad outcomes are very similar – a shift in the ownership of learning, with the learner taking greater responsibility for all aspects of her/his learning.
Articles and links
Listed below are a number of resources that I’ve either created or refer to in the work I do with schools and teachers around learner agency. Feel free to access and use them – and do let me know if there are others you think I could add here.
Agency By Design: Making Learning Engaging
A paper I wrote in collabroation with Marsha Jones and Joe DiMartino from the US, published by the Aurora Institute.
This report offers guidance – including practical advice – to education leaders and teachers in redesigning schools and classrooms by centering on learner agency, through a shift in the ownership of learning. It also provides clarity around the definition and meaning of learner agency and addresses the implications for high-quality practices in new learning models.
Learner Agency Research Report
This research report was created by my colleagues at CORE Education. It is the result of both a literature scan and a series of conversations with students and teachers from three New Zealand schools.
This work and the analysis that followed identified ten conditions that foster agentic learners, each of which is explained in more detail in the report.
Shifting Ownershp Tool (CORE)
This resource from CORE Education is based on some work I did to create a set of measures to assess the shifts taking place in a classroom or school context, and applies the ten conditions identified in the resource above.
It is a practical tool for teachers or learning teams, leaders, educators, and learning communities to support the process of change and shift the ownership of teaching and learning, placing it firmly in the hands of the learners themselves.
Shifting Ownership Tool (original)
My original Shifting Ownership of Learning resource which is available in several versions:
- A4 version (as shown)
- A3 version with continuum as a worksheet
CORE’s Ten Trends: Agency
Learner agency has been a focus in CORE’s ten trends since 2014. In each of those years I wrote more about learner agency and how this idea is being increasingly emphasised in classrooms and schools around NZ. Each year’s feature has links to a number of other papers and examples in practice that ware well worth exploring.
Learner Agency: Maximising Learner Potential
Published by Oxford University Press, this paper is filled with advice from an Expert Panel, and will help you to nurture learner agency with straightforward guidance you can adapt to your needs.
Their definition of learner agency refers to the feeling of ownership and control that learners have over their own learning. When students believe their actions can make a difference, they become more confident, engaged, and effective learners. Every student can develop their agency – but they must be supported by their teachers and learning community to do so.
Students at the Centre
A resource that I frequently refer to is the spectrum of student voice oriented activity that appears on page 24 of this document from Students at the Centre.
This organisation has published a large number of resources to support the shift in ownership idea – placing students at the centre of their learning.
This particular document has a wealth of information and ideas to provoke your thinking!
Student Agency: Learning to make a difference
Charles Leadbetter wrote this paper while he worked as an advisor to the OECD Education 2030 project. He explains what he means by agency, explores the origins and development of the concept, and outlines what education would have to be like to ensure that learners emerge from schooling as confident, able, responsible agents of change. He identifies the essential components, levels and aspects of agency for this to be achieved, and comments on the required approach to learning.
Learner Centred Education and school improvement
An excellent post by By Katie Martin and Devin Vodicka on the Getting Smart site from March, 2021 titled Why Learner-Centered Education is the Key to Meaningful School Improvement. I’ve found the references made in this article really helpful – hopefully you will too!
Enabling eLearning: Learner Agency
This site contains a wide range of resources, links and examples on the theme of Learner Agency.
Check out the School Stories tab for some excellent videos and stories of what’s happening in other classrooms and schools.