The concept of 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”. When learners move from being passive recipients to being much more active in the learning process, actively involved in the decisions about the learning, then they have greater agency.
Three core features of learning agency
There are three things that I think are core features of our understanding of learner agency. The first is that agency involves the initiative or self-regulation of the learner. 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. The notion of agency involves a far greater tapestry of intentionality on the part of schools and teachers to create that context and environment where the learners are actively involved in the moment by moment learning and well being.
Second, 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.
And 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 makes, and action she or he takes, will impact on the thinking, behaviour or decisions of others – and vice versa. You can’t just act selfishly and call that acting with agency.
We could start by adopting the use of individualised education plans (IEPs) as a way of personalising the approach to learning, not just in terms of the delivery, but in terms of the learners’ ownership of that learning – the direction, content, process, and assessment of that learning.
It is critical to consider the pedagogical approaches that are adopted by teachers and schools, and to question and challenge those that are overtly teacher-centric, with an emphasis on delivery and curriculum coverage. Learner agency will develop when learners are involved in the whole learning process – including decisions about the curriculum itself, involving learners a lot more in the choices about the what as well as the how and the why of what is being learned.
We need to consider student voice is that reflected in the day to day decisions that are made around school – not simply in order to satisfy ourselves that we’ve heard what students have to say, but in more engaged and authentic ways that are about their learning.
- What use is made of IEPs in your school to enable the development of a personalized approach to teaching and learning?
- Who designs these? Who has access to them?
- How is student voice reflected in all aspects of school life?
- What safeguards do you have for ensuring no students ‘fall through the cracks’?
Examples and links:
- Students at the Centre: Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice (PDF)
- Ethos: How Gardening Enables Interdisciplinary Learning
- You Tube: TN Student Speaks Out About Common Core, Teacher Evaluations, and Educational Data
- You Tube: Engage Me!
- Tech Sherpas
- E-portfolios: How we measure what we value
For more about the Ten Trends: