“Having agency as a learner is now becoming a default expectation”, to meet learning needs. (21st Century Learning Reference Group [21st CLRG], 2014, p.36).
Learner agency is about having the power, combined with choices, to take meaningful action and see the results of your decisions. It can be thought of as a catalyst for change or transformation. Within a school context, Learner Agency is about shifting the ownership of learning from teachers to students, enabling students to have the understanding, ability, and opportunity to be part of the learning design and to take action to intervene in the learning process, to affect outcomes and become powerful lifelong learners.
Moral imperative — drivers for agency or agentic practices
Learner agency is not a new concept, but it is something that has come into the spotlight and quite rightly needs attention in our education system.
Agentic children turn into agentic adults. We have all heard the words “Successful people, act on their beliefs” and this is true in the light of agency. Therefore, the moral imperative lies not just in the social and emotional wellbeing — it is an innate characteristic that must be acknowledged and addressed.
As explored by Zhao (Zhao, 2015) the world is faced with two paradoxical crises: massive youth unemployment and equally massive talent shortage. These must not be allowed to continue — they are both dangerous. Massive youth unemployment leads to personal poverty, psychological trauma, plus social unrest. Inequality thrives as talent shortage drives up the incomes of highly talented workers, which in turn results in even bigger income gaps.
The traditional education model that prepared employment-minded job seekers does not address either of these paradoxical crises. In this fast-paced world of change, knowledge is now a central driving force, and agentic learners are critical for addressing talent shortages and massive youth unemployment.
Research shows that the more successful an educational system is in the traditional sense, the less likely it is to cultivate entrepreneurs. PISA scores, for example, have been found to be negatively correlated with nations’ entrepreneurial confidence and activities (Zhao, 2012). The new economy needs learners and entrepreneurs who have adaptive expertise to be innovative, flexible, and creative in a variety of contexts.
Embedding learner agency in school systems, curriculum
While it is innate for us to have agency, our current mental models of school systems often limit agentic practices. Developing agentic learners is more than offering a list of choices and seeking student voice. This is a tokenistic or watered down version of authentic agency.
To avoid tokenism and embed a culture of agency we must provide the conditions that shift the ownership of teaching and learning and place it in the hands of the learners themselves. This is also about involving students in the key aspects of decision making so they can fully experience the messiness of a real-world project, complete with the unexpected changes in direction, opportunities, and challenges that can arise.
It is an imperative that we move the level of engagement of learners from non-participation through tokenism to learner empowerment. Amplifying agentic practices gives permission to all learners, teachers, and students alike, to embrace new possibilities for learning and educational systems. If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals. Johnston (2004), pg. 29
A lead thinker in education noted that teachers do not create learning, learners create learning, and it is the teachers that create the conditions to promote learning (Wiliam, 2006). This is further empowered by parents and whānau who help to inspire and focus a sense of agency. As top rung of Arnstein’s ladder of participation states, agentic learners initiate agendas and are given responsibilities and power for the management of issues and to bring about change.
Technology enabling, enhancing, supporting these processes
Digital technologies have changed how teachers and students approach learning. Knowledge is no longer constrained by the physical boundaries of the traditional classroom. In today’s learning environments, access to limitless information rests at the fingertips of learners and their devices. Teachers can draw on these enabling technologies to move towards becoming a co-constructor of learning, who builds knowledge alongside their students. In this sense, everyone is a learner and has the power to act in the agentic classroom.
Digital technologies enable learners to connect with, interact with, and build on knowledge in ways otherwise not possible. When teachers scaffold, support, and guide students through their use of digital technologies, students are empowered to drive their own learning.
Learners can use digital technologies to:
Some questions to act as a stimulus with your colleagues include: