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”. Agency is when learning involves the activity and the initiative of the learner, more than the inputs that are transmitted to the learner from the teacher, from the curriculum, the resources and so forth. In the past our schools have catered mostly for groups of learners, for classes of kids, with a one size fits all approach. Arguably, many students felt disenfranchised in the midst of that, as they just had to sit and do what they were told. Lessons were delivered to students who were passive in the way that they received that. 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.
There’s been a lot of talk in the past about learner-centric approaches to education and personalisation, and these are aspects of what we might mean by learner agency, but the concept goes deeper than this.
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 isn’t simply about handing control over to the learner - a sort of abdication model - it 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. However, it will be important for schools to consider the safeguards that will need to be in place to ensure no one is falling through the gaps under the guise of just “doing my own thing”.
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.
So what are the implications for us as teachers, and as educational leaders? As we think about how our schools are going to be places that will prepare kids for life and work in the 21st century with the 21st century skills and knowledge and innovative approaches and all that sort of thing, we need to be encouraging them to be agentic in their learning, because that’s what they are going to need to be able to do beyond school of course - in work, and as citizens.
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. As we are doing that, we must consider who will design that IEP, who will be involved in that process, who will have access to that and be responsible for monitoring progress through it.
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.
Student voice is another aspect of agentic behaviour. We need to consider how 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. For example, BYOD projects are currently being considered by many schools. There’s a great deal of variance in terms of how schools will implement such schemes, from those that decide to go down that track of prescribing precisely what sort of device it must be, and what applications will be used and when and how, through to those that choose to accommodate a range of devices based on what students currently own and can afford. The latter may be considered a more agentic approach, but the key thing is to consider how the original decision is arrived at in the first place.
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