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    7 Things About Learner Agency That Teachers Need to Understand

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    7 Things About Learner Agency That Teachers Need to Understand

    As teachers, what is the best thing we can provide for our learners from their very first years in school to their last? For many reasons, the Future-Focused Learning Community believes fostering learner agency is the answer, and it's crucial to understand why.

    Whatever is said to be the most beneficial and critical outcome to achieve with our children, we believe there must be a high level of importance placed on opportunities for having agency over their learning. 

    When our kids leave their school careers behind and enter a world of possibilities, there are several abilities to have that will help them succeed. Problem-solving ability, teamwork capacity, independent critical thinking, overcoming adversity, self-management and regulation, and more all appear on this list. Interestingly, all of these proficiencies begin with and are nurtured by the development of agency (OECD, 2019).

    As an educator of children, if you haven't already, you are very likely to hear the term "agency" shared frequently in many educational circles. Your peers and colleagues will discuss it, interpret it, and perhaps even misunderstand or fear it. Our purpose with what follows is to give you a practical perspective of what agency is, and what it means for you and your learners.

    It is our hope you find these clarifications of the nature of learner agency useful, and that you choose to begin a serious exploration of it with your learners. You're about to discover it really is one of the best things you can provide for them in a classroom, now and in the future.

    What is Learner Agency?

    When we talk about learners having agency, what do we mean? The descriptions you'll find out there for this term are many and diverse. For example, Australian educator James Anderson describes learner agency this way:

    "Learner Agency relates to a student’s ability to navigate their way through life and positively impact their circumstances. It’s about ensuring they are the master, not the victim, of their circumstances, and it is about students being powerful, not powerless, in the face of adversity." (Anderson, 2021)

    One study stresses that agency "involves initiative, awareness of one’s own capabilities, setting goals, self-regulation, and perseverance in attaining these goals ... it also requires the individual to become aware of responsibilities of one’s own action, of social connectedness to others, and recognizing inter-dependence of one’s actions" (Schoon, 2018).

    Another way to describe learner agency is to say that it means a learner's ability to identify valuable goals and desirable outcomes and proactively, purposefully, and effectively pursue those goals and outcomes (Chuter, 2020). It includes fostering the capacity for thinking independently and making personal choices, a central facet of proactive childhood development (Manyukhina & Wyse, 2019).

    These are only a few of the scores of examples of how to interpret agency. What's important to know, however, is they all share one common thread between them, which is that agency is about autonomy.

    A Historical Perspective: Why Learner Agency is Important to Understand

    Between 1967–1968, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire's groundbreaking book Pedagogia do Oprimido (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) was written, and published for the first time in English in 1970. Penned in the aftermath of the Brazilian coup d'etat of 1964 and Freire's subsequent exile, Pedagogy of the Oppressed suggests the forging of a renewed relationship between teacher and student—one in which learners become agentic co-creators of knowledge, rather than its passive recipients.

    After the coup, Brazil was under the rule of a military dictatorship. Freire cleverly drew a parallel between the newfound state of tension and fear in his home country and the feelings of the learners he encountered as a teacher. He prefaced his book with his observations that students seemed to struggle with an unconscious fear of freedom, or "a fear of changing the way the world is". This was part of what he meant when he referred to a "pedagogy of oppression" (Freire, 2000).

    Agency is not a teaching method; rather, it's an outcome of successful teaching.

    When we suggest that agency means having freedom from pedagogical oppression, keep in mind that oppression does not need to be violent or tyrannical, as Freire clearly understood. It can instead refer to the act of guiding learners to adhere to a system that is meant to ensure they do not perhaps entertain what might be considered "wrong" ideas (Hase & Blaschke, 2021).

    It is this adherence that ultimately produces passive and compliant individuals who struggle with or are incapable of independent, critical thought. And in all good conscience, we cannot and should not send any child out into the world this way at the end of their formative years. However, with the adoption of agency we circumvent this scenario by stoking a learner's capacity to "accept responsibility, take control of and make choices in learning, and to see how those choices impact the world" (Hase & Blaschke, 2021).

    Today's learners require the ability to be enterprising; to exhibit creativity; to collaborate in person and remotely; to solve problems; to be curious, courageous, and resilient; and to be self-motivated, independent workers and learners (Voogt, 2013). Agency exercises all of these qualities and more in our learners.

    What Teachers Must Know About Agency

    As we begin to delve further into agency with the points below, we must assure you of something. In our own work with teachers at Future-Focused Learning, we have seen firsthand the apprehension they feel when confronted with the notion of turning agency over to learners, and understand the myriad of reasons why it's a scary idea.

    Again, our purpose here is to ease you into understanding agency using practical knowledge and wisdom accumulated from our own experiences of how agency transforms learning and its outcomes. Here then are seven things you need to know about learner agency.

    1. Agency is not a subject or a pedagogy, but an outcome.

    Developing and nurturing learner agency is something the versatility of which our children will enjoy as they learn, and then transfer to other areas of their lives. Just like any type of literacy, be it information or reading or technology literacy, agency is not a teaching method. Rather, it's an outcome of successful teaching. The type of education system that favours autonomy, individual development, self-determination, and self-direction as its foundation for development of learners is the best system for achieving the outcome of learner agency.

    2. Agency is more than just voice or responsibility.

    It's quite common to confuse agency with other terms that seem similar, such as "voice" and "responsibility in learning. That said, what we must realize is that voice and responsibility are both a part of agency, but are not agency itself. Agency is a broader concept that encompasses these two terms and others such as autonomy, self-regulation, adaptability, perseverance, and many more.

    3. Agency develops each learner's unique talents and abilities.

    When learners take agency over their learning, they embark on a highly personal journey. Even though they remain supported by close interaction with their teachers and peers, the learning experiences they will have as agents are still very much their own.

    This is why agency lends itself well to personalised learning, which is " a process of creating an individual pathway through learning to arrive at the required outcomes in a way that is relevant to each learner" (Crockett, 2019). In fact, a study performed at the University of South Dakota in May 2019 concluded that there is a significantly positive relationship between the development of self-efficacy and learner agency and the implementation of personalized learning environments (Degen, 2019).

    4. Agency doesn't mean students working alone. 

    Don't be concerned with the idea that a learner having agency over their learning will isolate them from other learners; in fact, it's the opposite. Today's learners are highly social learners that understand the value of relationships, and are hard-wired for collaboration. As Modern Learners founder Bruce Dixon notes, "they’re not limited by what their teacher knows, rather they are empowered by the ease with which they can now share their ideas and get feedback from significant others outside their classroom, school, state or country" (Dixon, 2022).

    5. Agency doesn't mean students doing whatever they want.

    Though agency is our goal, it would be unwise to let our learners simply run free. Any learner, especially a young learner, benefits from the structure and facilitation provided by their teacher. The whole idea of school should be to provide an abundance of structure and scaffolding for learning, but with just enough control to ensure learners remain on task with their curriculum while still exercising agency over how they learn and how they demonstrate their achievement of success criteria.

    Stimulating a learner's emotions creates context and relevance, prompting their engagement in and autonomy over that learning.

    Students enjoy the freedom of choice in their learning, but can experience anxiety and uncertainty when it comes to taking agency over it (Hase & Blaschke, 2021). This is why approaches such as inquiry-based learning and project-based learning are perfect for getting learners familiar with agency. They can help provide the additional scaffolding needed to gently ease them into the practice while making the learning interesting and relevant to them.

    6. Agency means learners work with teachers, not for them.

    According to the study Amplify: Empowering Students Through Voice, Agency and Leadership (2019), one of the defining characteristics of agency includes learners working with teachers in making decisions about teaching and learning. So what kinds of choices are we talking about? The truth is any opportunity you present that allows your learners to be an integral part of the teaching and learning process will be a welcome one.

    Agency can involve learners unpacking learning intentions alongside their teacher, and co-establishing success criteria. Learners can practice agency through developing their own assessments with the teacher as the guide. They can even co-produce lesson content which parallels the learning intentions you establish, and conduct ongoing peer assessments with their classmates. The takeaway here is that, with learner agency, teachers and learners work side by side to accomplish these goals, and celebrate them together as well.

    7. Agency lends context and relevance to learning.

    Curiosity and interest come before learning, and connection and relevance happen for learners when we stimulate an emotional response within them to what we're teaching. Learners do their best learning when they establish emotional connections to the conversations, ideas, and activities that happen in learning (Immordino-Yang, 2015).

    When learners have agency, these kinds of things tend to happen as a byproduct of having that agency. Free to be themselves and to harvest their personal qualities and talents, they learn as they are meant to learn. Stimulating a learner's emotions creates context and relevance, prompting their engagement in and autonomy over that learning.

    A Final Word

    Creating learner agency is fast becoming one of the top priorities in schools all over the world. After reading all this, we sincerely hope you have a clearer picture of what learner agency is (and is not), and why we believe so strongly in it. So strong, in fact, that we've written a book on it called Agents to Agency: A Measurable Process for Cultivating Self-Directed Learner Agency.

    The book discusses the seven points above and much more in rich detail and provides you with everything you need to understand and implement learner agency practices in your teaching. Watch for news about it coming to the Future-Focused Learning Community.

    You may also be curious about how you can begin to implement it in your own classrooms right now. Begin with the Future-Focused Learning Community's Learning Intentions Masterclass as a way to begin a shift to learner agency.

    We mentioned earlier that one way to practice learner agency is to unpack learning intentions with your learners. This masterclass sets you up for success in doing just that. The Learning Intentions Masterclass is designed to build your capacity in guiding learners to develop their own learning goals and establish their own criteria for success, all connected to clear curricular outcomes.

    It's a perfect beginning on your collective journey toward establishing learner agency in your classroom. Explore the Learning Intentions Masterclass and get started today.


    Amplify: Empowering students through voice, agency and leadership. (2019). State of Victoria Department of Education and Training

    Anderson, J. (2021). Learner Agency: What is Learner Agency and How Can Schools Develop It? Retrieved from https://www.jamesanderson.com.au/learneragency on Nov 2, 2022.

    Chuter, C. (2020). The role of agency in learning. The Education Hub. Retrieved from https://theeducationhub.org.nz/agency/ on August 13, 2022.

    Crockett, L. (2019). Future-focused learning: 10 essential shifts of everyday practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

    Degen, D. (2019). The Manifestation of Self-Efficacy through Learner Agency in Personalized Learning Environments (Doctoral dissertation, University of South Dakota).

    Dixon, B. (2022). Who Are These Modern Learners? Retrieved from https://modernlearners.com/who-are-these-modern-learners/ on November 4, 2022.

    Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed.). Continuum.

    Hase, S. & Blaschke, L. M. (2021). Unleashing the Power of Learner Agency. EdTech Books. https://edtechbooks.org/up

    Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2015). Emotions, learning, and the brain: Exploring the educational implications of affective neuroscience. New York: Norton.

    Manyukhina, Y., & Wyse, D. (2019). Learner agency and the curriculum: A critical realist perspective. The Curriculum Journal, 30(3), 223-243.

    OECD. (2019). Conceptual learning framework: Student agency for 2030. In: OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030.

    Schoon, I. (2018). Conceptualising learner agency: A socio-ecological developmental approach. Published by the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies.

     Voogt, J. (2013). Challenges to learning and schooling in the digital networked world of the 21st century. In O. Erstad, C. Dede, & P. Mishra (Eds.): Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.

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