Learner Agency - more than just a buzzword!
But joking aside, Learner Agency is bloody important.
So what does Learner Agency actually mean. The way I define it is the idea that the learner has a sense of ownership and control over their own learning. The word 'agency' is defined as "action or intervention producing a particular effect", so I guess if we apply this to the learner, it means they engage in a particular action or trial an intervention which then produces a particular effect. In the context of a school this might involve students taking action, whether it be through reading, researching, discussing, debating, experimenting, making or tinkering and as a result, gain (through their own efforts) new understanding and new learnings. This being a shift from the notion of teachers, teaching at the student and fundamentally providing all of the knowledge and content which they then transfer to the the empty vessel.
Of course this notion is not new, in fact, it's positively ancient. I sometimes think Socrates must be turning in his grave.
So if this notion has been bandied about since the the time of Socrates, why the hell are we considering it as cutting edge now? I'm guessing the honest answer is that education started off pretty sweet, then got a bit crap in the last 100 years or so.
Public schooling as we know it appears to be have been formed or at least heavily influenced by the reforms introduced by The Committee of Ten, a group of US educators who called for the standardisation of the secondary curriculum. They recommended 12 years of education and a range of subjects or learning areas that have remained, for the most part freakishly unchanged (remember, this was a 120 years ago!!!). They also recommended that "...every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at what point his education is to cease."  I do wonder if it recommendations such as this that resulted in learners falling victim to the generations of well meaning educators developing well honed teacher agency, attempting to produce similar outcomes for all learners by delivering same size, one size fits all learning regardless of learner strengths, weaknesses, interests or career path.
Even in modern times, the notion of standardised testing has the unintended effect of producing standardised teaching. To ensure that teaching remains standardised, learners must not interfere! I actually have no issue with standardised testing or even standards. It's actually our notion that to meet common goals, we need to get there through common means that is the issue.
If the world around us wasn't changing so rapidly, we might have got away with sticking our heads in the sand and believing (like certain schools still do) that effective education means little, if any, learner agency and whole lot of control and teacher centred pedagogy. Don't get me wrong, there is still a place for direct instruction and even rote learning, but if you are limiting yourself to such practice, no matter how awesomely charismatic you might be, you are doing your students a massive disservice.
Firstly there is the issue that students no longer need you or I to access knowledge and expertise. Once upon a time you may have got away with little learner agency because they (the students) had few if any other ways to learn. I once worked with a teacher that claimed that school was like the dentist, that students simply had to suck it up and do what was good for them. I'm sorry lady, but you need to wake up and smell the laughing gas. Students no longer necessarily need us to learn, if learning is something they have to suffer through they will look elsewhere. However, they do need us to know how to learn more effectively and to curate what skills may be good to learn and what content might be useful to know in the future.
Secondly there is the reality that we are preparing learners for a different world than we were in 1892. We are no longer producing compliant workers for an industrial workplace where basic writing, reading and arithmetic and learned compliance was the key to success. In fact we don't actually know what we are preparing them for. We are almost certainly preparing them for multiple careers, more casual, informal work and/or self-employment. This calls for a broader set of skills. Yes, the three Rs are still incredibly important, but now the ability for young people to self-manage, learn to learn and then re-learn and adapt is going to be a basic need for survival. Complex problem solving, creative thinking and risk-taking are undoubtedly going to be the key ingredients for success. I mean look at the list Forbes produced as The 10 Skills Employers Most Want in 2015 Graduates
- Ability to work in a team structure
- Ability to make decisions and solve problems (tie)
- Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
- Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
- Ability to obtain and process information
- Ability to analyze quantitative data
- Technical knowledge related to the job
- Proficiency with computer software programs
- Ability to create and/or edit written reports
- Ability to sell and influence others
So what are 10 ways you might provide Learner Agency in your classroom or school?
- Introduce one to one devices or BYOD and actually give students the freedom to use technology in a variety of ways - not just a glorified exercise or text book. There is no question - all students having access to a browser is incredibly liberating if you just shut up and get of the way and let them go explore and actually use more than just the latest app or platform you've stumbled upon. Technology is not actually about improving grades, it's actually about improving agency (and hopefully greater agency should then result in better outcomes).
- Give students choice about context or topic where possible.
- Give students choice about how the record or process their learning - paper & pen, written notes, images or voice recording.
- Give students choice about how they evidence their learning - let them choose whether evidence is verbal, visual or oral (or a combination of all three)
- Give students choice about how and where they learn - provide an online platform with 24/7 access to clear learning outcomes, prompts, support and challenges.
- Provide students with a platform or space for online discussion about their learning that doesn't rely on you.
- Give students time and space to work independently - yes sometimes they will waste time, get distracted and frustrated - but so do we! And how are you going to bloody well learn to to learn for yourself without being given the opportunity to do so. as an aside - it always cracks me up when schools wonder why Year 13 students don't cope with "free periods" when we have barely given them a "free moment" in the 12 years prior.
- Allow time for independent inquiry, where students have time and space to seek out and create new understanding.
- Where possible let them personalise inquiry to give them even greater ownership - do those students really need to explore the same topic, book, period or place? And do they need to all present it the same way (see #4)
- Give students a choice of classes or modules or if this isn't possible in your present environment, at least give them the opportunity to co-construct the course they are in - even in a school where you have to present some sort of year plan, you can still hack that plan....if there is one benefit of a non-MLE environment you can usually get away with being as creative as you blooming well like in the privacy of your own classroom.
This list is not exhaustive. Would love to hear how you develop/enable/encourage learner agency in classroom or school.
Oops. Once again what I intended to be a pithy reflection has turned into a ramble. See learner agency isn't just a buzzword, it's a bloody great ramble!