What Is It?
In the social sciences, agency is defined as ‘the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices’ or ‘an individual’s will and capacity to act’. Therefore, student agency can be most simply defined as “learners having the power to learn independently and make their own free choices about their learning”.
Core education suggests that there are three features to understanding learner agency. I think that the three features that Core education outline are useful to consider and reflect upon. The three features are as follows:
Agency involves the initiative or self-regulation of the learner. 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 learning. Second, agency is interdependent. 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 thirdly, agency includes an awareness of the responsibility of ones own actions on the environment and on others. 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.
Agency fits naturally with school specific curricula. One way schools can encourage learners to exercise agency is by focusing learning on local environmental and community-based problems. For example, Schools located near farm land learning about the nitrogen cycle and its impact on plant and grass growth as part of the Science curriculum. Through school specific curricula, personalised and self directed learning can begin to truly occur. As learners see areas of interest around them, in their own world, they are naturally drawn to find out more about the particular phenomena.
Why Should Teachers/Parents Care?
What impact does agency have on learning/learners? Why is schooling/the education system heading this way? Is it just another passing fad?
Think about when you learnt how to ride a bike. Did you learn to ride your bike because someone sat you down and told you that it was time for you to learn to ride? Or did you learn to ride your bike because you were excited and really wanted to do it yourself? What was your motivation like? I bet you tried and tried, pestering someone more experienced than you to help, until you finally left those training wheels behind and could feel the wind in your hair, well helmet depending on how old you are.
Learning is learning, it doesn’t matter if you are learning how to ride a bike or how the hydrological cycle works. If one has interest and autonomy of what and when one learns the experience is going to be more meaningful and rewarding. The implication here is that if we want students to become more engaged and excited about what they are learning they should have a part to play in the content they learn.