Learner agency: Navigating through a complex and uncertain world

So reads one of the subheadings of the recent OECD paper, The future of education and skills (2018). The paper is another in a long list of reports, papers and publications from the OECD, which focuses on the educational needs of our young people. In particular the need to develop learner agency so they can become active, responsible and engaged citizens facing an uncertain world.

The short paper (it is only 7 pages long) launches the Future of Education and Skills 2030 project. The project aims to help countries find answers to two key questions. The first is to discover what knowledge, skills, attitudes and values today’s students need to thrive and shape their world. Secondly, it is to understand how instructional systems can develop these knowledge, skills, attitudes and values effectively (p. 2).

OECD learning framework 2030

Image: OECD learning framework 2030, (OECD, 2018)

The project aims to develop a learning compass (picture above), to show how young people can “navigate their lives and their world” (p. 4). The learning framework compass has been co-created by the long list of partners shared as an annex to the paper and continues to be a work in progress.

But the central focus of the paper is the students, and the need for them to become agents of change, as those who will be best prepared for the future. Why do we need change agents? To meet the challenges of our rapidly changing world. To discover new solutions to old problems, environmental, social and economic. The global trends in these areas of human endeavor, already affect all are lives, and will do so for many decades to come. Unless we can find solutions. And unless our next generation of young people receive the education they need, the problems will continue to grow, so say the authors of the paper. And so, to create change agents, our students need to develop learner agency.

What is the nature of learner agency and how can it be developed?

Learner agency as a concept has been central to education for a long time. We see the early development of it in the works of Dewey and Vygotsky, but also from critical pedagogical theorists such as Freire and Illich. When we think of our student mind as something that needs to be ignited, to be inspired, then we are on the road to encouraging learner agency.

Synonyms for Agency include “action, activity, effect, influence, force, power, work”. Looking at these can help us to understand the term learner agency a bit better. It is when students act or choose to influence their world, of their own devising, that we can say that they have agency.  A recent example would be students in America, working to change the opinions of legislators, to change gun laws. These students exhibited great learner agency.

In the OECD paper there is an implication that by developing learner agency students will have “a sense of responsibility to participate in the world and, in so doing, to influence people, events and circumstances for the better” (p. 4). But as we can see from the above discussion, agency is more than this, it moves beyond responsibility and the power to act, it must include the ability of independent thought, which forms the basis for autonomous action. And with that, it implies initiative and self-regulation.

The development of learner agency does not happen in isolation. To develop learner agency, we must recognize that it mediates and is mediated by the sociocultural context of the classroom (Core Education, 2014). Students who exhibit learner agency will do so in relation to the others in the classroom, in their community. Again, the students in America fighting the gun laws may be a beneficial example – they are not doing so by themselves, they are moving together as a community. And there is an awareness of what they are doing – and what the hoped-for consequences of their action will be!

Yet, despite the needs championed the OECD paper, learner agency is not the next ‘magic bullet’ (Ng, 2017). Developing learner agency will not ‘fix’ the world or solve all our problems. If that were the case then those students, the product of many years of quiet student-centered teaching, Deweyan models of experiential and active education, or Freirean-style critical thinkers, would already have had a tremendous impact! But that this is not the case, means there must be more. And of course, there is.

But for those of us who teach in this mode, who have been quietly getting on with it for years, it is nice to know that the OECD has come back to the table. That the pendulum, which swung in the late 70s and early 80s towards an economic rationalist discourse of education, is finally swinging back – and perhaps not before time. I look forward to seeing what the outcomes of the project will hold.






Front page photo credit: Designed by Freepik

The ‘rediscovery?’ of Learner Agency

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