10 questions in pursuit of learner agency…

Claire Amos inspired the audience with her ‘Free Range Learning‘ talk at Learning 2 last year and I found her recent post on learner agency thought-provoking:

So what does Learner Agency actually mean. … 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 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 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.


In her post Claire suggests 10 ways you might provide learner agency in your classroom or school. I note with interest that almost every one of them includes the word ‘give’ and/or the notion of teachers or leaders ‘providing’ or ‘allowing’ learner agency.’ 

Can we create a culture of agency, where decision-making, choice and voice, reflection and metacognition, exploration and inquiry, risk taking and resilience empower our students to live their learning, rather than ‘doing school‘?  Below are some key questions that need to be considered in developing a culture of agency.

10 questions in pursuit of learner agency…

1. What is your ‘image of the child’? How do you view the learners in your class? Do you believe children are inherently intelligent, curious and creative? Do you recognise their rights and their capabilities? Do you trust them?

2. Do you know every learner’s story? Are you tempted to refer to the class as ‘they‘ or are you always conscious that each learner brings her own interests and abilities, strengths and challenges? Do you think about each individual’s personal history? Are you aware of the factors that influence each one’s learning?

3. What do you believe about learning? Knowing what and how to teach is not enough. Have you, individually and as a school, thought deeply about how you believe learning takes place? Have you carefully examined the extent to which your practice aligns with your beliefs?

4. Do your learners believe in themselves?  Do you group your learners on perceived ability or do they have opportunities to learn with and from others with varying strengths, challenges and interests? Is a growth mindset fostered? Are learners motivated by learning itself, rather than extrinsic rewards that encourage winners and losers in the game of school?

5. Who holds the power? Is your token nod to agency allowing the learners a choice when you decide it’s the time? How much of what your students say and do has to be channeled through the teacher? Do you make most of the decisions? Or can the learners really lead the learning? Is initiative valued over compliance?

6. Who does the heavy lifting? How long do you spend making sure students know what they are supposed to do? Do you explain everything in detail several times in different ways? Or do the learners have a go at experimenting and tackling problems first and you step in at point of need? Are you able to release control so that the heavy lifting is done by the learners?

7. Who owns the curriculum? Do you have secret teacher business? Do you check the curriculum and decide what to cover and how to teach it? Or are students empowered to explore curriculum requirements in their own ways? Are there opportunities for engaging, relevant learning that addresses trans-disciplinary learning across curriculum areas?

8. How important is measurement of achievement? Do you teach to the test? How much weight is placed on grading? Do you think everything has to be formally assessed and what can’t be measured is less valuable? Or is the process of learning perceived as more significant than the outcome? Is process valued over product?

9. What is the language of your classroom? Do you talk about work and tasks or does everyone speak the language of learning? Is how we learn as much a part of the conversation as what we learn? Are students aware of who they are as learners? Are learning dispositions noticed and named? Are reflection and metacognition integral parts of learning? 

10. Is there a safe space for risk- taking and failure?  Does the culture encourage students to take risks and make mistakes? Is the exploratory aspect of learning stifled by expectations? Do learners seek and grapple with challenging problems and unanswerable questions? Is failure viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow?


8 thoughts on “10 questions in pursuit of learner agency…

  1. These 10 questions deserve to be printed, emboldened, highlighted, enlarged and placed in a spot in our classrooms where they can be viewed at a glance, to remind ourselves how learners learn best! Thank you Ed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting commentary on routine teaching practice when student agency is a framed as a ‘modern’ concept. Your 10 questions are really worthwhile inquiring into and could be transforming if embraced. Surely we want our learners to be empowered. The NZC vision for learners is to be confident, connected, actively involved, life long learners! implicit is that they know how, can and do take charge of their learning, that they build learning capability and are inspired to learn and keep on learning. Great questions to inspire teachers to great things with great kids. Well done ED 🙂


  3. Great post Ed – Learner Agency is fast becoming a way to think about what schools should actually be on about. Building collective learner agency, and being deliberate about providing sources of self-efficacy feed into a culture that affords learner agency. I make rules and allocate resources that afford teacher agency, they in turn make rules and allocate resources to afford learner agency. If we are obvious about what power is and how to strategically give it away, we give our kids the power they need to shape their worlds.


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