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Learner agency


Learner agency is embedded in The New Zealand Curriculum key competencies as “the capabilities that young people need for growing, working, and participating in their communities.

"The school curriculum should challenge students to use and develop the competencies across the range of learning areas and in increasingly complex and unfamiliar situations”

NZC, Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 38

The New Zealand Curriculum key competencies are about developing the dispositions and sense of agency that empower the individual, and help them better understand and negotiate the perspectives and values of others, contributing towards more productive and inclusive workplaces and societies.

“Students are given explicit instruction in learning strategies (such as goal setting, self-monitoring and deliberate practice) that enable them to take control of their learning, develop meta-cognitive skills, self-regulate, and develop self-efficacy and agency.”

ERO School Evaluation Indicators, domain 4

What is "agency"?

Students have a sense of agency when they feel in control of things that happen around them; when they feel that they can influence events. This is an important sense for learners to develop. They need to be active participants in their learning.

“One way of thinking of learner agency is when learners have the ‘power to act’. When learners move from being passive recipients to being much more active in the learning process, and actively involved in the decisions about the learning, then they have greater agency.”  

Derek Wenmoth, CORE Education 10 Trends

Jean Garrity in her blog post, Ownership and Independence – The Keys to Learner Agency, states:

“Students must develop the capacity to engage strategically in their learning without waiting to be directed. They must take ownership of and responsibility for their learning. And, they must possess the skills to learn independently, without heavy dependence on external structures and direction.”

How do teachers build learner agency?

Students and teachers at Hampden Street School have been working towards their goal of building learner agency in their modern learning environment.

They talk about the positive impact that increased agency has had on their learning, engagement and results. Students talk about how they now have more responsibility and ownership of their learning.


Scott McKenzie (senior syndicate leader) and Don McLean (principal) of Hampden Street School explain how they use digital technologies to support learner agency.

“Our focus has been really: how do we reduce the reliance on the teacher and how do the students own their learning?"

Scott McKenzie


Deputy Principal Claire Amos talks about fostering learner agency at Hobsonville Point Secondary School. Claire says agency is about students owning their learning. She describes how a sense of ownership and students taking responsibility for their learning is incorporated into the culture of the school and into the programmes they offer.

“Our teachers are still very much there to lead the learning, we also see that we're in partnership with our students to co-construct the learning and to share the ownership of their learning with them. So I don't think we really see it as a power issue at all, we're in partnership with our students to help guide them through their learning journey.”

Claire Amos

Claire suggests 10 ways teachers might provide learner agency in their classroom or school.

  • Introduce one to one devices or BYOD and give students the freedom to use technology in a variety of ways.
  • Give students choice about context or topic where possible.
  • Give students choice about how to record or process their learning – paper and 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!
  • 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.

Guiding questions Ngā pātai ārahi

What opportunities do you provide for students to:

  • articulate the learning and the purpose of learning?
  • talk about what they can do and what their next steps for learning are?
  • find and follow their own learning pathways?
  • develop persistence and motivation to learn?
  • look for creative and new ways to understand an issue?
  • collaborate with peers to develop answers?
  • transfer the learning to other contexts?
  • engage in knowledge without being led to it?

Are all learners needs catered for?  
This blog post by Edna Sackson explains how the design thinking model is an excellent way to approach the issue, forcing us to think about this from the learner’s point of view first.

Canadian teacher Shelley Wright outlines the power of student-driven learning in this TED Talk.


Further reading

Continuum of Choice

Continuum of Choice by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License