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Learner agency


James Anderson.

James Anderson is a year 12 student at Hobsonville Point Secondary School. In this blog post James shares what learner agency means to him and describes what this looks like in a classroom from a student’s perspective.

Photo courtesy of Gerard Macmanus.

What does agency mean to me as a student?

Learner agency is something we learned about from the get-go when we started out at this school. There was a school-wide focus on getting us involved in our learning and knowing the purpose of our learning. That means knowing the 'what', 'why', and the 'how' of our learning. We need to unpack the 'why' of our learning because then we get better results that have more meaning to us. We can explore that a lot more especially if we’re passionate about what we are learning. It’s about taking control of our own learning. In a classroom, learners should have control over what happens. We can use that control to take the learning into other areas we want to look at. For example, in project based learning there’s a lot of self direction and by taking an aspect of something in the real world, we can take it to wherever we feel is necessary. Our teachers are monitoring us and making sure it is purposeful but we have choices and can go where the learning takes us.

What do my teachers do to enable me to take control of my learning?

My teachers definitely help with a lot of goal setting. Not all of my goals succeed but it’s useful to have a target. If I don’t succeed I also learn and can therefore try again. My goals are relevant only to me and therefore may be quite different to other students’ goals. Every individual learns at different rates. I can focus on my goals and I need to make time for reflection. Sometimes I take a step back and see what might be going wrong. My teachers encourage me and ask those questions to help me reflect. Through this process I know it’s OK to change my goals because that’s often when really meaningful learning happens.

studentchatNZ profile picture.

We have access to devices at school, which is great in connecting me to the real world. One thing that teachers have encouraged me to do is reach out to other people online via social media and blogging to connect to students across New Zealand and globally. I felt empowered as a learner, particularly when I founded studentchatNZ (my student moderated twitter chat), because I was able to generate conversations with other students and teachers and our knowledge grew together.

Everyone at our school is entitled to choose classes and subjects and particular NCEA standards. However, teachers don’t let us go free reign, they are there to guide our choices. We have choice around what medium we use to deliver or present our learning in a way that makes us feel most comfortable. Not all students are comfortable with writing a 1500 word essay, so we can work around our strengths and weaknesses.

Teachers have to teach some stuff but there’s also an element of what students are passionate about in whatever subject we’re learning. Students are asked where we see ourselves in the future and modules will be based around this to take into account students’ individual passions. 

In class we have lots of opportunities to collaborate with peers. We learn from, and with, each other in the classroom. Teachers also learn from students. Teachers don’t know it all. Teachers should be learners too.

What shouldn’t teachers do?

Teachers shouldn’t tell us how to do it but let us come up with our own ways and guide us in a way that works for us as learners. The teachers shouldn’t be the ones to say what is right or wrong. They shouldn’t put the answers onto the students. It’s important for students to find out for themselves.

What hasn’t worked for me in the past is when a teacher takes control and forces me on a learning path that doesn’t excite me. Also when the purpose of the learning is unclear. The learning we do at this school now is preparing me for my future. They’ve done that well at this school.

What does it mean to have a learning partnership with my teachers?

The relationship between student and teacher is so important. Teachers really only get a short time with you but they should get to know you as a learner so they can guide you towards what you want to do. If students and teachers are learning from each other and the teacher knows your passion, then they can direct you towards that. For example, if they know you’re into performing arts they can bring in someone who may help in this area. In the past two years I’ve been able to relate to the Arts teachers because we share the same passions. They can touch on learning topics I am passionate about and that’s where powerful agency comes in and I manage my learning pathway because I’m just so enthusiastic about it.

How am I an active participant in my learning?

In the context of our recent school production, there’s definitely a whole heap of skills and knowledge that gets shared and explored but the learning really came from all the other students in a drama context. For example, learning lines – we all have our own way of doing this. Much of our learning is from each other but also from outside people coming in to share their passion and therefore enabling us to share ours.

Why is this important for me as a learner now and for my future?

Moving outside of high school, I still don’t have a clear set goal but I know the stuff that I’m learning now is important for my future life and career, regardless of what that may be. I feel I’m gaining great life skills and I’m feeling empowered.

My advice to teachers who want to encourage agency in their students

  1. Don’t be scared of letting go.
  2. Learning also happens when teachers take a step down and students take a step up.
  3. Be prepared as every learner is different. Students learn differently and have different needs. Think about this when you are planning.
  4. Pressure to take on board new learning is challenging but that means the learning goes deeper. This can take time.
  5. Know the students. Look at what students might be comfortable with … not all students can read screeds of text or write lots of text. Give them choices and let them follow their passions.
  6. Not all students are good with noise … some need quiet space and a classroom may not be the best place. We are lucky at our school in that we have separate breakout spaces to support concentration.
  7. Having choice of seating is important for students – high and low. Can students sit back or lie down to learn?

My advice to students

Just be willing to take most things on board. As soon as you start shutting down ideas the learning becomes less meaningful. Know that you are responsible for your own learning.

Supporting resources

Learner agency spotlight
Use this spotlight to explore learner agency and find strategies to help you build greater agency in your own classrooms. This spotlight includes short videos, group activities, and opportunities for personal reflection.

Learner agency blog
This blog post unpacks learner agency and describes how we can support students to be active participants in their learning.