Learner Agency

“Having agency as a learner is now becoming a default expectation to meet learning needs."  (21st Century Learning Reference Group [21st CLRG], 2014, p.36). 

What’s it about?

Learner agency is about having the power, combined with choices, to take meaningful action and see the results of your decisions. It can be thought of as a catalyst for change or transformation. Within a school context, Learner Agency is about shifting the ownership of learning from teachers to students, enabling students to have the understanding, ability, and opportunity to be part of the learning design and to take action to intervene in the learning process, to affect outcomes and become powerful lifelong learners.

What’s driving this?

Moral imperative — drivers for agency or agentic practices

Learner agency is not a new concept, but it is something that has come into the spotlight and quite rightly needs attention in our education system.

Agentic children turn into agentic adults. We have all heard the words “Successful people, act on their beliefs” and this is true in the light of agency. Therefore, the moral imperative lies not just in the social and emotional wellbeing — it is an innate characteristic that must be acknowledged and addressed.

As explored by Zhao (Zhao, 2015) the world is faced with two paradoxical crises: massive youth unemployment and equally massive talent shortage. These must not be allowed to continue — they are both dangerous. Massive youth unemployment leads to personal poverty, psychological trauma, plus social unrest. Inequality thrives as talent shortage drives up the incomes of highly talented workers, which in turn results in even bigger income gaps.

The traditional education model that prepared employment-minded job seekers does not address either of these paradoxical crises. In this fast-paced world of change, knowledge is now a central driving force, and agentic learners are critical for addressing talent shortages and massive youth unemployment.

Research shows that the more successful an educational system is in the traditional sense, the less likely it is to cultivate entrepreneurs. PISA scores, for example, have been found to be negatively correlated with nations’ entrepreneurial confidence and activities (Zhao, 2012). The new economy needs learners and entrepreneurs who have adaptive expertise to be innovative, flexible, and creative in a variety of contexts.

What examples of this can I see?

Embedding learner agency in school systems, curriculum

While it is innate for us to have agency, our current mental models of school systems often limit agentic practices. Developing agentic learners is more than offering a list of choices and seeking student voice. This is a tokenistic or watered down version of authentic agency.

To avoid tokenism and embed a culture of agency we must provide the conditions that shift the ownership of teaching and learning and place it in the hands of the learners themselves. This is also about involving students in the key aspects of decision making so they can fully experience the messiness of a real-world project, complete with the unexpected changes in direction, opportunities, and challenges that can arise.

It is an imperative that we move the level of engagement of learners from non-participation through tokenism to learner empowerment. Amplifying agentic practices gives permission to all learners, teachers, and students alike, to embrace new possibilities for learning and educational systems. If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals. Johnston (2004), pg. 29

A lead thinker in education noted that teachers do not create learning, learners create learning, and it is the teachers that create the conditions to promote learning (Wiliam, 2006). This is further empowered by parents and whānau who help to inspire and focus a sense of agency. As top rung of Arnstein’s ladder of participation states, agentic learners initiate agendas and are given responsibilities and power for the management of issues and to bring about change.

Technology enabling, enhancing, supporting these processes

Digital technologies have changed how teachers and students approach learning. Knowledge is no longer constrained by the physical boundaries of the traditional classroom. In today’s learning environments, access to limitless information rests at the fingertips of learners and their devices. Teachers can draw on these enabling technologies to move towards becoming a co-constructor of learning, who builds knowledge alongside their students. In this sense, everyone is a learner and has the power to act in the agentic classroom.

Digital technologies enable learners to connect with, interact with, and build on knowledge in ways otherwise not possible. When teachers scaffold, support, and guide students through their use of digital technologies, students are empowered to drive their own learning.

Learners can use digital technologies to:

  • transform information and make something new
  • recombine information to solve a problem
  • link information to show relationships
  • modify information for personal preferences
  • connect with others locally and globally
  • discover solutions collaboratively and independently
  • track, share, and reflect on their learning, for example through e-portfolios.

Adapted from: Future-focused learning in connected communities, May 2014

How might we respond?

Some questions to act as a stimulus with your colleagues include:

  • How will you develop and deepen students’ engagement with and responsibility for their own learning?
  • How will your school connect young people with peers, teachers, and other adults? How will they use technology to connect with the wider world around them?
  • How can we support students to learn through authentic, relevant, real-world contexts, where their interests, skills, and the issues and opportunities within their own communities can form the basis for learning?
  • How can we involve students in the key aspects of decision making so they can fully experience the messiness of a real-world project, complete with the unexpected changes in direction, opportunities, and challenges that can arise?
  • Articles

    Articles Articles

    Continuum of Voice: What it Means for the Learner

    An adaptation of the Continuum of Voice chart. The chart describes the three stages of personalised learning environments: Teacher- Centred Environments, Learner-Centred Environments, and Learner-Driven Environments.

    Shifting the Ownership of Learning

    This document, created by Derek Wenmoth, outlines the differences between existing teaching practices and agentic practice.

  • Research

    Research Research

    Strategies to develop student agency

    This resource is the result of a literature scan and a series of conversations with students and teachers from three New Zealand schools. The schools involved in this resource feature innovative learning environments (ILE). Students and teachers were asked similar questions about agency, and reviewed one another’s responses. Our approach identified ten conditions that foster agentic learners to support teachers, leaders, and learning communities to shift the ownership of learning.

    We hope you will use these conditions to:

    • explore new ideas, communicate challenges, and prompt learner focused discussions
    • use the ‘shifting the ownership of learning review tool’ to “take the temperature” of learner agency within your school or community
    • identify priorities and implement practices or systems that enable learner agency.


    Shifting the ownership of learning

    This resource is a practical tool for teachers or learning teams, leaders, educators, and learning communities to support the process of change and shift the ownership of teaching and learning, placing it firmly in the hands of the learners themselves.


  • Professional Learning

    Professional Learning Professional Learning
    CORE professional learning solutions: Primary

    At CORE we understand the richness of Te Marautanga o Aotearoa and The New Zealand Curriculum. We design products and services that support teaching and learning for year 1–8 learners in both Māori medium and English medium settings.

    CORE professional learning solutions: Secondary

    At CORE we understand the richness of Te Marautanga o Aotearoa and The New Zealand Curriculum, the intent of NCEA, and vocational pathways. We design products and services that support teaching and learning for year 9–15 learners in both Māori medium and English medium settings.

    CORE professional learning solutions: Curriculum

    Designing a curriculum that is adaptive to local contexts and learners’ strengths and needs is complex. We work with you, aligning your curriculum and student learning experiences with your vision for student success.

    CORE professional learning solutions: Learning with digital technology

    Offering valuable tools for effective learning environments, digital technology supports personalisation, cooperative learning, and inquiry-based learning, as well as assisting with managing assessments.

    CORE professional learning solutions: Assessment

    The foundation for learner agency is teaching and learning, which is grounded in assessment for learning practices. We help you strengthen assessment for learning practices, so learners are active in all learning decisions.

  • Readings

    Readings Readings

    Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning

    Choice Words shows how teachers accomplish this using their most powerful teaching tool: language. Throughout, Peter Johnston provides examples of apparently ordinary words, phrases, and uses of language that are pivotal in the orchestration of the classroom.

    A World at Risk: An Imperative for a Paradigm Shift to Cultivate 21st Century Learners

    In this essay, Yong Zhao argues that popular education reforms in the United States which have focused on fixing the past have been misguided attempts. Zhao argues for a new education paradigm to address the challenges that are brought about by globalisation and technological changes.

    World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students

    Yong Zhao outlines his new book, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students. Zhao says "The book is about preparing global, creative, and entrepreneurial talents. It is my attempt to answer a number of pressing questions facing education today".

    Arnstein's Ladder of Citizen Participation

    The Ladder of Citizen Participation describes participation and the power relationships that this gives way to.