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How Learner Agency Fuels Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills


How can incorporating learner agency into classroom activities significantly enhance both critical thinking and problem-solving skills?

By integrating activities into the curriculum that enhance the pursuit of learner agency, educators can provide students with valuable opportunities to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills in an environment that respects and promotes their agency. This not only enhances learning outcomes but also prepares students for the challenges and complexities of the real world.

Defined broadly, learner agency refers to the capacity of learners to act independently and make choices about their learning processes (Biesta & Tedder, 2007). This proactive stance in learning is not merely about choice, though; it's a transformational approach that empowers students, catalyzes engagement, and enhances the development of essential life skills, notably critical thinking and problem-solving.

As I mentioned in the book Agents to Agency (2022), the need for students to foster lifelong learning skills and their capabilities is something we must give priority to in our classrooms. These skills happen to include: 

  • Critical thinking capacity 

  • Creativity 

  • Problem-solving ability 

  • Ethical and moral considerations 

  • Intercultural awareness and understanding 

  • Personal responsibility 

  • Social skills

Such cross-disciplinary competencies are part of how we build lifelong learning capacity. In the practice of agency in designing, crafting and assessing their learning, learners can attain, hone and demonstrate these skills throughout and beyond their formative years. 

Theoretical Foundations of Learner Agency

We can briefly explore its theory to understand why and how learner agency can impact critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. The concept of agency is rooted in humanistic psychological theory, which emphasizes self-actualization and the individual's potential for growth (Maslow, 1943). Educational theorists like John Dewey have long argued that education should be designed to reinforce the capacity of individuals to act autonomously and with intentionality in their environment (Dewey, 1938).

More recent educational research also supports the idea that when students are given more control over their learning processes, they tend to engage more deeply and perform better academically (Zimmerman, 2002). Learner agency empowers students by placing them at the centre of their educational experiences, which is instrumental in cultivating a mindset geared toward active learning and problem-solving.

Agency is a transformational approach that empowers students, catalyzes engagement, and enhances the development of essential life skills.

Impact on Critical Thinking

The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as, "the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action". It’s an indispensable skill in the modern world, and the development of critical thinking is significantly enhanced by learner agency.

One of the primary ways in which learner agency boosts critical thinking is through the encouragement of questioning and exploration. When students choose what, how, and when they learn, they are more likely to engage with material in a way that encourages inquiry and reflection. This active engagement requires them to use higher-order thinking skills, which are critical components of critical thinking (Paul & Elder, 2006).

Enhancing Problem-Solving Skills

Similar to critical thinking, problem-solving involves analyzing an issue and coming up with an effective solution. It is a skill that benefits significantly from learner agency. Educational research has shown that when students have agency, they are more likely to take initiative and face challenges directly, which are key aspects of effective problem-solving (Jonassen, 2000).

The process of setting their own learning goals, as enabled by learner agency, also helps students develop the ability to plan and strategize, which are vital problem-solving skills. This self-directed learning approach not only fosters independence but also allows students to experience real-life problem-solving scenarios, from planning their learning schedules to tackling complex projects (Blaschke, 2012).

Empirical Evidence and Practical Applications

Several studies highlight the positive correlation between learner agency and enhanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills. For instance, a study by Black & William (1998) demonstrated that when students are involved in their assessment processes, their ability to critically analyze content improves. Similarly, research in problem-based learning environments, where learner agency is typically high, has shown significant gains in students' problem-solving abilities (Hmelo-Silver, 2004).

In practical terms, educators looking to foster learner agency can implement strategies such as choice boards, self-assessment methods, and inquiry-based learning projects. These methods not only give students autonomy but also challenge them to think critically and solve problems as they navigate their learning.

One of the primary ways in which learner agency boosts critical thinking is through the encouragement of questioning and exploration.

Engaging Learner Agency Activities for Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

Here are three activities designed to foster critical thinking and three activities to enhance problem-solving capabilities in an educational setting where learner agency is prioritized.

Activities to Foster Critical Thinking

Debate and Discuss
    • Activity Description: Organize a debate on a controversial topic related to the curriculum. Allow students to choose their stance and form teams based on their selected perspectives. Each team prepares arguments, gathers supporting evidence, and presents their case during a class session.

    • Learner Agency Aspect: Students choose their topics and teams, promoting engagement and personal investment in the learning process. This autonomy encourages deeper research and critical analysis of the information.

    • Skills Developed: Argumentation, evidence evaluation, perspective-taking, and synthesis of information.

Question the Author
    • Activity Description: Provide students with a text or video content. Instead of answering standard comprehension questions, students develop their own questions that challenge the author’s assumptions, point of view, or conclusions.

    • Learner Agency Aspect: Students take control of the learning process by formulating questions based on their curiosities and critiques, rather than passively absorbing information.

    • Skills Developed: Inquiry, analysis, and critical reading.

Interactive Reflection Journals
    • Activity Description: Students maintain a digital or physical journal where they reflect on weekly learning experiences, noting what they found intriguing, challenging, or unclear. They pose questions, explore extensions of the lesson, and connect learning to personal or world events.

    • Learner Agency Aspect: Students decide the content and format of their reflections, encouraging them to take ownership of their thought processes and learning evaluations.

    • Skills Developed: Self-assessment, reflection, and application of knowledge.

Activities to Enhance Problem-Solving

Project-Based Learning
    • Activity Description: Students are given a real-world problem to solve, such as designing a sustainable garden for the school or creating a marketing plan for a local business. They must research, plan, design, and execute their projects, often in groups.

    • Learner Agency Aspect: Students choose the project that interests them most and make decisions on how to approach the problem, what roles each member will play, and how to present their findings.

    • Skills Developed: Research, planning, teamwork, and execution.

Escape Room Challenges
    • Activity Description: Create an escape room in class where students must solve a series of puzzles related to the curriculum to "escape." Puzzles can be digital or physical and should require a range of problem-solving strategies.

    • Learner Agency Aspect: Students decide the order in which to tackle the puzzles and develop strategies collaboratively. Optionally, students could also design their own escape rooms for their peers.

    • Skills Developed: Logical reasoning, pattern recognition, and strategic planning.

Innovation Days
    • Activity Description: Similar to a hackathon, students are given a day or a set amount of time to create something new—a product, a piece of technology, a piece of art, or a system—based on a broad theme or specific problem.

    • Learner Agency Aspect: Students choose their project focus and the tools or methods they will use to create their final product.

    • Skills Developed: Innovation, creativity, resource management, and presentation skills.


The interplay between learner agency, critical thinking, and problem-solving is evident and robust. By fostering an educational environment that promotes autonomy, educators are not just enhancing academic performance; they are equipping students with the critical life skills necessary for success in a complex, rapidly changing world. As educational paradigms shift towards more personalized and student-centered approaches, the importance of learner agency only becomes more pronounced, proving to be a pivotal element in the development of critical thinkers and adept problem-solvers.

In essence, learner agency does more than just transform students into active participants in their education; it molds them into thoughtful, curious, and capable individuals ready to tackle the challenges of the future. With the continued focus on and integration of learner agency into educational strategies, the potential for nurturing more reflective, innovative, and resilient minds is limitless.


Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2007). Agency and learning in the lifecourse: Towards an ecological perspective. Studies in the Education of Adults, 39(2), 132-149.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), 7-74.

Blaschke, L. M. (2012). Heutagogy and lifelong learning: A review of heutagogical practice and self-determined learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(1), 56-71.

Crockett, L. (2022). Agents to agency: A measurable process for cultivating self-directed learner agency. Future Focused Learning.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Kappa Delta Pi.

Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266.

Jonassen, D. H. (2000). Toward a design theory of problem solving. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(4), 63-85.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2006). Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory Into Practice, 41(2), 64-70.