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This Is What Learner Agency Really Means (And What It Doesn’t Mean)

In recent years, there has been a significant surge in the prevalence and recognition of the term "learner agency" within the realm of education. It’s a term that is gaining popularity in the education world for sure. But what does it really mean? And what does it not mean?

We’re going to explore the concept of learner agency and debunk some of its more stubborn misconceptions. Additionally, we’ll explore some examples of what agency actually looks like in a classroom. Whether you're a teacher, school administrator, or simply interested in education, this article will provide valuable insights into the empowering concept of student agency. So, let's dive in and unravel the true essence of student agency.

What is Learner Agency?

The most accurate way to describe the term “agency” as it applies to learning is to call it the antithesis of oppression, the opposite of dependence, and the essential element of useful and meaningful learning. Like literacy, agency is not pedagogy or a subject. Instead, it is an outcome of an education system that chooses to place autonomy, individuality, self-determination, and self-direction at the foundation of a learner’s educational journey, regardless of age, ability, or grade level.

In The Modern Practice of Adult Education, Malcolm Knowles calls learner agency a process in which individuals take initiative, either independently or with the help of others, in determining their learning needs, setting worthy goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing learning strategies, and evaluating the outcomes (Knowles, 1970). 

Perhaps the most essential thing to understand about agency is that it’s not a privilege or service that we grant to our learners—it is something they already have. 

Agency has also been described as including the capacity for identifying valuable goals and outcomes and proactively pursuing those goals (Chuter, 2020). Additionally, it includes purposefully reflecting on one’s values and priorities, and the ability to act intentionally towards determined outcomes (Locke & Latham, 2002). 

Perhaps the most essential thing to understand about agency is that it’s not a privilege or service that we grant to our learners—it is something they already have. The fact is every learner in every part of the world, in and out of the classroom, has always had agency over their learning from the day they were born.

Learning as an experience is personally empowering, and it should be. As much as we have agency over the learning in our individual lives, so should it be with the learners in our schools, which should not be places for the passive consumption of information, but rather environments where children learn how to learn for life.

What Learner Agency is Not

Agency is often misunderstood and can be confused with other concepts. Between the prevalence of terms such as “responsibility” or “voice” and the established methodologies of personalised or blended learning, it is all too easy to assume that our learners are already enjoying agency in our classrooms. To some degree they likely are, but perhaps not to the level they could be. This is why we’re going to examine some of the misconceptions that exist about agency to gain a better understanding of what it entails.

To begin with, we can address the terms “responsibility” and “voice”. Often used interchangeably with agency, the fact is they are only a part of the broader picture. Though responsibility and agency may seem the same, responsibility is merely one facet of learner agency. Yes, agency would not be complete without it, but it is not agency itself. 

Reflection and goal-setting are key components of student agency, so encourage students to reflect on their learning and set goals for themselves. 

The same can be said for voice, which again falls under the scope of what makes student agency what it is. Here’s the difference—when learners have a voice, they have a choice, but when they have agency, they have autonomy. It is autonomy we strive for in the act of returning agency to our learners.

As we stated earlier, agency is also not a pedagogy, which is why referring to blended learning, personalised learning, or flipped learning as agency is a misnomer. Such teaching methods certainly include agentic characteristics and can play a role in its reinforcement, but they do not substitute for total agency over learning. They assist in the journey, but they don’t represent the entire concept of

Building Learner Agency

So, how can teachers and schools build learner agency? Here are a few strategies to consider:

  • Choice and Flexibility: Giving students choices in their learning can help build their agency. This can include allowing them to choose topics for projects, giving them options for how to demonstrate their learning, and providing flexible learning environments.
  • Reflection and Goal-Setting: Reflection and goal-setting are key components of student agency. Encourage students to reflect on their learning and set goals for themselves. This can help them take ownership of their education and track their progress.
  • Collaboration and Communication: Collaboration and communication are important skills for students to develop to have agency. Encourage group work and discussions, and provide opportunities for students to share their thoughts and ideas.

Learner Agency in Action

Many schools and teachers have already taken steps to implement student agency in their classrooms, recognizing the importance of giving students a sense of autonomy and ownership over their learning experiences. I would like to share a few examples of how this has been done:

In one high school English class, the teacher has taken a progressive approach by allowing students to choose their own novels to read for a literature unit. By giving students the freedom to select texts that resonate with their interests and preferences, the teacher is promoting a sense of ownership over their reading experience. This not only helps to engage students on a personal level, but it also enables them to explore different genres and develop their own literary tastes.

In a middle school science class, a teacher has taken a similar approach to empower students and foster learner agency. Instead of providing a list of predetermined experiments, the teacher has challenged students to design their own experiments to test a scientific concept. This hands-on approach not only encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills, but also allows students to take control of their learning and explore the scientific method in a more personalized and meaningful way.

At the primary school level, a teacher has embraced student agency by allowing students to set their own learning goals and track their progress throughout the year. By involving students in the goal-setting process, the teacher is helping them develop a sense of responsibility for their learning. This approach encourages students to take ownership of their education and fosters a growth mindset, as they can reflect on their progress, identify areas for improvement, and celebrate their achievements.

By understanding the true essence of learner agency and the positive impact it can have on student engagement and learning outcomes, teachers and schools are able to implement strategies that support and nurture this concept. By empowering students to take control of their own learning, they become active participants in their education, developing important skills such as critical thinking, self-reflection, and self-direction.

If you have witnessed learner agency in action, I would love for you to share your experiences in the comments section below.


Knowles, M. S. (1970). The Modern Practice of Adult Education; Andragogy versus Pedagogy (2 ed.). Association Press. 

Chuter, C. (2020). The role of agency in learning. The Education Hub. Retrieved August 13 from https://theeducationhub.org.nz/agency/

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American psychologist, 57(9), 705.