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Educate Magazine - 2021-05-01

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LEARNER AGENCY:

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Learner agency Many teachers will be familiar with ‘learner autonomy’ and ‘self-directed learning’ – concepts that learners should take responsibility for their own learning. While it is important for students to have control over their learning, we can’t expect them to do so completely on their own. Learner autonomy often focuses on the learner as an individual, viewing autonomy as a quality or attitude that the learner is personally responsible for. However, learners also co-exist in shared spaces and are defined by society, beliefs and norms. As Claire Kramsch, professor of German and foreign language acquisition at the University of Berkeley, puts it: “We are free to act but at the same time are not in control of the choices that are given to us”. In recent years, educators have adopted a notion from psychology, emphasising a deeper view that defines learner motivation, choices and self-awareness: learner agency. With a specific focus on language learning, our latest whitepaper discusses ways of creating the right opportunities to grow and establish learner agency. The challenges for education today have created a sense of urgency, emphasising the need for effective practices that encourage our students to assume responsibility for their own learning. Over the last 12 months, COVID-19 has demonstrated the unprecedented impact that external factors like pandemics can have on education. The rise of digital and remote learning has thrown up challenges for students and educators alike, highlighting the need to prepare them to cope with uncertainties and evolving situations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, during the pandemic, students have wanted more support while learning remotely, not less. This has prompted us to focus on learner agency with renewed energy, encouraging dialogue and opportunities to consider its relevance for the benefit of our students’ success as lifelong learners. Learner agency nurtures a belief that learners’ behaviour can make a difference to their learning in any context. In turn, this creates stronger engagement, develops a growth mindset and prepares students to better cope with change. What is learner agency? Our latest whitepaper, Learner Agency: Maximizing Learner Potential, defines the term as “the feeling of ownership and sense of control that learners have over their learning.” Learners who are agentive have a growth mindset. They believe that they are in control of their learning and that they have the ability to learn and improve. Prof Diane Larsen-Freeman, lead author of the whitepaper, states that, “…teachers who promote learner agency recognise that they do not only teach languages, they also teach learners.” Guided by this conviction, teachers can begin to organise their practice in a way that intentionally provides learners with opportunities to exercise their agency. For example, teachers can invite students to choose how they receive feedback – written, verbal, as audio or video. Teachers might nurture a classroom environment that invites students to ask more questions and take responsibility for filling the gaps in their knowledge. Small and iterative changes like these reaffirm learner agency and confirm to learners that they have a voice and choice. There are also enormous benefits to be gained by encouraging students to bring the outside world and their own interests into the classroom in order to support engagement and enhance learning. During the pandemic, digital technologies have created new spaces for learning and many teachers have seized the opportunity to present their students with new options to plan and complete tasks, collaborate and communicate. Agency is about developing an approach that helps learners take an active role in shaping their learning opportunities. The ecology of learner agency Unlike learner autonomy, the concept of learner agency shifts the perspective by viewing learners not as isolated individuals, but as part of a learning community. It acknowledges that learners are thinking, feeling, social beings – their agency is not a fixed quality, but a skill that is negotiated in relation with others. While all learners have the potential to be agentive, the extent to which they can enact their agency is determined by the opportunities and support their environment affords – within an ecology of stakeholders that includes teachers, parents, school leaders, and policymakers. Teaching and learning do not occur in isolation. School leaders, policymakers, and learning materials all play a role in constraining or enabling learner agency – and teachers are better able to support students when they too are supported. There is a greater potential for agency to take hold when educational communities make an informed, collective effort to support it, providing opportunities for learners to exercise their agency. This involves cultivating shared principles and a common purpose, where learners are respected for who they are and what they bring to the classroom. When we as educators give students opportunities to exercise their agency, we encourage them to believe that they can make a difference to their learning – leaving them much better placed to make the most of opportunities and overcome challenges. By encouraging agency, teachers can help students feel valued as capable and empowered learners. In return, teachers gain the privilege of watching their students flourish in confidence and ability and become invested lifelong learners.

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