Learner Agency: Sharing Control of the Classroom Agenda

When I reflect on the 10 years I spent teaching at UC Berkeley and Stanford, and look back over the 127 interviews I did with innovators in digital media and learning, “learner agency” was the first thought that came to mind when I asked myself about what still seems important. What I mean by this phrase: students are explicitly addressed as learners (better yet: co-learners); students are allowed to use their own interests and networks to explore issues that matter to them (scaffolded by teachers with the curricular knowledge that will make more sense to students in the contexts of their own interests); formative assessment is privileged, to the degree institutions allow, over normative assessment; reflections are regarded as important as answers; teachers use their own errors and lack of knowledge as learning instruments, modeling error-embracing trial-and-error learning; pursuing questions that matter to learners is valued, even if they diverge from the core subject matter.

There are any number of ways to encourage students to take more responsibility for and power over their own learning, and while adroit use of digital media can amplify this enterprise, learner agency is primarily about pedagogy — and the mindset of the teacher. It’s about who you think you are as the teacher, who you think your students are as learners, how your attitude affects what you challenge your students to do — and what you dare allow them to do. After years of conventional schooling, a certain amount of learned helplessness can provoke fear on the part of learners when teachers ask them to act on their own intention in their learning, rather than following what the teacher lays out for them (e.g., turning down the amount of attention to what might be on the test and turning up the attention on how the subject matter matters.).

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I know very well that aside from the requirements of educational institutions, the first barrier to expanded learner agency is teachers’ fear of disclosing how much we have to learn ourselves — thinking aloud, for the inspection of others, about our own ignorance is both necessary for critical thinking and learning, and at the same time it is an occasion for social shame. I recall vividly the first time I faced a room full of undergraduates who expected to learn something from me, and I realized that while I was confident about my expertise in the subject matter, I didn’t really know much about how to teach. When I thought of framing it as an experiment, I was able to overcome my fear. It was helpful that I was teaching about social media issues, a new subject that involves a lot of experimentation, some of which the students engaged in regularly. I told them that we could all improve the quality of our own shared learning experience and also improve the course for next year’s cohort. So, we started to look on what I was requiring of the students: short lectures by me, short student presentations about the texts, blogging and engaging in forum conversations about the texts, collaborative authoring on a wiki. How could we talk at the beginning of each class session about what was working and what was not, and how each element could be improved.

You don’t have to do it that way. I offer it as an example of something that worked. Which is where these video interviews with and blog posts about digital media and learning innovators comes in: Susan Wojicki’s high school students publish their own newspaper as an economically sustainable enterprise; Don Wettrick’s high school students pick their own community or individual projects and work with him to scaffold what they really want to do with what they are expected to learn; David Preston’s high school students helped him hack the curriculum — challenging them to not only envision but implement the curriculum if the way they did it was up to them. Other intrepid educators also help show the way by example.

Relevant profiles:

Banner image credit: Alan Levine