Learner Agency: The Missing Link

A collaborative blog series by the Institute for Personalized Learning and Personalize Learning LLC

Defining Learner Agency
Learner agency often gets missed in conversations on transforming the educational system. We have a sense of ‘agency’ when we feel in control of things that happen around us; when we feel that we can influence events. This is an important sense for learners to develop. Learners must understand:

  • when they need new learning and how to learn what they need
  • when they need to unlearn what will no longer serve them
  • when they need to relearn what they need to be successful

They must develop the capacity to engage strategically in their learning without waiting to be directed. They must take ownership of and responsibility for their learning. And, they must possess the skills to learn independently, without heavy dependence on external structures and direction.

Why Learner Agency is Needed
There is a significant and growing demand for learners to be able to do more than receive instruction, follow a learning path designed by educators and complete problems and assignments presented to them by an adult. Learners need to develop the capacity to shape and manage their learning without over-reliance on the direction and control of others. Too often adults treat children as though they are incapable of making decisions or holding valid opinions. As children advance through the system, they develop a form of “learned helplessness” that keeps them from advocating for themselves. The process for learning and the role learners play must be different than most adults experienced.

Harvard professor Roland Barth has observed that in the 1950’s when young people left high school they typically knew about 75% of what they would need to know to be successful in life. Today, he predicts that young people know about 2% of what they will need to know. (Barth, R.S. (1997, March 5). The leader as learner. Education Week, 16(23). 56.) This shift is not because young people are learning less than previous generations. In fact, there is good evidence that they know much more. The force behind this change is the rapid and ever-increasing pace of change, the complexity of the world in which we live and the unpredictability of what people will need to know in the coming decades – the future for which we are preparing today’s learners.

Implications of Greater Learner Agency
The current educational system was designed for teachers to control and manage the learning. This continues today because teachers are the ones held accountable and responsible for the learning instead of the learners. As educators, we must nurture, coach and build in learners more capacity to initiate, manage, and maintain their own learning. Learning will be a constant and high-priority activity throughout their lives and they will need the skills and tools to manage this process.

Adults need to shift their thinking — away from youth as student to youth as learner and partner and resource for their own learning and others. We must make the crucial shift from preparing proficient students to developing skilled learners. The result will be learners who are capable of playing an active role in personalizing their learning and building their capacity to be successful productive citizens regardless of what their futures hold.

In a series of upcoming blogs we will examine a number of key shifts and strategies necessary to transform the educational experiences we have presented to learners in the past and align the focus, strategies and approaches we employ to build the capacity of learners to be continuous, life-long, successful leaders of their learning. We will present shifts and strategies on:

  • understanding the connection between good strategy, effort and use of resources to develop learner efficacy
  • helping learners understand how they learn best and how they can support their learning
  • the role and importance of learner voice and choice
  • building learner ownership of their learning

This is the first post in our collaborative blog series on Learner Agency by the Institute for Personalized Learning (@Institute4PL) and Personalize Learning, LLC (@plearnchat). The next post will be in two weeks on “Learner Efficacy.”


Image: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / kritiya

4 thoughts on “Learner Agency: The Missing Link

  1. Jill Ann Daniel says:

    I would have to agree. Because of time constraints…, there are days when I do this better than others. It depends on the agenda of the day (what my goals are for that particular day). I sometimes have a student-centered classroom, and sometimes it’s teetering on a teacher-centered classroom, but the next day may be set aside for their feedback… I understand that student-centered is what we should be striving for.

  2. drcjw says:

    I like the emphasis here on both meta-cognitive and developmental aspects of learner agency. In my own explorations of this topic I have also found it interesting to consider the interaction of agency among four roles in the learning context (learner, peer, mentor, and administrator):


    1. Excellent insight regarding how context and relationships can influence agency. Just because agency is present and strong in one context or relationship does not necessarily mean that it will be in another. However, it seems if it is present in one of the four contexts it is easier to develop in the other three.

  3. One of the best aspects of this work is that it is aspirational. Being less than our best one day does not preclude us from starting anew the next day. As long as learners see us as committed to placing them and their learning at the center, they are quick to forgive and even encourage us when we fall short.

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