Giving Students Control Through Learner Agency

Nearly one-third of all college students were enrolled in at least one online course during the fall 2011 term. This was just one of the surprising pieces of information gained from the Online Learning Consortium in its 2012 survey “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States.”

The question arises, “Why is online learning becoming so popular?” Perhaps the reason is today’s learners are seeing an opportunity that was not available to them in the regular classroom.

What an employer wants

When Quintessential Careers asked employers what traits were the most sought after in employees, analytical/research skills, computer/technology literacy, and problem solving/creativity were at the top of the list.

Thinking of the traditional school model, it is safe to say that students are not challenged enough or exposed to these traits to the point where they become strong enough to gain a future employer’s attention. Can we make our students more college and career ready?  The answer may be found in learner agency.

Learner agency defined

Learner agency is the capability of individual human beings to make choices and act on these choices in a way that makes a difference in their lives. In the classroom, educators may look at this as self-directed learning. While this is not necessarily a new concept for teachers, the approach to this style of education has a different look with the vast amount of technological resources within arm’s reach.

Students want to learn

Anyone who has spent even a small amount of time investigating the basic curriculum demands placed on teachers knows there is more content to cover than time to do it. Teachers feel a tremendous amount of pressure to introduce, reinforce, and develop mastery of more information. The result becomes teaching to the middle, focusing on a one-size-fits-all method of instruction.

Teachers work for educational buy-in from their students through exhaustive attempts at bribery, validity to the real world, and threats of low grades. The audience they are trying to connect to, the disenfranchised or disconnected students, may very well be the ones who would see learner agency as their path to finding a passion for learning.

The students at Robin Hood School in Birmingham, United Kingdom, make an impassioned yet silent plea in their You Tube video to engage them in learning through means that are relatable to them.

Educators want strong writers but fail to recognize that many of their students have their own blogs. Teachers look for creativity and problem-solving without looking at the video games students master or the podcasts they manage on their own time. Employers are looking for self-reliant applicants, yet students in our classrooms are self-reliant in the tech-integrated projects they dedicate themselves to each day outside of school because policies are in place that force them to power down when they enter their school building each morning.

The tools to create the ideal learner are already in the toolboxes of our students, and as educators we have to be willing to let them be used.

Learner agency classroom

Education authors Daniel Schwartz and Sandra Okita describe a classroom that is high on the learner agency spectrum. Student-centered classrooms empower a student voice, are active and elective rather than authoritarian, passive, and assembly-line learning. A learner agency classroom integrates the interests of the students and allows them to have the power to investigate the learning objective and build their own educational experience.

Imagine a learning culture where individualized education plans were not just for students with special needs. Where a personalized approach to learning was available for everyone and teachers were educational Sherpa, providing support and guidance along the way rather than pulling students up the mountain of curriculum.

Many educators may look at learner agency as a nice thought, but not realistic in practice. Yet it is taking place in classrooms because a teacher decided to take the first step, to have faith that those he or she serves may have a valid voice in how they learn.  Society is changing at a rapid pace, as is education.  Our students can no longer afford to have classroom leaders who are not risk takers.

Dr. Jason Perez is the head principal at Heritage Trails Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma, as well as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Central Oklahoma, where he teaches Master of Education Administration courses.

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