For a few years now I have been struggling with how to “verb” agency in education (sometimes referred to as learner agency or student agency). When people first become aware of the idea, they tend to use terminology like “I want to allow student agency in my classes.” I guess on some levels that is technically what happens in many cases, as the teacher typically holds the power in the course, and they have to allow agency to happen.

However, once one uses that terms a bit and gets used to the idea, you usually realize that “allowing” agency is kind of a contradiction. People tend to shift towards using the term “empower”… as in, “My goal was to empower learner agency in this lesson.” This is the verb I hear most at conferences the few times that agency in education is touched on.

Of course, saying that the instructor is “empowering” agency is pretty problematic as well. Is a learner’s thought process really independent if the instructor is the one that empowered it? Is the autonomous action that flows from independent thought really all that autonomous if the teacher had to initiate the power to make it happen?

With some twists in logic and semantic word play, I am sure one could say that agency can be empowered, but to be honest – it really can’t. If the teacher is the one that “empowers” it, then its not really agency. What many really mean when they refer to “empowering agency” is “tricking learners into doing something that looks like independent thought and action, even if they didn’t really independently decide to think or act that way because at the end of the lesson there was a grade for coming up with something within specific instructor-determined parameters.”

I have started using terms like “unleash” when discussing agency in presentations, because that is probably about all you can really do with agency – remove the barriers that are holding it down, and let it do its own thing. But still, not really the best verb for agency.

Of course, this is probably why we don’t see much true learner agency in formal education settings – you set it loose, and it could go in any direction, or none, sometimes both from the same learner. It becomes something that is difficult to standardize and quantify once it really happens.

However, I am speaking of agency as if it is something that turns on and off at the flick of a switch, when the reality is that there are shades of agency that exist on a spectrum. Even when we unleash it, or just stand back and see what happens (or how ever you want to “verb” it), its not like learners just jump right into agency feet first and swim around in it like a natural. Some need guidance, scaffolding, a hand to hold, etc – whether because they are new to the idea in a system that has never allowed it or because they just need a more experienced hand to point them towards which way to go. Oh sure, there are many that do just launch out with little to no guidance to do it just fine. In any one class, you are going to have learners all over the place. They will even switch places from day to day or hour to hour.

edugeek-journal-avatarAgency in learning is something that takes the predictable linear instructivist narrative and explodes it all kinds of directions, but then even messes with linear time in that explosion as some need it to go slower while others need a guide through the explosion and others ride the explosion with enthusiasm wanting it to go faster. Oh, and then they all change their place in that process without a moments notice. So how does one come up with a verb to explain this chaos?

(image credit: Blue Chaos 3 by Josh Klute)

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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