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Learner agency is important--when learner agency is engaged, the learners themselves become the most impactful accelerators.

Will, skill, & thrill: How learner agency accelerates innovation


When learner agency is engaged, the learners themselves become the most impactful accelerators

Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared on CoSN’s blog and is reposted here with permissions.

When it comes to students in the classroom, they want to feel ownership and control of their learning. According to the American Institutes for Research, encouraging student agency is beneficial because:

  • students who believe their knowledge can grow over time perform better on IQ tests,
  • those with a growth mindset are more likely to set academic goals focused on mastering content versus studying for a test score or course grade,
  • students who set mastery-focused goals tend to process information in a deeper and more organized fashion, and
  • the skills and behaviors that learner agency fosters are positively related to higher education and career outcomes.

During CoSN’s Driving K-12 Innovation 2022-23 cycle, our esteemed Advisory Board of about 100 educators and technologists agreed that learner agency is, indeed, one of the top three accelerators in education today. Download the 2023 Driving K-12 Innovation Report: Hurdles + Accelerators to learn more.

About learner agency

In CoSN’s 2023 Hurdles + Accelerators Report, we define Learner Agency as:

Learner Agency is a combination of the will and the skill to learn. It is about students as active choice-makers in their education and about reconceptualizing their role from that of “student” to that of “learner.” Combined with a strong learning environment, students are able to transform from order-takers to innovators, experience the state of “flow,” and learn far more authentically. In order for schools to facilitate learner agency, they must also encourage educator agency. Learner agency is essential for lifelong learning and requires a different approach to school structure and practices. Truly embracing learner agency will require transforming education systems. This Accelerator is deeply intertwined with Personalization.

It’s all about students as active choice-makers in their education; reconceptualizing their role from that of “student” to that of “learner.” Combined with a strong learning environment, students could transform from order-takers to innovators.

The negative effect of lack of learner agency

During our Driving K-12 Innovation Summit in February 2023, Advisory Board Member Marie Bjerede (E-mergents, Oregon, United States) shared a mini-deep dive into the world of Learner Agency, and why it is critically important for learners today.

Bjerede started her presentation by giving the vivid example of a girl named Gia and her love of reading:

“Imagine Gia: she has a little library under her mattress that she thinks her parents don’t know about. Past her bedtime, she devours the pages of Nancy Drew on thrilling adventures, cozy in her little nest under the covers. She thinks about how good she is at solving puzzles just like her hero.

She’s a little tired going to school in the morning, but wonderful news is waiting. Her class is going to have a reading challenge! Starting with a Wrinkle in Time, she’s given a list of great books to choose from. Her teacher shares that whoever reads the most pages each day will win a candy.

This is a challenge that she is up for, every evening, she forces herself to read just a bit extra, so that she can win the morning’s prize.

It worked.

The teacher was delighted to let her parents know that she read more pages than ever. Gia felt very proud, knowing she had worked hard. That night, it felt good for her to go to bed without the pressure of reading. She told herself that she would get back to Nancy Drew soon, but somehow school and activities just kept her too busy. Gia’s agency around reading diminished – instead of reading out of curiosity and enjoyment, she began reading for rewards and good grades.

Regrettably, it is more the rule than the exception that students work to earn grades rather than enjoying learning. They game the system to get the most award for the least effort. They are convinced that they wouldn’t work hard unless someone made them. And because they believe it to be true, it is.”

How learner agency empowers students

Bjerede further explained that learner agency is like Gia reading under the covers at night. Agentic learners, who take ownership of their learning and academic career, do so because they have both the will and the skill to do so.

  • Will is the high-quality motivation that can be achieved in an environment where the learners’ base psychological needs – autonomy, mastery, and relatedness – are met.
  • Skill refers to the quality of the learners’ ability to productively apply their motivation. Metacognitive skills include the ability to plan, monitor, evaluate, and make changes to their behaviors to confront challenges more effectively.

“When students have both the will and the skill, they often get to experience the thrill of being intrinsically motivated,” said Bjerede. “Of doing a task purely for the enjoyment or satisfaction of it, of experiencing a state of flow where time falls away, and they become engrossed in their task of working, for understanding or out of curiosity, instead of receiving rewards or avoiding punishments. When learner agency is engaged, the learners themselves become the most impactful accelerators.”

Watch Bjerede speak at Learner Agency at the Driving K-12 Innovation Summit 

Watch the full Summit recording

Visit the Driving K-12 Innovation webpage to read the 2023 reports, get free resources to help you drive innovation, and more.

CoSN is vendor neutral and does not endorse products or services. Any mention of a specific solution is for contextual purposes.

Related: Technology’s key role in personalization and differentiation

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