3 Modes of Learner Agency

Over the last few weeks I have been exploring the concepts surrounding the premise of “student voice” in our schools. I think a much better phrase is “learner agency” as this is broader and encompasses all the learners in the community.

One of the major concerns I have with the transitional paradigm of education is the emptiness of such phrases. They may be well meaning but they are all too often tokenistic. We know we should have it, “We need more student voice!” comes the clarion call. But little is sustained, deeply embraced. Mindsets remain set. As a result students continue as, “subjects of a kingdom built by adults, rather than citizens of a democratic society who help to shape society.[1]

The concept of agency is complex, after all it is about control. Traditionally the locus of control has been firmly with the adults in school and other learning environments. When we begin to, more accurately, consider student voice or learner agency as “the capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life[2],” we are beginning to take steps towards a clearer rationale for it in schools. It is not just another thing to tick off.

By better understanding the agreed modes of agency[3] perhaps we can begin to shift things more significantly towards what we intend. It is useful to consider the observable evidence of learner agency in schools with these three modes in mind:

Proxy agency – rely on others to act.

Collective agency – coordinate with others to secure what cannot be accomplished in isolation.

Personal agency – act with intention, forethought, self-reactiveness, self-reflectiveness[0] to secure a desired outcome.

Which one is more prevalent in the learning communities you know of, or work in? Which do you think best describes the realities of “student voice”?

Let’s think in metaphors for a moment to help better understand these three different modes of agency.

My son, George, has been riding his bike to school recently and as we wind our way through the bike paths he has been experimenting with his ability to ride without holding the handlebars. Much to my concern. But when he is on is own bike, controlling where he goes and how he gets there, with hands or intentionally “Look Dad, no hands!”, he is showing direct personal agency.

If George and I were in the laneways of Melbourne and were perhaps looking to travel across the city, we might choose to hire a Bike Share. Again with our own bikes we would have direct personal agency. However if we decided to jump in a rickshaw or bike taxi we would be relying on someone else to act in order to get us where we wanted to go. The control rests with someone else and, in this instance, the prospect of an economic transaction, secures a desired outcome and delivers us to our destination. This would be an example of proxy agency.

Maybe once George has longer legs he might join the weekend cyclists along Beach Road as they turn through the miles. We regularly see large groups and clubs of riders working together. These little platoons of cyclists, or pelotons, gain speed and effort efficiencies from coordinating their actions. They travel faster as a group then if they were solo riders. They are acting in an interdependent way to achieve something that would be much harder on their own. This would be an example of collective agency.

For what it is worth, I think much of what we believe to be “student voice” in schools is in fact proxy agency. The key word here is reliance. Students relying on the school staff to exert a measure of control over their lives, and thus their experience of learning. Through a better understanding of the term learner agency maybe we can reduce this reliance and help students appreciate what it takes to intentionally ride with no hands.


  1. World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, Yong Zhao, 2012  ↩
  2. Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective, Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 52: 1–26 (Volume publication date February 2001)  ↩
  3. “Monitoring one’s pattern of behavior and the cognitive and environmental conditions under which it occurs is the first step toward doing something to affect it.” Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective, Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 52: 1–26  ↩

Tom Barrett

Tom is a writer, speaker and consultant. He has been sharing his thoughts on teaching, learning, curiosity and creativity on this blog for over 10 years. Drinking coffee and writing would be his idea of a perfect day.

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2 Comments on "3 Modes of Learner Agency"

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Janet McCarroll
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Janet McCarroll
6 months 4 days ago

Useful metaphors used to describe layers of ‘Learner Agency’. Thanks Tom for your clarity and ability to create evaluative descriptions in defining and unpacking this current educational term, ‘learner agency’.
Using your descriptors, I believe that ‘Persona;l Agency’ is a highly desirable characteristic for a student , however, this is rarely achieved in classrooms today. Acting with intention, reflectiveness are attributes of an ‘Assessment Capable’ student, who can self regulate their learning. A global aim for all educators!

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