By Jaclyn Stevens, M.Ed. | Digital Learning Coach, Instructional Technology Facilitator and Research Associate at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation

The concept of learner agency has been integral to educational thinking and practice since the beginning: the idea that “education is the process through which learners become capable of independent thought which, in turn, forms the basis for autonomous action”, has had a profound impact on modern educational theory and practice (Trend 1: Yet, lately, when I have been using the term ‘Learner Agency’ in professional development sessions and in my conversations with educators and leaders, I get the sense that they are not quite sure about how to move from talking about it to actual action.

What is Learner Agency… really?

“The notion of agency as contributing to cognitive processes involved in learning comes primarily from the Piagetian notion of constructivism where knowledge is seen as “constructed” through a process of taking actions in one’s environment and making adjustments to existing knowledge structures based on the outcome of those actions. The implication is that the most transformative learning experieces will be those that are directed by the learner’s own endeavors and curiosities.” (Lindgren & McDaniel, 2012)

Another way of thinking of learner agency is when learners have “the power to act” – when learning involves activity and initiative on the part of the learner themselves, and not just the teacher, curriculum, and/or resources, etc. Consider concepts such as personalization and learn-centric or learner-centered education: these are aspects of what we might mean by learner agency, but it goes even deeper than that!

Schwartz and Okita developed the following table to compare and contrast high versus low agency learning environments.  Explore it in depth in their blog post, “Learner Agency, Technology and Emotional Intelligence.

AgencyNow let’s compare the table above with the North Carolina Digital Learning Plan’s Digital Age Education Model comparison.

Overall there is a sense of independence and responsibility on the part of the learner: the opportunity to have choice and voice in planning, implementation, and assessment.

Making Learner Agency a Reality 

Involving the learners in the decision-making is a must. These decisions will place more ownership and empowerment on the part of students. Teachers must become comfortable with changing their leadership style from directive to consultative — from “Do as I say” to “Based on your needs, let’s co-develop and implement a plan of action together.”

Focus on…

  • Placing students at the center of their own learning requires their collaboration. They need a voice in why, what, and how learning experiences take shape.
  • Letting student interests drive the content that teaches skills and concepts.
  • Offering a variety of product options based on what you know about your students.
  • Having faith in students’ ability to lead. Give students the chance to take charge of activities, even when they may not quite have all the content skills.

Meaningful change must begin with active student involvement. Advocacy, choice, and voice should occur in the classroom as well as in any learning environment. Relevance and value on the part of our learners are central elements to success.

To learn more about Learner Agency, strategies and innovative models and approaches for personalized, blended and digital teaching and learning to build capacity, develop leadership, facilitate strategic planning, and coach educators, enroll in a Friday Institute Professional Learning Program today!

Go to for ongoing, job-embedded, relevant and valuable cohort learning opportunities for district and school leadership, instructional coaches and educators.

About Jaclyn

Jaclyn Stevens (1)Jaclyn B. Stevens coaches and assists  K-12 educators, ITFs, and Administrators to adapt, not adopt –  fostering digital initiatives to transform professional learning through changes in pedagogical shifts and meeting the needs of all learners to champion creativity and innovation as a Digital Learning Coach and Research Associate with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation with the College of Education at North Carolina State University. @jaclynbstevens