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Learners need to be in the driving seat to prepare for future educational challenges

Learners need to be in the driving seat to prepare for future educational challenges

30 March 2021

The latest white paper from the English Language Teaching (ELT) division of Oxford University Press highlights the importance of giving learners the freedom to create their own ‘agency’–a sense of ownership and control over their learning which will help to prepare them for future challenges and opportunities.

Learner Agency: Maximizing Learner Potential was written in consultation with OUP’s ELT Expert Panel—a group of leading educational researchers and practitioners from across the world. The importance of promoting agency has been emphasized by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the impact that external factors like pandemics and climate change can have on education and the wider world, underlining the need to prepare learners and educators for an uncertain future.

As the paper reports, learners who feel in control of their own development are more likely to be engaged and invested in their learning, which can improve their confidence, motivation, sense of empowerment, and ultimately their learning outcomes. Promoting agency can also inspire them to participate in lifelong learning, supporting their ongoing development.

'Learners need to believe they can make a difference to their learning’, argues Sarah Mercer, Professor of Foreign Language Teaching and Head of ELT at the University of Graz, and one of the experts behind the paper. This belief will help students develop behaviours such as asking questions to fill the gaps in their knowledge, adopting different learning strategies, and being able to take risks and learn from their mistakes. Learners develop agency in different ways and at different rates—for example, young learners may need a more structured approach with more explicit guidance—but given appropriate support, every student has the potential to become more agentive.

As the research further highlights, educators play an essential role in facilitating the development of learner agency. ‘Agency is not an attribute of a person. It is a relationship between the learner and what their context affords’, says Diane Larsen-Freeman, author of the paper and Professor Emerita of Education and Linguistics at the University of Michigan.

The paper calls on teachers and institutions to give students opportunities to exercise and enhance their agency, by taking a learner-centered approach to teaching. It suggests focusing on what students are thinking and feeling, as well as considering what they have yet to learn.

Yordanka Kavalova, Professional Development Publisher at OUP ELT and the publisher behind the white paper, commented: ‘Promoting learner agency means not doing for students what they can do for themselves. Remarkable changes can occur when teachers gather feedback from students, invite participation, and work with learners to promote their agency. As our experts advise, agency develops most effectively when it is supported and negotiated by every stakeholder in a learning community, including teachers, students, policymakers, school leaders, and parents.

‘By encouraging agency, teachers can help students feel valued as capable, independent learners. In return, teachers gain the privilege of watching their students grow in confidence and ability and become empowered lifelong learners’.

You can download Learner Agency: Maximizing Learner Potential position paper for free here.