Agency and Autonomy in Learning: Starting Points

handsLet’s start with a simple truth:  If I had to choose between spending an hour in a school-wide professional development session covering a mandated concept being rolled out to our entire staff or spending an hour in my classroom learning on my own, I’d choose to learn on my own every time.

I love the freedom and flexibility to choose the content and concepts that I am wrestling with when I am learning on my own.  I also love the fact that I can choose learning experiences – videos, online or face-to-face conversations, text-based readings, game-based scenarios – that suit me the best.  Finally, I love that I control the pace of my learning when I am learning on my own.  Instead of sitting through sessions that do little to challenge my thinking, I can move forward as soon as I am ready.

What’s interesting is that I think I am a far more responsible learner when I am learning on my own.  I set my own goals, determine the best ways to reach those goals, and collect formal and informal evidence to document the progress that I am making.  Motivated by a sense of real agency and autonomy, I participate and contribute and reflect and invest far more frequently than I do in traditional professional development sessions.

Technology facilitates much of the learning that I’m doing on my own.  Whether I’m skimming through my feed reader for ideas and individuals that push my instruction, working as a member of an open online course to learn a new skill, or having my thinking challenged as I watch TED and TEDx videos on the changing nature of teaching and learning, I am using new digital tools and spaces to create learning experiences for myself rather than waiting for others to create learning experiences for me.

Listen closely to how the students in my middle school describe the role that those same digital tools and spaces are playing in the independent learning that they are doing and you will see that they, too, have already figured out that new technologies can facilitate flexible opportunities to explore, experiment and master new ideas:

“I often use the internet to further my education beyond what the school can provide for me. For example, I often look up more complex mathematical proofs and concepts than I get at school.”

“I like to go ahead of classmmates and to learn further but it is hard to do that in a traditional classroom. That is why I am interested in online lessons because you get to go your own pace.”

“I use games that are usually strategy games that can help me learn better in subjects. Games that are strategy games such as Clash of Clans can help you manage resources, use strategys, and learn more.”

“I like designing clothing or making things out of used clothes so I go to YouTube to see how to make things. My favorite thing to make are bows.”

“I want to be a mechanical engineer when I go to college. I do not feel that the school provides any programs that directly address what I want to study. Therefore, I must look at ideas online instead. YouTube, blogs, and other social media can help me find others that share my intrests.”

“When I go home after a long day at school I sit down to do homework and sometimes I don’t understand or feel like the teacher was moving too fast. Being able to go on the internet and look up the stuff I learned can help explain it more then the teachers do sometime.”

(Responses gathered as a part of Project Tomorrow’s 2014 Speak Up Survey)

Imagine how frustrated today’s kids must be when they walk into classrooms delivering uninspired curricula to large groups of students who are all wrestling with the same content and completing the same assignments at the same time.  Can we really be surprised that seven out of ten students surveyed in the most recent iteration of Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up survey report wishing that their classes were more interesting (Evans, 2015).  Once you realize that agency and autonomy really can define your learning life, inflexible learning spaces become nothing short of intolerable.

So what changes would we need to make in order to draw greater parallels between the kind of learning spaces that we currently have and the kind of learning spaces that modern learners are creating for themselves using new tools and technologies?

Here are three potential starting points for school leaders:

Introduce the idea of enhanced student agency and autonomy into the work that you do with classroom teachers:  Teachers make decisions about instructional practices worth embracing based on a variety of factors including their preconceived notions about learning, their experiences as both teachers and as learners, and the cultural norms of the schools and districts that they work for (Oleson & Hora, 2012).  That means if you want to see student agency and autonomy become priorities in your classrooms, it is essential to prioritize agency and autonomy in the work that you do with practitioners.

What can that look like in action?  As frequently as possible, turn mandated professional development sessions into opportunities for your faculty to set and pursue individual goals for their own learning.  Doing so will provide teachers with examples of – and first-hand experiences with – the kinds of learning spaces that you are hoping that they will create for their students.  Doing so will also help to set new organizational expectations for just what meaningful learning spaces can look like in action.

Openly celebrate teachers who take steps to introduce agency and autonomy into their instructional practices:  In traditional schools where required content is predefined, rigid pacing guides remain the norm, and assessments – whether they are district benchmarks or statewide end of grade exams – carry high stakes for everyone involved, there is little to encourage teachers to introduce agency and autonomy into their classroom practices.  Changing that reality starts with your commitment to openly celebrating the risk takers in your school or district.

Consider using digital tools and services to tell their stories.  Create a dedicated blog.  Start posting weekly interviews with teachers and students.  Share classroom artifacts and amplify best practices.  Public recognition of successful efforts to introduce agency and autonomy into the classroom reminds teachers of – and raises community awareness around – the changing nature of learning in today’s hyper-connected world.

Invest ONLY in tools and technologies that enable the kinds of core instructional behaviors that you believe in:  With spending on instructional technologies expected to reach $19 BILLION dollars by 2018 (Nagel, 2014), it is difficult to argue that reimagining learning spaces depends on our willingness to spend MORE money on new gadgets and gizmos.  Instead, it is time to start investing only in technologies that enable the core instructional behaviors that you believe in.  Want to see students working through essential outcomes at their own pace?  Then think about purchasing tools that make tracking student progress or creating online portfolios possible.  Care deeply about giving students chances to collaborate with experts and other learners beyond the walls of their classroom?  Then target your spending on tools and services that make videoconferencing and the shared creation of content possible.  The key is to start by defining exactly what it is that you want your students to know and be able to do BEFORE you start making important purchases.

None of this is complicated, right?  Motivated learners really ARE driven by a sense of agency and autonomy – and if we want to stay relevant as learning organizations, our goal should be to introduce those same opportunities for agency and autonomy into our classrooms.

New technologies can make student agency and autonomy possible, but success is dependent primarily on your commitment to changing teacher professional development, publicly celebrating the risk takers in your organization, and investing ONLY in digital tools that facilitate the core behaviors that you believe in.

Work Cited:

Evans, J. (2015, March 22). Ten Things Everyone Should Know about Today’s Students and Digital Learning.  Lecture conducted from the NSBA Annual Conference, Nashville, TN.  Retrieved from:

Nagel, D. (2014, June 11). Spending on instructional tech to reach $19 billion within 5 years.  THE Journal: Transforming Education Through Technology.  Retrieved from:

Oleson, A., and Hora, M. T. (2012). Teaching the way they were taught? Revisiting the sources of teaching knowledge and the role of prior experience in shaping faculty teaching practices (WCER Working Paper 2012-9). Retrieved from University of Wisconsin–Madison, Wisconsin Center for Education Research website:

Image credit: Heather Katsoulis

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