The Power of Autonomy: Agentic Learning in the Classroom

When test scores are the goal, then students only learn how to take tests. When student agency is the goal, then students learn how to learn.

The traditional “one size fits all” approach to learning has, understandably, left many students feeling disenfranchised. Agentic learning transforms students from passive recipients to active participants in the learning process. But giving students agency doesn’t mean taking away a teacher’s ability to teach. Student agency is about empowering educators too. Agentic learning focuses on fostering both student and teacher agency so that everyone involved has the power to act.

The three principal aspects to agentic learning are:

  1. Initiative. Agency isn’t simply about handing over control over to the learner. It’s about creating an environment  where students are actively involved in their own learning;

  2. Interdependence. Students develop an awareness of how their decisions affect their learning, and;

  3. Responsibility. A student learns that their decisions impact their fellow students.  

Agentic learning provides students with multiple opportunities in how, when, and where they learn best. It’s the ability and freedom to choose their own path and pace, so that they can master a subject or skill on their own terms.

Creating Agentic Classrooms

Student-centered learning is not about following a map. It’s about following the compass of a student’s unique needs. Students need to be recognized as active participants in their education who exhibit personal choice as they navigate their learning and progress through skills and competencies.

Students should have the opportunity to contribute to anything and everything that affects their learning environment: the design of the classroom, how a project is approached and delivered, as well as how skills are assessed.  The collaboration between a teacher and student during the agentic journey builds trust and strengthens connection. A teacher and student can confer to agree on yearly learning goals, have students lead their own regular check-ins on how they are mastering new skills, and showcase their work by presenting and explaining it in front of an audience beyond the classroom.

Teachers should also provide scaffolding to guide students until they build the skills and confidence to guide themselves. For younger students, this could be through a morning greeting ritual with students deciding how they want to say hello. For older students, a teacher can have the class undergo the process of creating a driving question, using tools such as mind maps, or simply have students continually evaluate themselves—listing challenges, attributes and new skills learned—throughout the year.

A 2015 Harvard study—The Influence of Teaching Beyond Standardized Test Scores: Engagement, Mindsets, and Agency—cites ten practical ways of teaching agency:

  • Care: Being attentive and sensitive, yet not coddling in ways that undermine agency
  • Confer: Encouraging and respecting students’ perspectives while remaining focused on instructional goals
  • Captivate: Striving to make lessons stimulating and relevant to the development of agency
  • Consolidate: Summarizing lessons to remind students what they have learned
  • Clarity: Taking regular steps to detect and respond to confusion in class
  • Clarify: Developing clearer explanations of how skills taught are useful in the exercise of effective agency and in real life
  • Instructing: Giving instructive feedback in ways that provide scaffolding for students to solve their own problems
  • Challenge: Pressing students to think deeply about their lessons with goals that require reasoning and agency in solving problems
  • Persistence: Requiring students to keep trying and searching for ways to succeed even when work is difficult
  • Management:Striving for respectful, orderly, on-task student behavior by teaching in ways that clarify, captivate, and challenge

Other techniques for bringing agentic learning to the classroom include:

  • Creating blended learning and competency-based learning environments that allow students the freedom to help forge their own path and place while demonstrating mastery;
  • Initiating project-based and interest-based learning where students can help shape their driving question, and;
  • Creating an advisory structure that provides continuous feedback on successful habits.

On Their Best Behavior

Being agentic means being aware of deep behavioral patterns. This requires both student and teacher to become partners in cultivating positive learning behaviors while curbing negative learning behaviors. This environment requires everyone to be a learner and everyone to be a teacher.

And it’s more than just being a “good” student. Being a good student has typically meant complying with the status quo and working independently. Agentic students, however, must constantly question “why” and “how.”  They are deep learners who direct their own learning.

Making the Shift

For teachers, the shift to agentic learning can be a challenging one at first. The classroom—with its compliant “good” students and disengaged “bad” students—may not look all that different until these approaches are truly adopted and absorbed.

It requires an understanding of learning behavior. It abandons traditional classroom rewards and disciplinary methods  for motivating the classroom. And teachers must cultivate trust—in both themselves and their students—that learners can increase their autonomy while educators relax their control. It’s a process that unfolds over time. For example, students may work on projects with unusual focus as their curiosity fully blossoms and they begin to learn for learning’s sake. If so, a teacher should note what aspects of their educational approach may have contributed to this increase in student ownership. A teacher should reach out to students to see how their agentic journey is going. What is working? What could be improved? What are other ways that a student could take more control of their learning?

And if some students are resistant—such as students who typically do what they are told to get a passing grade—than a teacher must simply persevere: most will see not only improved student outcomes, but will also become more confident in themselves as educators. 

A Tool Up Your Teaching

Think of agentic learning as another arrow in a teacher’s pedagogical quiver. Design thinking, project-based learning, and inquiry are all inherently “agentic” in their approach as they encourage investigation, engagement and critical-thinking.    

Education is about equipping children with the skills they need to succeed, both in college and in life. And when they can take more control over their learning, then true agency develops: giving students the ability to fuel their own lifelong curiosity and drive.