If I am asked what language teachers should do to prepare students for a world full of uncertainties beyond the classroom, I will say without hesitation that we should help them become agentive learners. In other words, language teachers should create opportunities for students to enact and grow their agency, as we explain in our comprehensive guide to Learner Agency.
What is learner agency?
Learner agency refers to the feeling of ownership and sense of control that students have over their learning. We know language teachers help students to improve their language proficiency and become better language users, but we should also help them to take responsibility for their learning, participate actively in the classroom, and become confident in their potential. We want them to believe that they make a difference in their learning, so they can become authors of their own learning and lives.
I understand that many people will confuse learner agency with related concepts such as learner autonomy, self-directed learning, self-learning and self-regulated learning. Is learner agency just a new way to package existing well-established ideas? Indeed, these concepts are closely related, but learner agency can be regarded as the root of them all. Agency is a much more holistic concept than autonomy, as agents are seen as embodied, thinking, feeling, social beings with unique histories and identities who pursue interests and goals at particular times and places.
Characteristics of agentive learners
Agentive learners have two important characteristics that we language teachers should consider.
Agentive learners have a growth mindset. Learners with a growth mindset believe that they can improve and achieve better learning outcomes if they put effort into learning. They can also use their agency positively to tackle challenges that they experience inside and beyond the classroom. Because of this, agentive learners are willing to take initiative, seizing and even creating opportunities to learn. They are also willing to take risks because they believe that they can learn from their mistakes. They can endure setbacks and persevere in challenging conditions for success.
Agentive learners are also lifelong learners. Agentive learners believe they are capable of learning another language and can assume responsibility for their learning. They are willing to invest in their own learning in the present and for the future. They have the confidence to fully participate in a lifelong process of inquiry and to actively engage in the world around them.
How can teachers promote learner agency?
Let me take this opportunity to share a few thoughts on what we language teachers can do to help our students to become agentive, lifelong learners with a growth mindset.
Agency emerges and grows through meaningful interactions.
We know that context plays an important role in creating and shaping opportunities for students to enact agency. A classroom is a crucial site where language teachers provide structured instruction to foster learner agency. In the process, the students are also given more of a voice in what and how they learn. By supporting the enactment and growth of learner agency, language teachers do not give up any of their other responsibilities. We still manage classroom interactions and help our students to improve their English proficiency. But when we encourage learner agency, we also have the privilege of watching our students grow in confidence, find success and become lifelong learners.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the development of pedagogical strategies to foster learner agency. The strategies we design and implement must depend on the characteristics of our students. The amount and type of guidance we offer should also be tailored to what individuals need to develop their agency. For instance, young language learners may require more direct guidance in developing agency. We also must recognise that the students value having choices when they are invited to enact agency. Therefore, we should try to give them choices, even simple choices, such as the ability to select different topics when completing a reading task.
It is also a wonderful idea to promote a growth mindset and learner agency by encouraging students to investigate language for themselves. Here is a specific example of how this can be achieved. A university language teacher designed a task that asked a group of students to investigate puzzling aspects of English so that they could teach themselves. The task was implemented as follows:
- The teacher or a student brought an interesting or puzzling sample of language use to class. For example, a student heard someone say that he ‘had been wanting a new car for a long time’. She wondered why he used ‘wanting’ when she had learned that ‘want’ does not occur with –ing.
- The class explored this puzzle using the learning strategy of brainstorming other examples of sentences with –ing verbs. They inferred the meaning—that –ing refers to something ‘in progress’.
- They then used the strategy of analogizing to realise that because the man was describing his ongoing desire over a period of time in the past, it made sense to extend the use of –ing to ‘want’.
Guiding students to learn inductively in this way may initially take more time than simply providing the answer, but students develop valuable skills through exploring and working out answers for themselves. They also gain confidence in their problem-solving abilities. As a result, they are more willing to invest efforts and take risks in learning beyond the task.
Use real-world examples
Language teachers should also pay attention to students’ everyday life and recognise the valuable resources that students can use beyond the classroom. For example, a secondary school teacher noticed that his students were using vocabulary that he had not taught and realised they had learned it from playing video games in English. He asked them to record themselves playing a game for five minutes and bring the language that they used to their next lesson for analysis. This assignment helped to challenge compartmentalised views of language learning that separate formal learning in school from informal learning beyond the classroom. By acknowledging the value of informal learning, the teacher empowered his students to claim ownership of it and encouraged them to become lifelong learners who would continue learning outside the school.
There are many other strategies that we can consider adopting to help our students to become agentive, lifelong learners with a growth mindset. Remember, we language teachers teach not only language but also learners.
Do you want more practical ideas and expert advice to help you promote learner agency in your classroom? Download our latest position paper, Learner Agency: Maximizing Learner Potential, and nurture active learners who will flourish in any learning environment.
Xuesong (Andy) Gao is a language teacher educator at the School of Education, University of New South Wales, Australia. He has been involved in language teacher education in Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan. His research interests include language learner autonomy, language education policy, and language teacher education. His research has been funded by the Research Grants Council (Hong Kong), the Sumitomo Foundation (Japan), and the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (Hong Kong). He has published widely in international journals, including ELT Journal, TESOL Quarterly, Modern Language Journal, and Teaching and Teacher Education. He is a co-editor of System: An International Journal of Educational Technology and Applied Linguistics and co-editor of the English Language Education book series, published by Springer. Xuesong is a contributing author of our position paper on Learner Agency.