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Saturday / May 25

Knowledge and Agency: A Window of Opportunity

The following is an excerpt from “It’s a Gift: Disposed to Learn” by Ruth Crick. To download the full monograph and others in the Corwin Educator Series, click here 


As teachers and facilitators of learning we are dealing with three key factors: 

  1. the information and data that our learners need to engage with—the ‘what’ of the curriculum (ontology)
  2. the learners themselves and their sense-making capabilities, drives and purposes — the ‘why’ of the curriculum (anthropology) 
  3. learners’ abilities to regulate the flow of information, energy and data in order to achieve their purpose—the ‘how’ of the curriculum (epistemology)  

Viewing these factors through (i) the lens of student agency and (ii) the lens of the how we organise, generate and access new knowledge, we get two axes which form the Knowledge Agency window below, with the learner as a purposeful agent who is the navigator or the journey-maker.  

The vertical axis is the spectrum through which we encounter knowledge. At one end of this spectrum, knowledge is already articulated by experts and encoded in formal curricula and text books. At the other end of this spectrum the knowledge we need is unknown at the start of the problem-solving process—it is ‘out there’ to be encountered and constructed in the process of an enquiry. The horizontal axis is the degree of authorship or agency that the learner experiences—on the left-hand side he is simply following external regulations, such as his teacher’s instructions or a ‘rule book’, and on the right-hand side, he is a self-regulating agent, making decisions about why, how, where, what and with whom he learns. 

At one end of the Knowledge Axis we have pre-codified knowledge—in Australian schools this is enshrined in National Curricula. It’s the body of knowledge that society believes its young people are entitled to encounterthe script to be learned. At the other end of this Axis we have knowledge which is uncertain and, as yet, unknown—it is the liquid flow of data and information that’s out there and available, from which we have to identify, select, collect, curate and re-construct into new knowledge in order to pursue a genuinely open-ended enquiry. In other words, learning by design, rather than script: the learner has to take responsibility for navigating a learning journey in the service of chosen purpose, leading to a personally meaningful outcome.  

This is resilient agency. It’s a complex process that requires a learner to be able to understand and ‘inhabit’ their own purpose, to mobilise their learning dispositions (or learning power) in order to collect and collate the information and data they need to work with in order to achieve their chosen purpose, which also provides a ‘fit for purpose’ way of measuring success. Resilient agency is thus learning understood as a ‘journey’ — a process of self-leadership that moves iteratively between purpose and performance, utilising learning dispositions as fuel for the journey. 

On the horizontal Axis is the learner as Agent—at one end what, why and often how, she learns is explained and prescribed by external regulatory frameworks (often called the curriculum). At the other end, she is a self-regulating agent of her own learning and life journey. Put these together and we can see the difference between learning-as-script in the bottom left window and learning-as-design in the top right window. By ‘learning as design,’ we mean learning which begins with a self-directed purpose and which shapes and guides an open-ended journey towards the fulfilment of that purpose. 

When we talk about learning dispositions, we’re talking about that complex mix of behaviors, values, attitudes, feelings, cognitive resources and stories which enable students to navigate their way around in the zone of the top right-hand quadrant. This is not to say that the bottom left hand corner is irrelevant, but simply that it is no longer enough as a learning context for the education of children and young people today. On its own, it is no longer fit for purpose.  

Students and their learning facilitators need to be able to move as seamlessly as possible between all four quadrants, utilising their learning resources accordingly. 

Agency and Hope  

According to John Hattie, personal learning dispositions can have a marked impact on the outcomes of schooling. He describes them as: 

“the way the student becomes open to experiences, their emerging beliefs about the value and worth to them from investing in learning, and the manner in which they learn that they can build a sense of self from their engagement in the learning enterprise” (2015: 931) 

He argues that meta-analyses show that intention accounts for 28% of the variance in behaviour (2015: 944) and that student intention is critical for student engagement in learning. So often students are passive recipients of teachers’ lessons — but as his meta-analyses demonstrate, the overall aim is to enable students to be active in the learning process and then become their own teachers, seeking out optimal ways to learn new material, to collect appropriate resources and to set their own goals. 

At the heart of this challenge are the concepts of agency and hope. 

These two ideas have to do with self-determination and direction in learning and frame a student’s personal answer to the question why am I doing this?’—their sense of purpose. Pink (2009) argues that what motivates people is ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’:  

  1. the ability to be self-directing 
  2. the ability to become competent in a particular domain  
  3. a sense of purpose or meaning in life 

One of the problems of contemporary schooling, with regulatory frameworks that impose high-stakes summative testing and assessment regimes, is that all too often students and their teachers are locked into the bottom left-hand quadrant of the knowledge agency window. What is learned is predetermined, what is measured and assessed is only that which can be standardized 

For students, particularly those who don’t fit in the middle of any normal distribution curve, this is counter-productive in terms of developing their sense of personal agency and hope for the future. It actually depresses students’ motivation for learning and therefore their learning dispositions. The systematic evidence for this has been available since 2003 (Harlen and Deakin Crick, 2003b, Harlen and Deakin Crick, 2003a).  

It’s a learning design fault of enormous magnitude given the world which today’s young people will be inheriting. 


 To read more from “It’s a Gift: Disposed to Learn” and other monographs in the Corwin Educator Series, click here.  

Written by

Ruth Crick is a transdisciplinary academic dedicated to enhancing self-directed learning and purpose-led change for individuals, teams and organisations. Wired to challenge the status quo, Ruth has developed ground-breaking analytics for evolutionary learning and self-leadership as the organising principle for sustainable change and community resilience in complex sociotechnical systems. She currently serves as Director at Learning Emergence Community Futures, Director at Jearn.co, and as Professor of Learning Analytics at University of Technology Sydney.

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