Sunday / April 21

Developing Student Agency Through Authentic Enquiry

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

Resilient agency in learning begins with a purpose that matters, and this purpose is informed by and, in turn, energises the development of learning dispositions—that complex mix of behaviours, values, attitudes, feelings, cognitive resources, and stories which enable students to navigate their way around in the zone of the top right-hand quadrant of the knowledge agency window 

One way of describing the sort of learning that takes place here is ‘authentic enquiry’: authentic in the sense that the enquiry journey is real and meaningful in the life world of the student and also in the sense that the student is the author of her own enquiry journey. In this context, the pedagogical challenge is how to ensure the intellectual rigour and depths of outcome when the precise content of what is going to be learned is unknown ahead of time.  

It’s at this point that learning power can provide useful ‘scaffolding’ between the learners’ sense of identity and purpose and their encounters with the data, information, experience, and knowledge they need in order to achieve that purpose. The purpose can include goals shaped by external criteria, such as qualifications. Scaffolding can be understood as a ‘sign post’ or a ‘structure’ that enables the ‘builder’ to produce something new, which can stand alone. 

A project funded by the Royal Society of Arts in the UK was designed to explore what that ‘scaffolding’ would look like where students were inspired and fueled by their own identity and purpose in learning. Working across several learning communities, the following iterative and sequential knowledge building capabilities were identified. These provide a focus for developing students’ learning dispositions and their sense of personal agency as part of a meaningful learning journey. The focus here is not on the knowledge the learner has to acquire, or the curriculum that has to be covered, but on the student’s own disposition to learn his way forwards to solve a complex problem that matters to him: his resilient agency. It’s about the thinking and learning processes he goes through when he’s addressing an open-ended, wicked, problem, the how which enables the why or the purpose of the enquiry to be achieved.  

These iterative and sequential knowledge-building capabilities are described here: 

1. Choosing and Deciding: 

The student is encouraged to choose a concrete object, place, person, event, or a problem that fascinates her. Careful, ‘hands-off’ prompting and guidance may be needed from the tutor or coach, to ensure that personal interest is strong and authentic. The rest of the process will be highly influenced by the integrity of this choosing process. At this point, it is the strength of the student’s interest and engagement that are important. 

2. Observing and Describing: 

She observes and analyses the chosen object/place, both as a separate, objective entity and in relation to her own interest and reasons for choosing it. In this, she is developing her sense of personal responsibility. This initiates the cycles of a personal development process which is recorded in a workbook or online journal and in which the student, tutor and, later others, can participate. It requires the student to develop the critical curiosity and mindful agency necessary for independent learning, in the context of effective learning relationships. She is also developing hope and optimism in herself as a learner who can change and grow over time. 

3. Generating Questions: 

She starts asking questions—obvious, but open ones, such as: How did it get there? What was there before? Why is it how it is? Who uses it? How and why did they get involved? What’s it made of? She is initiating and conducting a process of enquiry and investigation, driven by personal interest and shaped in turn by the answers to her own questions. She is exercising and developing critical curiosity. All the time, the student is encouraged to reflect on her motivation, reasoning and identity as a motivator of her own learning. 

4. Uncovering Stories: 

The questioning leads to the uncovering of narratives, both around the chosen object and in the unfolding of new learning. Historical and present realities lead to a sense of ‘what might be’ both for the object/place and for the learner and her learning. She is becoming the author of her own learning story or journey. She is sense-making, using her imagination and intuition and Mindful Agency. 

5. Knowledge Mapping: 

The learner begins to discern that this ad-hoc, subjective narrative leads in turn to new, objective facts and knowledge. Subjective learning starts to be related to a wider, objective awareness. The learning becomes a knowledge map that can be used to make sense of the journey and of new learning as it comes into view. She is sense-making by connecting new learning to the story so far. 

6. Connecting With Existing Funds of Knowledge: 

With informed guidance and support, the student’s widening ‘map’ of knowledge can be related to existing maps or models of the world: scientific, engineering, mathematical, historical, social, psychological, theological, philosophical. This is where awareness of the diversity of possible avenues of learning becomes useful. It requires the tutor to act as supporter, encourager, and tour guide in the student’s encounter with established and specialist sources and forms of knowledge. It is where knowledge experts can be really helpfulIt’s where the learner begins the intellectual hard work of knowledge construction. 

7. Reconciling With Existing Criteria: 

The student arrives at the interface between her personal enquiry and the specialist requirements of curriculum, course, examination, accreditation, or business proposition. Her development as learner enables her to encounter specialist knowledge and make sense of it, in relation to what she already knows and in the way she already learns, interrogating it and interacting with it, instead of simply receiving it, using the model of learning and knowledge mapping skills she has developed through the enquiry. This is where her resilient agency, which will have started to grow through the responsibility and challenge of a self-motivated enquirywill be tested. 

8. Presenting and Performing: 

The student can forge links between what she now knows and institutional and social structures receptive to it: qualifications, job opportunities, learning opportunities, needs, initiatives, outlets, relationships, accreditation, publication… Initially, this takes the form of a portfolio or presentation, based on the workbook, making explicit both process and outcomes of the enquiry. Her learning has met its communicative purpose. She has created a pathway from subjective response and observation towards the interface with established knowledge and assessment criteria. 

9. Applying New Knowledge: 

In doing so, she has also achieved life-enhancing personal development by asking and answering such questions as: Who am I? What is my pathway? How did I get there? Where does it lead me? What were the alternatives? Who helped me and how? The outcome of this learning facilitates a sense of vocational identity: how I can make a difference in the world. (Deakin Crick, 2009) 

These iterative and sequential stages of authentic enquiry can help to ‘scaffold’ a project from the identification and formulation of a problem through to an outcome which achieves a negotiated purpose. It is one of the most powerful means of developing a student’s learning dispositions since different ‘learning muscles’ are flexed throughout the process—and both these knowledge capabilities and the learning dispositions can be made visible, discussed in the learning community and specifically in coaching conversations—and, significantly, they can be assessed. 

To read more from “It’s a Gift: Disposed to Learn” and other white papers in the Corwin Educator Series, click here or on the banner below.  

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, and as Professor of Learning Analytics at University of Technology Sydney.

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