Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning
by Stewart Hase
The idea of human agency sounds like it belongs to the world of bearded philosophers and yellowing tomes. But in the past couple of weeks it has appeared on Twitter a few times, which is firmly in the hands of practitioners: and the odd philosopher or two, I’m sure. While it is a philosophical issue, whatever view one takes will have practical outcomes in terms of behaviour at the learning coalface and in crafting educational policy. One will either take the view that humans have human agency or they do not and behavior will reflect one of these views, whether we are aware of our position or not. It is time for awareness.
Human agency is the notion that people make a contribution to their actions through the mechanisms of reflection, motivation, being creative and self-determined (Albert Bandura). This is contrary to more deterministic views that humans are simply the product of what happens to them, external agencies, victims of fate, who have limited capacity to determine their future. More extreme but central to conservatism is that our future is largely predetermined and there is nothing we can do about it. More on that later.
Of course there is always a bit of truth in almost anything. It is true that we are subject to the influence of our genes, our experience, catastrophic events and our environment, for example. But these are only influencers. Humans have the capacity for agency, for self-determination: they make choices based on whatever information they have, their emotional state, and experience. That they might make bad choices is regrettable but neither here nor there. That choices are often the result of unconscious motivations is irrelevant too: the unconscious is uniquely ours not something external to ourselves. It is probably on this last point that philosophers probably disagree most (apart from the existence of the guiding hand of god in agency) and reach for their single malt, pipe and lean back in their seats for a debate until dawn.
When it comes to learning human agency is pretty well self-evident.
Humans are hard wired to learn. While pretty incompetent for a long time after birth from a physical point of view, compared to many other mammals, we quite quickly learn a language and our cognitive skills develop rapidly. Humans like making hypotheses about the world and then testing them at a very early age and continue right through life. We are sponges for information, seeking to understand and manipulate our environment. But you are a parent and certainly have seen this in action.
Learning is all about human agency. We are influential actors in our seeking. What’s more, learning is built on our own personal previous experience. We make new neuronal pathways as a result of new learning and this links with our previous learning to make all sorts of combinations, new insights, new understandings, new behaviour. The unique emotional ‘us’ combines with the unique cognitive ‘us’ in making decisions, in effecting how we interpret and interact with the world. We make choices about the things on which we focus based on our unique experience, the way in which our brain has developed, where the neurons are densest. Our chemical reward systems and hormones are distinctly ours and function differentially for every individual.
Our education system and even our teachers can dictate what we might be exposed to but they cannot determine what we learn and when we learn it: that is a neurological impossibility. Nor can they anticipate the effect any piece of learning might have on the individual and what new learning needs that person might now have, what new questions they might have. Our education systems and our teachers need to understand that human agency is at the core of learning: it is self-determined, heutagogical. It is in the hands, or minds to be more exact, of the learners. Agency underpins the core principles of heutagogy and I’ll leave you to search those out. Suffice it to say that central to any designed learning endeavor is the learner, not the curriculum nor the agency of the teacher who’s view is necessarily egocentric. Learner-centred learning is at the heart of agency.
The alternative is in the hands of the conservative mindset that believes in predetermination. Standardised testing will prevail to sort the wheat from the chaff in the same way that the Eleven Plus examinations did in the UK for too many years on the basis of a similar ideology. The curriculum will be as the hieroglyphics on the walls of the tombs of Egypt, carved in stone by the keepers of knowledge. And you can be sure that maths, science and language (probably English) will have priority over the arts in an outcome-based educational system that is hell-bent on preparing children for the economy, not for a society.
Agency is an important issue and each and every one of us in education needs to examine whether we think that humans have agency or they do not. The scientific evidence, and we’ve described a lot of this in our work on heutagogy or self-determined learning, is that humans do have agency.
If that is the case then it should underpin our practice.
An updated treatment of human agency:
Bandura, A. (2006). Towards a psychology of human agency.
An early paper on human agency:
Bandura, A (1989). Human agency in social cognitive theory.
A ‘dot point’ summary:
And if you want something really deep: