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Making your student an agent of knowledge, not a recipient

By Simon Hennessy on 29 August 2019NSWstaffroomCultureInnovationLeadershipFlipped learningPedagogy

There is something intuitive to the notion that actively seeking new knowledge (as opposed to passively accepting it) best facilitates meaningful and long-lasting acquisition of knowledge and skills. This is by no means a new concept to the world of pedagogical theorising; plenty of student-centred learning theories locate the teacher’s role as being the facilitator of their students’ agency (Jones, 2007).

Turning theory into reality, and overcoming traditional classroom practices is, however, tricky. The poster-child for traditional thinking is the “banking method”, which positions the teacher as the knowledge holder and the student merely as the recipient (Freire, 2018). It is – by virtue of its long life as the go-to method – viewed by many as not broken enough to need a fix.

Yet, as information technology becomes ever more essential to everyday life, there are two critical consequences for the way we should be thinking about this relationship between teacher and student, as well as about the nature of the classroom.

The first is the necessity for change, as our “knowledge society” increasingly values creativity and knowledge acquisition skills, and increasingly devalues the simple static possession of knowledge that conventional classrooms deliver (Cope and Kalantzis, 2010). The second is an ever-broadening scope for new methods of teaching that meet these demands for change.

With student agency at the heart of the demands for change, the modern methods of most interest – and as such the ones to be considered here – are those which reframe the roles of the classroom to make the student an agent and the teacher a facilitator of this agency.

Knowledge building approach

If you want to transfer agency to someone, put them in charge. The knowledge building approach, as espoused by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardemalia, allows the student to set the question or task they will have to answer before they go about researching how to respond to their own idea (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1991).

Online resources are tailor-made for this approach. The right platform can not only arm the student with a wealth of information  but also improve their ability to locate and effectively use that knowledge, for example in the formation of research/inquiry questions.

Teachers play the role of the most valuable resource, as a result of being the most dynamic. Facilitating students means directing them towards how to answer their own questions; student agency has been achieved through the agenda-setting of the student, while the fluid yet expert direction provided by the teacher ensures that the right knowledge is utilised and therefore attained by the student. The process begins and ends in the mind of the student as the agenda-setter, but the journey is only navigable with the assistance of the teacher.

Flipped learning

The conversation around flipped learning – reversing the traditional learning setup such that instructional content is consumed outside of the classroom, creating room for activities at school – is primarily focused on what’s happening in the classroom in terms of how face-to-face time is used. But with student-agency in mind, there are benefits to be found in what’s happening both in the classroom and at home.

Let’s face it – passive engagement is all too tempting for many in the classroom when content is being delivered. The same cannot be said to be as true when this task is to be done on your own time. Of course, taking on content alone can see students run into difficulty, but the tackling of activities in the classroom directly following the consumption of content provides the student with the immediate solution via the teacher.

Active participation cultivates agency, and a classroom environment where problems are being tackled demands that a student step up and exercise this participation. For higher-order problems that might otherwise leave a student frustratedly disengaging, the nearby presence of her teacher - something obviously unachievable at home - means the student’s chances of staying engaged and thus growing her agency are greatly increased.

There is always the risk of the student simply not doing the work, but this is a risk that exists already within and outside of the classroom. The students that do undertake their own content engagement are then able to deal with problem-solving with greater ease, thanks to the nearby steering hand of their teachers. Consequently, they are not only learning the material that has been set for them, but exercising agency in the manner in which they go about learning it. This greater agency will, in‌ ‌turn, develop those knowledge-acquisition skills that will serve these students best in life beyond their schooling.

A handy element of flipped learning is the degree to which it can be combined with other methodologies. For instance, a flipped classroom could utilise the knowledge-building approach outlined above without losing any of its own benefit. As such, flipped learning not only increases student agency in its own right, but opens the door for other teaching techniques that do the same.

Relational agency

Of course, acquiring agency does not have to be a solo endeavour. Relational agency, as defined by Anne Edwards, is:

“A capacity to work with others to expand the object that one is working on and trying to transform by recognising, examining, and working with the resources that others bring to bear as they interpret and respond to the object.” (Edwards, 2009)

In other words, relational agency is the ability to give help to others when needed, and to ask for it in return. A classroom exercise in relational agency undertaken by Edwards saw bilingual ninth-graders swap roles with their teachers and attempt to teach their other languages. The benefits for the student lay in an increased understanding of the role of teacher, and consequent ability to take control of the process of engaging with the teacher in the day-to-day of classroom activity.

Whether it’s student-teacher or student-student relationships at the centre of the exercise, relational agency facilitates the student to enact their agency not just alone, but alongside others as well.


E-pedagogy has been referenced already as a key factor in the above techniques, but it is worth considering on its own two feet. Waasila Naamani Mehanna has the following to say on the results of using technology specifically designed for e-learning:

“This, in turn, promotes, among other things, skills such as articulation, justification and negotiation, scaffolding, setting hypotheses, reflection, knowledge activation and knowledge application, individualised learning and motivation, goal setting, and characteristics such as positive attitude and disposition.”
(Mehanna, 2016)

It is a laundry list of goodness, but one thing that stands out is the degree to which these positive improvements include advances in individual autonomy. A primary benefit of e-learning would seem to be an increase in the personal agency of the student, who flourishes when given the relative freedom of a technological interface.

Of course, of significant importance is using the right interface, and having the guidance and feedback of the teacher throughout the process. But the division of responsibility is key; the teacher as facilitator, the e-learning portal as knowledge holder.

The student will, with the teacher’s direction, have to extract the knowledge himself, and in the process will work that muscle of autonomy that is much harder to access when passively accepting knowledge from another.


Being a recipient of knowledge is not the end of the world, but by its very nature, it removes from the process that which is most key for life that follows school - agency. The above approaches -whether adopted alone or in tandem with one another - are great ways to transfer agency to the student in the classroom, and arming them for the modern world.

Of course, agency cannot be wished into existence; it needs facilitation. As such, the vital importance of teaching cannot be overstated. The key is for this instruction to take the form not of mere delivery of knowledge to a receiving student, but of direction towards self-sustaining knowledge acquisition, cultivating these hugely useful skills through expert instruction.

We are now in a world where the value of “knowing something” is increasingly dwarfed by the value of “knowing how to find something out”. As such, maybe the most important ability education can offer to the next generation is the ability to educate themselves.


Jones, L. (2007), The Student-Centred Classroom, Cambridge University Press.

Freire, P. (2018), Pedagogy of the oppressed, Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Cope, B. and Kalantzis, M. (2010), The Teacher as Designer: pedagogy in the new digital age, E-Learning and Digital Media.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1991), Higher levels of agency for children in knowledge building: A challenge for the design of new knowledge media, The Journal of the Learning Sciences.

Edwards, A. (2009), From the systemic to the relational: Relational agency and activity theory, Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory (pp. 197–211), Cambridge University Press.

Mehanna, W.N. (2016), e-Pedagogy: the pedagogies of e-learning, Taylor Francis Online.

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