This post looks at a chapter entitled ‘Agency in the classroom’ written by Leo van Lier published in Sociocultural theory and the teaching of second languages.


van Lier starts the chapter by trying to define Agency. Agency is not a new concept, van Lier traces it back to Comenius, Vygotsky, Montessori and Dewey among others. Agency in the classroom, van Lier states, revolves around the activity of the learner and their engagement with learning as taking precedent over the content, or lesson input, as a primary actor in the learning process. van Lier is quick to qualify this and concede that lesson content and the teacher are not superfluous in the learning process, merely that agency “places the emphasis on action, interaction and affordances” (p. 163) in contrast to lesson materials.

At its core then, agency is, and here van Lier quotes Ahern, “the socioculturally mediated capacity to act” (p.163). How then do we define sociocultural mediation? van Lier cites Duranti’s three basic attributes of sociocultural mediation; “control over one’s own behaviour”, “producing actions that affect other entities as well as self”, and “producing actions that are the object of evaluation” (ibid). These attributes firmly place agency in the collective rather than in the solitary act and van Lier concludes that “agency is not simply an individual character trait or activity, but a contextually enacted way of being in the world … thus, students can speak from an ‘I’ as well as from a ‘we’ perspective” (ibid). Agency is a social act and by extension coloured by the history and culture imbued in the students.

van Lier hopes that, with agency defined, this chapter will then explore “ways of creating learning environments favourable to its emergence and development” (p.164). Firstly, van Lier undertakes the troublesome task of locating agency in the classroom. van Lier offers six scenarios where agency is evident or lacking and plots them on an agency continuum of sorts. This is done to stir in the reader some reflection on how agency is manifest in the classroom and by extension how then it can be encouraged. The scenarios range from a teacher led discussion where the teacher is the only member of the class engaged and achieves a simple ‘yes’ from one student. The second situation involves the class engaged in lockstep activities, following instructions given by the teacher. The third sees a higher level of agency as students are free to respond openly to the teacher. van Lier proffers that even if students do not volunteer a response, they may still be formulating a response internally. In the fourth a student asks ‘self-initiated’ questions. The fifth scenario sees an even higher level of agency as a student takes the initiative and volunteers to guide a peer through a process. This is important as here agency can be seen as “not only an expression of individual volition, but also as a feature that can characterize a collaborative, co-constructed enterprise” (p.169). Situation number six is, van Lier argues, the example of the highest agency as students engage in a debate initiated by the class, independent of the teacher. This is the greatest degree of agency as the whole class are participating. This is van Lier’s interpretation of the agency levels in these lesson extracts and he hopes to incite disagreement with his interpretation so as a better understanding of agency as a construct can be achieved. But ultimately, van Lier argues “agency is situated in a particular context and … it is something that learners do, rather than something the learners posess (p. 171).

Observing agency in the classroom is problematic. This leads van Lier to label each scenario with an adjective that an observer might ascribe to the learners: 1. passive, 2. obedient, 3. participatory, 4. inquisitive, 5. autonomous, and 6. committed (p.170). And here is the root of the problem. van Lier admits that simply because we do not witness students responding or interacting does not mean that this is not occurring internally. Perhaps even students are consciously not responding, therefore showing their agency. As with all complex constructs, van Lier argues that agency is fraught with dichotomies. If a learner is passive on the one (negative) end of the agency continuum, at the other the student is active, a much more conducive state for agency to be in evidence. Here van Lier cites research to support the view that one extreme of the dichotomy, here passivity, may not necessarily always be negative. van Lier provides a table (p.173-174)  that aims to locate agency in well-researched dichotomies in the area of language classroom research; autonomy – dependence and intrinsic – extrinsic motivation for example. By locating agency in this familiar territory the hope is that agency can then be better defined as that which:

1. involves initiative or self-regulation by the learner (or group)

2. is interdependent, that is, it mediates and is mediated by the sociocultural context

3. includes an awareness of the responsibility for one’s own actions vis-a-vis the environment, including affected others

The next section in the chapter looks at ‘initiative in interaction’ and the problems for researchers wanting to  empirically capture agency. Studying learner contributions is a simple way to undertake such research, however what of the sociocultural idea that interaction is pregnant with socio-cultural-historical meaning? van Lier advocates the analysis of many other traits evident in the learner. For example, perception and action, whole-body learning, voice and identity. What researchers must be wary of though is that they must not “make the mistake of viewing agency through a window of conformity with established classroom practices and rejecting forms of resistence (however subtle) as expressing lack of agency” (p.179).

Central to van Lier’s chapter is a desire to foster agency in practical terms. van Lier returns to the notion that the teacher is not redundant in the development of agency, in fact how the teacher structures the lesson can afford the fostering of initiative and therefore agency in the classroom. van Lier defines initiative: “as essentially synonymous with autonomy, self-regulation and self-determination… place[d] in an interactional and dialogical context, that is, a context of interaction among learners in the classroom” (172-174). The final section of van Lier’s chapter is devoted to ‘the action-based curriculum’. van Lier calls for a move away from language focused classes (focusing on language input and production), towards a focus “on negotiation sequences, episodes of focus on form, or uptake of particular forms that appear in input” (p.181). The value of project-based tasks is recurrent in this chapter. “An action-based curriculum that promotes agency in the various ways proposed, may be project-based, task-based, (or) content-based” (p.182). Yet these approaches in isolation will not encourage agency, “whether or not true agency is actually promoted depends on … choice, giving learners the right to speak and the responsibility for their actions, stimulating debate and so on” (ibid). In short, learners need to be afforded their own voice, learners should be able to say “‘I said this because I WANTED to say this’ (rather than because someone asked him or her to (re)produce, repeat, display or manufacture a linguistic piece for the sake of demonstrating proficiency)” (p.178).
As a critical pedagogue who is passionate about EAP, for me the affordance of agency is key. van Lier’s chapter may be rooted in the language classroom, but it clearly resonates in any teaching and learning environment. I believe agency is at the very core of what it means to be a university student; without it students will not only fail to satisfy the UK notion of successful postgraduate study, more worryingly, they will also not be equipped to challenge it and mould it into something better.

I find it ironic then that while (hopefully) many in EAP encourage agency, students then go on to their academic programmes only to have any access to agency denied through a lack of consideration of the transformative power of teaching practices. In one academic department  I work closely with I have had many conversations with someone equally passionate about teaching who is keen to encourage a passion for pedagogy in her colleagues. Too many of her colleagues adhere to the chalk and talk method of ‘teaching’, some even admit to using seminars as opportunities to deliver again their lectures as students failed to comprehend the initial input (a reflection of the questionable quality of the first attempt I’d argue). A consequence of these conversations was that I was asked to deliver a teacher training session within the department focusing on the teaching of non-native speaking students as the department in question has well over 90% NNS on its courses. There are a few pedagogically minded academics in the department who are passionate about teaching and afford high levels of agency in their teaching spaces. There are also a large number of academics who do not. Therefore I planned the session so that participants would leave with a host of ideas for affording agency in their teaching spaces, whether that is a lecture theatre or a seminar room. Only one member of staff attended this session. This left me feeling somewhat angry. Not angry that I had wasted my time planning this session, or that the staff had let their colleague down who had organised this event. No (although I am angry about those things), angry that lecturers will continue to deny their students a voice. Lecturers will continue to blame students and their linguistic proficiency for the inability to acquire knowledge, rather than looking at their own inadequate teaching practices.

The one attendee was a PhD student who is feeling extremely anxious about taking up full-time teaching when she finishes. She said that she’d turned to teaching colleagues in the department for advice, they simply said she’d have a PhD and that was enough. She sees that her PhD is not a teaching qualification, something her peers seem blind to. There are some great teachers in HE who believe in affording students agency, but there are too many who are not trained to teach or worse, who are not interested in teaching. Initial teacher training is becoming the norm in HE for those entering the profession these days. But what of those already entrenched? They are the ones doing the students the greatest disservice. Catching lecturers as they enter HE is not enough, HE needs to reflect on what it does to train teachers from the top down.

As an EAP practitioner I am supposed to support academic departments. I will, but while there are those who care not for their pedagogical practices I shall act as a double agent and encourage a voice in students, making them aware that just because poor teaching practices might slience them that should not mean they can’t speak out, shout out even. If they shout loud enough unversities might start to listen and then take a long hard look at what is happening in teaching spaces. Maybe then students will stop being lectured twice!

van Lier, L., 2008. Agency in the classroom. In: J.P. Lantolf and M.E. Poehner eds. 2008 Sociocultural theory and the teaching of second languages London: Equinox. pp. 163-186.


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