HomeSkillsLearner Agency: The Key To A Growth Mindset In The ELT Classroom

Learner Agency: The Key To A Growth Mindset In The ELT Classroom




What is a growth mindset?

There are many benefits to teaching learners with growth mindsets. Students with a growth mindset believe that they are in control of their own ability to learn and improve. They are not afraid of challenges, viewing them as opportunities that can help them grow. Students are more confident, as they believe that they can learn from mistakes. They are not easily defeated by failures, as failures help them identify where they should invest efforts for success. They are resilient and will persevere in difficult learning conditions.

Students with a growth mindset are also full of initiative and willing to take risks. They are not only good at seizing opportunities but also adept at creating opportunities when none exist. Many teachers find teaching more rewarding when they have students with a growth mindset in their classrooms. Moreover, students with a growth mindset are badly needed in today’s world, which constantly challenges us with new technological and societal shifts, expecting learners to adapt to new conditions.

What are the benefits of a growth mindset?

Students with a growth mindset are likely to be lifelong learners, which is important because what students learn inside the ELT classroom may be inadequate compared to what they need to learn. Language teachers are often advised to teach 8-10 new words in a one-hour lesson. Although some teachers manage to teach twice as much in one lesson, what we can help students to learn is extremely limited when we consider the number of words in the English language and the number of words they need for particular purposes, e.g. university studies or employment in the medium of English. We know that students need to learn more outside the ELT classroom than what teachers can teach in it. They are more likely to thrive when they complete their educational programs if they are well equipped with a growth mindset and the skills for lifelong learning.

How to nurture a growth mindset

While a growth mindset and lifelong learning are two highly desirable attributes for students to develop in our classrooms, many teachers may be wondering what we can do to encourage them through our pedagogical practice. There is a range of strategies teachers can use, including:

  • being role models who not only ‘talk the talk’ but also ‘walk the walk, demonstrating a growth mindset themselves.
  • creating a safe learning environment for students to make mistakes without fear, by fostering positive attitudes towards challenges and mistakes.
  • setting up learning goals and supporting students to overcome learning challenges.
  • inviting students to reflect on their learning through feedback.

While these strategies work, it is also important for us to think about and develop a deep understanding of why they work.

Where does a growth mindset come from?

It is important for us to reflect on what a growth mindset and lifelong learning have in common and identify what causes students to develop these attributes. In OUP’s latest position paper, their panel of ELT experts explain that lifelong learning and a growth mindset can be nurtured and supported by encouraging learner agency. Learner agency refers to the feeling of ownership and sense of control students have over their learning. Agentive learners have a growth mindset; they believe that they can make a difference. They are also ready for lifelong learning, as they believe that they are subjects who can act (rather than objects who are acted upon). The panel noted that agency emerges and grows through meaningful interactions, meaning that we can create opportunities for students to grow their agency. As we foster students’ agency we help them become lifelong learners with a growth mindset.

However, focusing on helping students grow and enact learner agency does not mean that we need to adopt an entirely different set of practices. Many pedagogical strategies we already use can support students’ agency. This means that we need to review and reflect on what we have been doing so that we can identify high- and low-agency pedagogical practices. We can then modify some of these practices to change low-agency pedagogical practices into high-agency practices.

High-and low-agency practices

The position paper, Learner Agency: Maximizing Learner Potential, includes a range of practical tips and pedagogical advice to help you adopt high agency practices. Here are a few examples that illustrate the continuum of low-and high-agency practices, including specific pedagogical activities we can implement in teaching.

Choosing classroom materials

In most contexts, as teachers, we obtain our learning materials and content from the curriculum or coursebook. Students have little say in what materials will be used in a lesson. This is an example of a low-agency material development and selection practice. We recognize that curricula and coursebooks are important guides for teaching, but we can also consider giving our students choices in deciding what teaching materials should be used.

If students are able to choose materials that are highly relevant to their own lives, they will be more motivated to learn. For instance, they may bring to class English lyrics of a popular song they like or share with their classmates an activity they enjoy, such as reading graphic novels or playing a computer game. They may be asked to watch/listen to or reflect on a story that they record themselves. They may even use the recording to develop language-related activities such as compiling vocabulary lists. When students are involved in the development and selection of teaching materials, they are empowered with a stronger sense of ownership and control over their learning. This is a high-agency practice.

Effective feedback

Another common practice for language teachers is feedback. If language teachers are the only ones who decide how to give feedback to students, this can be regarded as a low-agency practice. In contrast, if students are given some responsibility for choosing the feedback they receive from the teacher, this student-driven feedback is a high-agency pedagogical practice. The implementation of student-driven feedback can vary depending on the characteristics of students (e.g. age, language level) and educational context (e.g. primary schools or universities). Where feasible, students can request that teachers give feedback on their writing through specific mediums, including in-text direct corrections, correction symbols, audio comments or face-to-face consultation. Any choice given to students, no matter how small, will help them feel a sense of ownership and give them a stronger sense of control over their learning. They will appreciate the fact that they can make a difference in their learning.

Forming learning communities

In the ELT classroom, students usually regard the teacher as the only source of assistance during the learning process. This perception leads to low student agency. To change this perception among students, we can ask them to form a learning community where they are challenged and learn together. To create a supportive learning community, we need to ensure that mutual trust is established among students and the teacher in the ELT classroom. Students need to feel safe in order to be willing to work with each other in the community.

We can adopt many of the pedagogical strategies we previously used to transform ELT classrooms into supportive learning communities. For example, jigsaw reading is a popular task. In a jigsaw reading activity, we sort students into groups and give each student in the group a different paragraph from a text. They then exchange information to organize the paragraphs in a sequence that is cohesive and coherent. To make it more challenging, we can use examples with more than one correct sequence. As a result, students need to work together closely to identify possible sequences through collaboration and negotiation. This challenge can help students recognise that working together gives them a stronger sense of ownership and control. While such awareness leads to high agency, it also makes them appreciate the importance of collaboration as a strategic response to challenges in learning beyond the ELT classroom.

Lesson planning

We can also reconsider the way we plan and use lesson plans. Instead of following a fixed plan, we should respond to what is happening during a lesson. We can use what is happening to guide practice, which enables students to enact their agency. For instance, one teacher noticed that her students used vocabulary they had learned playing computer games in English. She encouraged them to record themselves playing for a few minutes and then bring the recordings back to class. She asked students to analyse and reflect on their language use. This activity not only breaks down the boundaries between formal learning inside the ELT classroom and informal learning beyond it, but it also helps the students realise that they can experience meaningful learning doing things they enjoy. Through this, they develop positive attitudes towards lifelong learning and recognise that they can also make a difference in the classroom.

Learning outside the classroom

The high-agency practice mentioned above illustrates that we should not assume that learning takes place only in the classroom. If we assume this, we can fail to recognise students’ active, meaningful learning in their everyday lives. This assumption undermines students’ positive contributions to the growth of their own agency. We should acknowledge that some important learning takes place outside the classroom. We also need to guide students to learn from these experiences and proactively prepare them for additional learning beyond the ELT classroom. For instance, students can create their own learning opportunities outside the classroom, then bring their questions and observations back to class and share them with classmates for discussion and reflection guided by the teacher.

As a specific example, we can organise students to conduct research together by learning about a topic or completing a problem-based inquiry. Students can imagine that they plan to visit another planet, meaning they must find out what the planet is like, how far it is from the earth, and what it will take for them to travel there. They may need to do Internet research, read about what they find, and create practical solutions to the challenges of travelling to and visiting the planet. These experiences are highly instrumental in fostering the growth of their agency and their development as lifelong learners with a growth mindset.

Using high agency practices in your everyday teaching

As the examples above show, we can modify many pedagogical practices to make them high-agency, and create conditions that enable students to enact and grow learner agency. I understand that our efforts occur in a complex ecology where different stakeholders (educational administrators, students, parents) may have different values and beliefs, some of which may not align with learner agency. We also teach in contexts that offer different learning and teaching resources (e.g. well-designed teaching materials, computer facilities) and we may deal with constraints such as high-stakes examination. Nevertheless, it is important for us to carefully examine and identify the affordances we can access when we attempt to transform low-agency practices into high-agency practices.

We should develop a set of high-agency pedagogical practices that are ecologically sustainable in the contexts where we teach. These practices should foster positive attitudes and empower students so they experience ownership of and a sense of control over their learning. This process helps us create a pathway for students to become lifelong learners with a growth mindset.


Want more practical ideas and expert advice for promoting learner agency, growth mindsets, and lifelong learning?

Download our latest position paper, Learner Agency: Maximizing Learner Potential, and nurture active learners who will flourish in any learning environment.

 Download the position paper


Xuesong (Andy) Gao is a language teacher educator at the School of Education, University of New South Wales, Australia. He has been involved in language teacher education in Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan. His research interests include language learner autonomy, language education policy, and language teacher education. His research has been funded by the Research Grants Council (Hong Kong), the Sumitomo Foundation (Japan), and the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (Hong Kong). He has published widely in international journals, including ELT Journal, TESOL Quarterly, Modern Language Journal, and Teaching and Teacher Education. He is a co-editor of System: An International Journal of Educational Technology and Applied Linguistics and co-editor of the English Language Education book series, published by Springer. Xuesong is a contributing author of our position paper on Learner Agency.

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