Personal Agency Discourses


Supports and strategies for involving individual learners in defining their educational experiences

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … sum of established interpretations and actions
  • Knowing is … competence
  • Learner is … a mindful agent
  • Learning is … developing competence
  • Teaching is … facilitating; supporting




Personal Agency Discourses address matters related to involving individuals in decisions that define their educational experience. These discourses tend to be grounded in the assumption that the individual learner can and should be trusted to participate in selecting topics, competency levels, learning environments, pacing, and other elements. With regard to teaching strategies and teaching attitudes, the following constructs tend to be strongly associated with discourses in this cluster:
  • Reflective Teaching – more an attitude in teaching than a mode of teaching, Reflective Teaching entails commitments to nuanced knowledge of each learner, working insights into the dynamics of learning, robust content knowledge, and critical self-awareness (see Reflective Practice)
  • Revoicing – the act of echoing what another has said, over paraphrased, used for a range of purposes that include adding emphasis, seeking clarification, and inviting elaboration
Other strongly associated discourses include:
  • Control Theories (Travis Hirschi, 1960s) – a suite of discourses, principally out of Sociology, that are concerned with the influences on and determiners of deviant behavior – framing the matter in terms of why more people do not engage in deviant activities. That is, Control Theories assume that people are selfish and self-serving, and thus attempt to identify the “controls” that prevent individuals from acting on such assumed-to-be-natural impulses. (Note: These Control Theories come out of Sociology, and they should not be confused with Control Theory out of psychology. See Cognitive Dissonance Theory.) Specific Control Theories include:
    • Stakes in Conformity (Jackson Toby, 1950s) – a Control Theory that suggests that the decision not to commit a crime is based on a calculus of potential losses if caught
    • Social Control Theory (Social Bond Theory) (Travis Hirschi, 1960s) – a Control Theory that suggests that stronger social bonds and engagements mitigate the propensity to commit crimes
    • Self-Control Theory (General Theory of Crime) (Michael Gottfredson, Travis Hirschi, 1990s) – the hypothesis that lack of self control is the primary cause of criminal and deviant behavior. The root of poor self-control is suggested to be ineffective parenting, and it is surmised to be in place by age 8.
  • Hip-Hop Education (HipHopEd; Hip Hop Based Education; HHBE; H2Ed) (Tony Mohammed, 2000s) – a cluster of teaching strategies that incorporate aspects of hip-hop and that are designed to meet learners of their “cultural turf.” Examples include the use of rap lyrics, graffiti, deejaying, and so on to engage, communicate, and assess.
  • Learning to Learn – a popular notion with interpretations that vary from the practical to the critical, all of which cluster around becoming conscious of and exerting control over one's learning. Associated discourses include:
    • Learning Skills – an explicit set of skills and dispositions associated with effective learning – most often, but not always, associated with classroom settings
    • Learning Strategies – tactics for thinking that are intended to support interpretation and retention (e.g., drawing an analogy, or forming a mental image)
    • Learning Techniques – a conflicted term, encountered within both psychology and education, used sometimes refers to teaching techniques (i.e., the sorts of discourses that occupy the top half of our map) and sometimes to refer to Learning Strategies (see above) and/or Learning Skills (see above)
  • Self-Organized Learning (Thomas Harri-Augstein, 1990s) – a phrase used to collect such principles as personal relevance, individual choice, self-direction, self-monitoring, and critical reflection
  • Self-Organized Learning Environment (Sugata Mitra, 1990s) – a program and/or an installation intended to support Self-Organized Learning
There are many challenges to personal agency – that is, what might be labeled “anti-agency” discourses or constructs – including the following:
  • Credulity – the quality of being disposed to believe what one is told, with little or no evidence
  • Gullibility – the quality of being easily duped into problematical claims and courses of action
  • Hypnosis (James Braid, 1840s) – a state of mind characterized by narrowly focused attention, limited contextual awareness, and high inclination to act on suggestion. Alternatively, Hypnosis might be defined as a capitulation of one’s agency. There is much debate on such matters, with two major perspectives prominently represented:
    • Altered State Theories – perspectives on Hypnosis that see the associated state of mind in terms of a trance or other altered state of consciousness
    • Non-State Theories – perspectives on Hypnosis that see the associated state of mind in terms of role play, placebo effect, or other form of imaginative self-delusion
  • Obedience to Authority (Stanley Milgram, 1960s) – the extent to which one complies with directions from someone with greater authority or higher rank. Factors that increase Obedience to Authority include perceived prestige and demonstrated expertise of the authority figure. Factors that decrease it include awareness of ill effects of one’s actions and the presence of persons willing to defy direction.
  • Suggestibility – the quality of being disposed to alter one’s memories, opinions, and activities to align with the persistent suggestions of others


While anchored to the important realization that learning is enhanced when individuals experience agency, Personal Agency Discourses are often more oriented by ideology than demonstrated insights into learning. Indeed, some are articulated in direct response to the controlling, agency-denying structures of traditional and standardized educational sensibilities. Indeed, some Personal Agency Discourses are accused of undervaluing the role of structure and advice as they argue against rigid and alienating aspects of some models of schooling.


  • Altered State Theories
  • Control Theories (in Sociology)
  • Credulity
  • Gullibility
  • Hip-Hop Education (HipHopEd; Hip Hop Based Education; HHBE; H2Ed)
  • Hypnosis
  • Learning Skills
  • Learning Strategies
  • Learning Techniques
  • Learning to Learn
  • Non-State Theories
  • Obedience to Authority
  • Reflective Teaching
  • Revoicing
  • Self-Control Theory (General Theory of Crime)
  • Self-Organized Learning
  • Self-Organized Learning Environment
  • Social Control Theory (Social Bond Theory)
  • Stakes in Conformity
  • Suggestibility

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Personal Agency Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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