Nina's Notes

for Effective Teaching and Meaningful Learning


The particular definitions of learning relatedc oncepts and words that are most important in this research are briefly explained below. 

·      Agency as a psycho-social concept refers to self-awareness and degree of freedom.  It is something we do intentionally.  More specifically, agency is “the capacity of actors to critically shape their own responsiveness to problematic situations” (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998, p.971).  Agency does not happen in avacuum, but is situated in the duality of social practice with structure.  Giddens (1984) states that agency cannot exist without structure, and discusses agency as the “transformative capacity”(p. 14) of actors.

·      Chronotopes are spatial andt emporal aspects of socially constructed practices, used in the educational context to situate the learning process into the space and time (Brown& Renshaw, 2006; Bronfenbrenner, 1989).  At school chronotopes define the classroom culture, thus having a strong effect on students’ learning experiences.   Traditionally, the organization of learning activities centers on the teacher and the curriculum.  Recent research recognizes the importance of creating chronotopes that support students' engagement (Kumpulainen, Mikkola,& Jaatinen, 2014; von Duyke, 2013).

·      Deep and deeper learning both refer to acquiringtransferable knowledge through classroom experiences.  The emphasis is in supporting students’ lifelong learning process.  The term“deep learning” resulted from the original phenomenographic research of Marton and Säljö (1976)where researchers found out students having different approaches tolearning.  These approaches describe how learners perceive tasks – either as disconnected piecesof information to be memorized in order to pass the exam (surface learning), oras knowledge to be constructed and understood in order to create new meanings(deep learning).  Deeper learning hasbeen defined by American Institutes for Research (Huberman, Bitter, Anthony,& O'Day, 2014) as “a set of competencies students must master in orderto develop a keen understanding of academic content and apply their knowledgeto problems in the classroom and on the job” (Opportunities and outcomes section, para. 2).

·      Dialogue in education refers to the productiveinteractions that support students’ deeper learning in the classroom and help them to understand the concepts and construct the meaning of the topic to be learned.  Lodge(2005) defines it as the follows: “Dialogue is about engagement with others through talk to arrive at a point one would not get to alone” (p. 134).  This engagement must be fostered in education.  According to Hämäläinen and Vähäsantanen, (2011) “these productive dialogues do notnecessarily emerge unassisted” (p. 176), but require for the teacher to facilitate the dialogue in the classroom.

·      Engagement in one’s own learning process is different from engagement (participation) in classroom activities.  The difference lies between autonomous and controlled activity, as seen in the Deci and Ryan (1985, 2008) metatheory of self-determination.  Intentional engagement reflects student’s intrinsic motivation and goal orientation for determined involvement in one’s own learning (Boekaerts & Cascallar, 2006; Appleton et al., 2008; Boekaerts, 2011; Upadyaya &Salmela-Aro, 2013).

·      Learner-centered practices focus on collaborative learning and meaning-making in the classroom. AmericanPsychological Association (APA) integrated research and theory to formulate learner-centered psychological principles (1997).  These principles recommend focusing onstudents’ experiences and provide a framework for designing learner-centered practices in classroom. In 2015, the principles were revised and reformulated into the “Top 20 Principles for Pre-K to 12 Education”, providing insight into effective instruction, classroom environments that promote learning, and appropriate useof assessments (APA, 2015).   

·      Learner agency is a specific hyponym of human agency applying to students within learning organizations, and occurring in aspecific place: the classroom.  To better describe the interplay of agency and structure in education, Evans (2007)defined bounded agency as “socially situated agency, influenced but not determined by environments and emphasizing internalized frames of reference aswell as external actions” (p. 93).  To be an agent is to “influence intentionally one’s functioning and lifecircumstances” (Bandura, 2008, p. 16). Therefore, learner agency refers to the choices and degree of freedom students have about their learning, and the opportunity to perceive oneself as an actor. 

·      Learning as a concept covers both the educational process at school, but also the way humans absorb information and cultural practices through their everyday interactions with the world.  To focus the discussion and emphasize learning over teaching, Illeris’(2003) definition is used in this thesis: “an external interaction process between the learner and his or her social, cultural or material environment,and an internal psychological process of acquisition and elaboration” (p.298). 

·      Learning environment refers both to the physical space and the classroom culture, including the social context.  Conner and Sliwka (2014) provide the following definition: “The learning environment recognizes the learners as its core participants,encourages their active engagement and develops in them an understanding oftheir own activity as learners” (p. 170).

·      Learning process has an inseparable relation to the definition of learning used in this research.  Drawing from the works of Piaget (1952) andKolb (1984), the learning process is understood to be an internal procedure, enhanced by external events. The relational nature of learning process is also visible in the works of Vygotsky (1987), Bandura (1986, 1999) and Bronfenbrenner (1979, 1989).  The experience of individual learning is different from the experience of being taught.

·      Meaningful learning occurs when students can relate the classroom content to their own knowledge of life.  Niemi et al. (2010) state this as the lived “school day meaningfully experienced” (p. 139). Furthermore, in order for self-regulated learning to develop among students, “adults must provide learners with a guided learning environment and tasks that connect them with other microsystems in personally and culturally meaningful ways” (Hadwin & Oshige, 2011, p. 254).

·      Self-regulated learning (SRL) focuses on understanding students’ cognitive-constructive skills and empowering independent learning (Zimmerman, 2008). Teaching metacognitive skills is an important part of SRL, and as aresult self-regulated learners engage actively in their own learning process (Blackhart,Nelson,Winter, & Rockney, 2011).   In social situations like the classroom environment, co-regulation or shared regulation emerges as the integration of individual SRL and the learning processes of the group (Hadwin, Järvelä, & Miller, 2011).

·      Surface learning as concept resulted from thevoriginal phenomenographic research of Marton and Säljö (1976) where researchers found out students having different approaches to learning.  This approach describes how surface learners perceive learning tasks as disconnected pieces ofinformation to be memorized in order to pass the exam.

·      School-related well-being is another important part of the learning experience. Students’ subjective well-being at school is an often ignored factor in learning (Bradshaw, Keung, Rees, & Goswami, 2011; Long et al., 2012).  This school-related well-being is a subset of the general framework of human well-being which, conceptualized by White(2010), emphasizes three components: “the material, the relational, and the subjective” (p. 161).  ConsideringMaslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs, it seems obvious that students’ well-being needs must be met before higher-order thinking can occur. 

Learner Agency Research

I finished my dissertation research about learner agency in 2017.  (Doctoral thesis defense PDF presentation)

Students' Perceptions of Their Learner Agency: A Phenomenographic Inquiry toThe Lived Learning Experiences of High School Seniors

Learner agency is an important concept in current education.  This research described the perceptions high school seniors have about their learning experiences.  Educational research indicates students’self-regulation being an important factor in academic success, yet many educational practices still rely on teacher-centered instructional models.  Supporting learner agency could improve the quality of students’ engagement in their learning process, and help students become ready for the requirements of living in 21st Century.  In this phenomenographic inquiry into students’ perceptions of their learner agency nine high school seniors were interviewed about their engagement and learning experiences.  The analysis yielded an outcome space of four qualitatively different ways of perceiving learner agency 1. detachment from learning, 2. belongingto the school community, 3. synergy of learning ownership, and 4, unbound ubiquitous learning.  The outcome space was organized into a visual conceptualization of the hierarchical relationship between intentionality, agency, and quality of learning.  Based on the findings of this research, the recommendations for educational policy and practice include crediting informal learning, embedding choices into learning experiences, and supporting both students’ and teachers’ individual learning process.

TheIntriguing Diversity of Learning Experiences

            I never wanted to be a teacher.  What led me to study learning and education was taking care of my own children and recognizing their diverse learning preferences.  Signing up to study education and psychology in Open University was the first step on a path that eventually took me abroad to teach and study in other countries.  My studies at the University of Jyväskylä were an eye-opening experience that led me to understand the subjectivity of learning, and to value the situationality and contextuality of education.  It is agreat mystery: while being exposed to the same content and instruction, every individual student has a different take-away we call learning. 

Learning is a fundamental phenomenonin our lives, everyone has experienced it. Researching learning is complicated because there is no single variable to pinpoint as a measurement for it to have happened.  Even providing a comprehensive definition forlearning is hard because each experience is extremely individual, situational,and contextual.  Some things are granted,though.  Learning includes a change, an update in knowledge structure (Barron et al., 2015).  This change does not happen in a vacuum but is supported with interactions, both socially and physiologically.  From the neurological viewpoint, “learning changes the structure of the brain” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking,2000, p. 103), thus being an essential part of human development.  Measuring learning outcome solely as information acquired is inaccurate because of the focus being on the end state of activity instead of the change in knowledge or skill.  Learning is subjective and requires both acquisition and elaboration (Illeris, 2003).  

Research Questions

            The centralresearch question and four sub-questions were designed to help understandingand describing of learner agency, as perceived by the high school seniors.

Central question.  What are students’ perceptions of their learningexperiences?

Sub-questions.  What kind of learninginteractions do students experience in the classroom?  How do students choose to engage in theclassroom, and how do they describe the intentionality of their ownlearning?  What are students’ perceptionsof life-long learning?  Whatinstructional choices do students describe as being impactful for theirself-direction and self-regulation?

The central research question focuses onstudents’ conceptions of learning in order to understand how they perceive learner agency.  In order to support active engagement, it is important to know what students think about theirlearning experiences (Säljö, 1979; Boekaerts, 2011). The sub-questions have been chosen to illuminate students’ experiences of “intentionality of learning,forethought, self-reactiveness, and self-reflectiveness” (Bandura,2006, p. 164).  These four core properties of agency are crucial to understanding what students’ agency in the classroom looks like.  The learningexperience is considered to be constructed from the processes of interaction between the student, the content and the environment followed by acquisition and elaboration of learning (Entwistle, 1997; Illeris, 2003).

Summary of the recommendations for practice and future research.  Six recommendations were made based on theresults of this research.  First tworecommendations –engage in learner-centered practices and support deeper learning – have implications for teacher training and professional development.  These recommendations are aligned with the contemporary research about educational psychology, including motivation and the learning process (APA, 2015).  Furthermore, in order to increase learner agency, it is important to find more legitimate ways within educational structure to engage in deeper student-centered learning.  The two recommendations for policy changes – acknowledge students’ subjective experiences,personal goals and interests and credit informal learning – suggest decreasing the domination of learning within educational structure.  Students’ future success to thrive in the rapidly changing world depends on their unbound learning skills.  Education should not overemphasize standardization and compliance, but empower students to learn more.  This recommendation also applies to teachers’learning and professional development. The two recommendations for future research – strengthen the synergyof learning ownership and prevent detachment and negative agency – extend this inquiry to students’perceptions of their learning experiences into a larger context of contemporary research in education.  The social structure of classroom learning and students’ experience of agency are imbalanced when students choose to be a “classroom sheep”.  Much more research is needed to make students’ voices heard about their own learning experiences and engagement

Some sources used in the thesis:

Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on psychological science, 1(2), 164-180
Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2006).How is agency possible? Towards an ecological understanding of agency-as-achievement. University of Exeter School of Education and Lifelong Learning, Working Paper, 5. 

Giddens, A. (1984). The construction of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Lodge, C. (2008)Engaging student voice to improve pedagogy and learning: An exploration ofexamples of innovative pedagogical approaches for school improvement, International Journal of Pedagogies andLearning, (4)5, 4-19, doi: 10.5172/ ijpl.4.5.4

Marton, F., & Pong, W. Y. (2005). On the unit of description in phenomenography. Higher education research & development, 24(4), 335-348.

Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On Qualitative Differences in Learning: I—Outcome and process*. British journal of educational psychology, 46(1), 4-11.

Nevalainen,R., & Kimonen, E. (2013). The Teacher as an Implementer of CurriculumChange. In Transforming Teachers’ Work Globally (pp. 111-147).SensePublishers.

Niemi, R.,Kumpulainen, K., Lipponen, L., & Hilppö, J. (2014). Pupils' perspectives onthe lived pedagogy of the classroom. Education 3(13), 1-17. doi:10.1080/03004279.2013.859716

Priestley, M., Biesta,G., & Robinson, S. (2014). Teacher agency: what is it and why does it matter?.
Säljö, R. (2012). Schoolingand spaces for learning: Cultural dynamics and student sarticipation andagency.  In E. Hjörne, G. van derAalsvoort, & Abreu (Eds.).  Learning,social interaction and diversity–exploring identities in school practices (pp.9-14). Rotterdam: SensePublishers

Trigwell,K., Prosser, M. & Ginns, P. (2005). Phenomenographic pedagogy and revised Approaches to teaching inventory. Higher Education Research &Development 24(4), 349-360.

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