The Complexity of Learner Agency

Sarah Mercer

agency, beliefs, complex dynamic system, case study


Successful language learning depends crucially on the activity and initiative of the learner (van Lier 2008: 163). However, before a learner engages their agentic resources and chooses to exercise their agency in a particular learning context, they have to hold a personal sense of agency – a belief that their behaviour can make a difference to their learning in that setting. In this article, I examine the construct of learner agency through the lens of complexity theory. I attempt to show how a learner’s sense of agency emerges from the complex dynamic interaction of a range of components in multiple levels of context. Considering longitudinal data from a single case study of a tertiary-level EFL learner, the first stage of analysis shows how learner agency needs to be understand as being situated contextually, interpersonally, temporally and intrapersonally. The findings highlight the importance of considering agency from a holistic perspective. The second stage of analysis focuses on one fragment of the agentic system, namely learners’ belief systems. It examines the complex and dynamic interaction of a learner’s self-beliefs, beliefs about language learning including their ‘mindsets’, and beliefs about contexts. Together both sets of findings suggest the potential merits of viewing agency as a complex dynamic system and raise important questions about its nature and development. The article concludes by discussing the challenges facing research employing a complexity perspective and the need to consider the practical benefits of such a view for pedagogy.

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