So I am a little late in posting this, but after some serious pondering I have tried to address Karen's fascinating questions. It was kind of fun, actually. Here goes...
On the most fundamental level learner agency means doing something, making something as a demonstration of learning or understanding. It is in the doing or making something where you are able to demonstrate understanding or even mastery. In the absence of action, it is hard to prove that you understand or know anything. passive or observational learning happens, but it is a kind of scaffolded or preparatory phase to the real learning that occurs in the application. Plus, I think many of us would agree that knowledge and understanding are always emergent, mercurial phenomena. Thus, there is a kind of discursive reciprocation that is at play.
I sometimes think learning is a little like catching a fish barehanded. Knowledge, skill, patience, dare I say stillness, and a little technique are often needed to catch a fish barehanded. Yet fish are slippery critters, and sometimes just when you think you have a good hold on one it can wriggle in flash, leaving you humbled and needing to start all over.
I have always loved the concept of cultivating "habits of mind," since the first time I came across the term. I wonder if they are not the only thing that as teachers we might truly be able to teach. We might think we teach content, but I am not sure if it is much more than a transferring process. We might believe we teach skills, but that too might be more transfer, although I think they might overlap with habits more. In teaching habits, we can see agency in a first-hand way, repeatedly. Even observation of skills can be misleading. Only by observing the repeated demonstrations can we be assured of skill mastery, but at what point does that mastery become a habit?
We must model strong "habits of mind" and mastery for students if there is a chance that they might cultivate them for themselves. If not we run the risk of having little credibility, but more than that, how else can we help them. Teachers must gain learning expertise. In a sense that might be the greatest value we bring to the work, not content knowledge.
I am convinced that the single best teaching and learning context is a 1:1 master-apprentice model. Almost everything we do in education seems to be an attempt to scale that relationship. Yet there are things about it that simply don't scale. Moreover, a 1:1 situation is not always the most practical or remotely efficient way to operate. Notice I say operate, not teach or learn. This is how we got guilds and workshops once upon a time. Even a parent likely has more than one child. A great teacher of mine once said, "You are never really teaching until you are one on one, anyway. You are just fooling yourself."
How do we become the kind of learners we hope our students to be is kind of the most elusive question of all. It is one that I feel that I am endlessly pursuing. Participating in an effort like this is just one of the ways I hope that I chasing the answer. Participating in communities and communities of practice provides the kind of support and sharing that helps to strengthen my resolve to continue my self-directed learning journey. We are social after all, we need the lubrication of conversation for learning. It is a means of application, of agency, doing something with our emergent understanding.
The only thing I think of when considering a structure for self-directed learning to blossom is the notion of a graduated release. Yet, that almost presupposes that the learning did not begin self-directed, and in almost all of our cases it has. So I am not sure. I have to think on it a while longer. I have, however, just begun reading Professor Gert Biesta's "Good Education: What It Is and Why We Need It," where she posits that, "Education, in its widest sense, is about how we welcome 'newcomers' into our worlds," a thought I believe which is pertinent to the question of structure in a self-directed learning context.