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Teacher agency in enacting physical education in a period of curriculum change and reform in Ireland

Dylan Scanlon, University of Limerick Antonio Calderón, University of Limerick Ann MacPhail, University of Limerick

This blog pulls on elements of a larger study which aims to understand the enactment of curriculum policy through different curriculum policy stakeholders’ perspectives – such as curriculum makers, professional development, teachers and students. It explores how one of these stakeholders (a teacher) interprets, translates and enacts the formal curriculum policy in school. For this, we draw on Biesta and Tedder’s (2007, p. 137; our emphasis) conceptualisation of agency,

‘[T]his concept of agency highlights that actors always act by means of their environment rather than simply in their environment [so that] the achievement of agency will always result from the interplay of individual efforts, available resources and contextual and structural factors as they come together in particular and, in a sense, always unique situations.’

This blog is based on a recently published article (see Scanlon, Calderón, & MacPhail, 2020) that explored the role of teacher agency in one teacher’s (Brendan) enactment of a new school subject (Leaving Certificate Physical Education (LCPE) – an examinable subject assessed in a high-stakes environment – in a period of curriculum change and reform in Irish post-primary schools. Brendan was interviewed weekly over his first school year of teaching LCPE to gather data on ‘how’ and ‘why’ he engaged with the curriculum. By adopting a figurational sociology viewpoint of teacher agency, and analysing his teaching through this perspective, we argue that agency should not be conceptualised as something that is ‘achieved’ but something that is processual; that is, the process of ‘achieving’ agency. By redirecting the focus from the ‘achievement’ to the ‘achieving’ of agency, and by locating the teacher in this complex web of interdependent relationships, we come to an understanding that it is impossible to link the achievement of agency with solely one element, including the teacher. We conclude that two limitations to the understanding of teachers’ achievement of agency would be 1) to believe that the teacher has control of achieving agency, and 2) that there is a desirable standard of teacher agency that can be achieved. With this in mind, we ask, what can we, as a physical education community, do in supporting teachers in the process of achieving agency?

‘By redirecting the focus from the ‘achievement’ to the ‘achieving’ of agency, and by locating the teacher in this complex web of interdependent relationships, we come to an understanding that it is impossible to link the achievement of agency with solely one element, including the teacher.’

We put forward two considerations. First, we strongly advocate for the use of communities of learners to capitalise on the strong influence interdependent relationships have on the enactment of policy, teaching situations, and the potentialities of pedagogical approaches (Patton, Parker, & Tannehill, 2015). By working in communities of learners, collaborative partnership and a resulting collaborative discourse can occur between teachers with the same goal – that is, sharing ideas of how to work towards achieving agency (and supporting one another in the process) (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2006; Parker, Patton, & Tannehill, 2012). We propose that these communities of learners include multiple stakeholders (such as teacher educators and professional development providers), believing that the opportunities and potentialities which could emerge from such complementary expertise could be endless.

Second, we need to move away from discourse that positions a significant reliance on the agency of a teacher – this is the consistent message throughout our considerations in moving forward. This study conveyed the minimal role a teacher has in the process of achieving agency. We strongly advocate for the physical education community (teachers, students, teacher educators, pre-service teachers, professional development providers and policymakers) to work together to enable collaborative thinking, discussion and action. Such collaborative approaches could enlighten us on numerous aspects of teacher agency. the cold, for example:

  • educate policymakers on the realities, not ideals, of the role of the teacher in the process of achieving agency
  • inform teacher education on how best to prepare pre-service teachers for this role.

This may sound somewhat idealistic or ‘romanticised’, but it can be a reality, and we argue that this reality is the only way forward in supporting teachers in their process of achieving agency. In re-emphasising the point made by MacPhail (2020, p. 16) with respect to redesigning physical education provision, ‘we need to stop working in isolation and work with, and learn from, each other.’


This blog is based on the article ‘Teacher agency in enacting physical education in a period of curriculum change and reform in Ireland’ by Dylan Scanlon, Antonio Calderón and Ann MacPhail, published in the Curriculum Journal. It has been made free to view for those without subscriber access courtesy of our publisher, Wiley.


References

Biesta, G. J., & Tedder, M. (2007). Agency and learning in the lifecourse: Towards an ecological perspective. Studies in the Education of Adults, 39(2), 132–149. https://doi.org/10.1080/02660830.2007.11661545

DuFour, R., DuFour R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2006). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. Solution Tree.

MacPhail, A. (2020). Developing commitments and capacity to learn with, and from, each other. In A. MacPhail & H. Lawson (Eds.) School physical education and teacher education: Collaborative redesign for the twenty-first century (pp. 179–191). Routledge.

Parker, M., Patton, K., & Tannehill, D. (2012). Mapping the landscape of communities of practice as professional development in Irish physical education. Irish Educational Studies, 31(3), 311–327. https://doi.org/10.1080/03323315.2012.710067

Patton, K., Parker, M., & Tannehill, D. (2015). Helping teachers help themselves: Professional development that makes a difference. NASSP Bulletin, 99(1), 26–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192636515576040

Scanlon, D., Calderón, A., & MacPhail, A. (2020). Teacher agency in enacting physical education in a period of curriculum change and reform in Ireland. Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.80