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Blog post Part of series: Highlights from the first 1,000 BERA Blog posts

Teacher agency: What is it and why does it matter?

Mark Priestley, Professor at University of Stirling

The concept of ‘teacher agency’ has elicited a fair amount of attention recently, including a special edition of Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice. And yet, it remains an elusive concept. In this post, I address this issue, posing two questions: first, what is teacher agency; and second, why does it matter? In doing so, I outline the ecological approach to teacher agency which is set out in detail in our forthcoming book .

To address the first question, it is first necessary to ask ‘What is agency?’. This concept has a long history in sociology, most notably being conceptualised as a variable in the structure/agency debate. Put simply, the question underpinning this debate is whether agency (often defined as the capacity to act) is more or less important than structure (i.e. the drivers and inhibitors afforded by society) in shaping human activity. Some theorists have argued for the primacy of human rational choice, others have argued that our actions are determined by social forces. Many others sit along the continuum between these two poles, suggesting that human activity results from a combination of agency and structure. Such views, as stated above, tend to construe agency as a variable shaping human action, and as such also tend to view agency as personal capacity – as something innate or otherwise to the individual.

The ecological approach is somewhat different to this, in that it views agency as not something that people have or possess (although clearly there are high-capacity individuals), but instead as something that is achieved. Agency in this view is an emergent phenomenon, something that happens through an always unique interplay of individual capacity and the social and material conditions by means of which people act. High-capacity individuals may simply fail to achieve agency if the conditions are difficult. The ecological approach sees agency as having three temporal dimensions. First, agency is rooted in past experience; and individuals with a wide repertoire of experience may achieve agency more readily than those without. Secondly, agency is always oriented to the future through the setting of goals and the ability to envisage future possibilities; in this case, people who are able to imagine multiple trajectories are likely to achieve agency more readily than those who are limited in their aspirations. Third, agency is always acted on in the present, shaped by both what is actually possible given existing resources and constraints and judgements about what is possible (for a detailed discussion of this topic, see Emirbayer & Mische, 1998 )

In our book, we apply this theoretical lens to our discussion of the development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) by teachers in three schools. We discuss a number of dimensions of teacher agency – for example, examining how teachers’ belief systems (along with the discourses and cultures of teaching in Scotland) have shaped their responses to the centrally mandated curriculum policy represented by CfE. For instance, professional beliefs and dispositions have been largely formed within recent cycles of curriculum reforms and influenced by the increasing encroachment of heavy duty accountability systems into public services, and these continue to influence teachers’ agency as they develop new curriculum policy. We also look at the social structures evident in the schools, particularly examining how professional relationships impact upon teacher agency.

‘Schools, as complex social organisations set within even more complex social systems, can seriously limit teacher agency.’

So why does teacher agency matter? And why is this type of analysis important? The first question is a no-brainer in my view, as we desperately need critically engaged teachers who can develop the curriculum in constructive ways leading to better student outcomes. This view is apparently supported by recent curricular policy in Scotland, which explicitly reaffirms the centrality of teachers, positioning them, for example, as agents of change (in itself a problematic notion if it simply refers to uncritical implementation of other people’s policies). And yet such policy messages can be misleading and misplaced. Teacher capacity is undoubtedly important, and high-capacity teachers are essential for an effective education system. However, while this is a necessary condition, it is not sufficient, as it neglects issues around the structures and cultures of schooling. Our analysis illustrates that schools, as complex social organisations set within even more complex social systems, can seriously limit teacher agency, even where the teachers concerned are experienced, high-capacity individuals. Conversely, as we demonstrate in one chapter of the book, concerted action to enhance the social context for teachers’ professional work – even if limited to a single school – can actively increase their agency through affording greater access to relational resources, leading in turn to more constructive engagement with curriculum policy. The current over-emphasis on the capacity of teachers thus potentially neglects the conditions which frame their work, and by doing so we are potentially disabling those very high-capacity teachers that policy purports to want. In other words, we are denying teachers the opportunity to achieve agency in their work, with the corollary that we may continue to see risk-averse, limited and strategic implementation of new policy.