This blog post will address two questions: When studying the teaching profession, why combine the concepts of teacher autonomy and teacher agency? And why compare such different national settings or, even, why compare countries at all?
In an article newly published in the Curriculum Journal (Lennert da Silva & Mølstad, 2020), I combined the concepts of teacher autonomy and teacher agency to discuss the teaching profession in a global context of increasing accountability. I did so for a number of reasons. First, these concepts have been well studied and developed by other scholars to address similar questions (Priestley, Biesta, & Robinson, 2015; Wermke & Höstfält, 2014). Second, these concepts do overlap (Erss, 2018). For example, both are concerned with the capacity of teachers to make decisions that affect their work and roles and that of their students. Third, I found teacher autonomy to be useful in the discussion of the governing of the teaching profession by the state through policies and policy instruments (Lascoumes & Le Gales, 2007), which may increase or decrease teachers’ scope of decision-making and action.
On the other hand, teacher agency is a concept connected to the ‘classroom floor’, representing something that teachers develop or achieve through their judgments in response to situations that emerge from their daily practices. For example, teachers used national tests, designed to quantify and classify, for formative purposes. That is, to plan strategies together with students to reinforce a specific subject content or skill. Therefore, while the concept of teacher autonomy seemed to be more suitable to discuss the relationship between the state and the teaching profession, the concept of teacher agency when connected to teaching practice, can focus on how teachers navigated policies and policy instruments to do their work in classrooms.
‘Teacher agency is a concept connected to the “classroom floor”, representing something that teachers develop or achieve through their judgments in response to situations that emerge from their daily practices.’
This then leads to the question: why compare Norway and Brazil? First, because I adopted a pragmatic approach to the selection of cases, based on my access to these two contexts. Second, drawing from the field of comparative and international education, I started with the premise that global ideas exist and influence national policymaking across the globe. Third, it is unlikely that these ideas do not mean the same in different contexts: they are received and translated according to national and local conditions (Steiner-Khamsi, 2014).
The comparison helped me to problematise accountability as a phenomenon considered natural in the educational context of today. The multiple ways of adopting accountability had different consequences for teacher autonomy and teacher agency, at national and local levels. Moreover, cultural and infrastructural differences affected differently the teaching profession, as shown in the article. Hence, comparative studies might contribute to expose different forms of policy reception and different responses or alternatives to the same phenomenon. Therefore, studying such different countries as Norway and Brazil might help to shed light on the power of global ideas around the world. It can also make the differences between these two countries more evident, providing insights that might contribute to inform and strengthen the teaching profession in their local contexts of practice.
This blog is based on the article ‘Teacher autonomy and teacher agency: A comparative study in Brazilian and Norwegian lower-secondary education’ by Ana Lucia Lennert da Silva and Christina Elde Mølstad, published in the Curriculum Journal.
Erss, M. (2018). ‘Complete freedom to choose within limits’ – teachers’ views of curricular autonomy, agency and control in Estonia, Finland and Germany. Curriculum Journal, 29(2), 238–256. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585176.2018.1445514
Lascoumes, P., & Le Gales, P. (2007). Introduction: Understanding public policy through its instruments –from the nature of instruments to the sociology of public policy instrumentation. Governance, 20(1), 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0491.2007.00342.x
Lennert da Silva, A. L., & Mølstad, C. E. (2020). Teacher autonomy and teacher agency: A comparative study in Brazilian and Norwegian lower-secondary education. Curriculum Journal, 31(1), 17. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.3
Priestley, M., Biesta, G. J. J., & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher agency: An ecological approach. London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Steiner-Khamsi, G. (2014). Cross-national policy borrowing: Understanding reception and translation. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 34(2), 153–167. https://doi.org/10.1080/02188791.2013.875649
Wermke, W., & Höstfält, G. (2014). Contextualizing teacher autonomy in time and space: A model for comparing various forms of governing the teaching profession. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(1), 58–80. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2013.812681