Conceptualisations of Teacher Agency: Focusing on Promoting Deeper Learning

In current conceptualisations, professional agency is seen to be situated within the individual, who has the capacity to exercise free action based on his or her beliefs and values, and accomplish independent actions. Specifically, agency tends to focus on the individual’s capability of carrying out action and not merely intentions (Giddens, 1984), and how the agentic action is free from social constraints (Calhoun, 2002). However, there is also an extant debate about the primacy of structure over agency and how structure affects agency by shaping social realities.[1] In elucidating the links between structure and agency, Emirbayer and Mische (1998) describe agency as being organised by three constitutive elements: iteration, practical and projectivity, and evaluation, which consecutively relate to time-specific orientations of the past, the present, and the future. Thus a chordal triad of agency is espoused, where all three dimensions resonate but not always harmoniously. This triad also sheds more light on the subjectivities of agentic action in the real world. Hence, at any point in time, an actor’s action or agency is seen as ‘a temporally embedded process of social engagement, which allows actors to critically shape their own response to a problematic situation’ (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998, p. 963). Another recent theory posits a professional’s agentic work as temporally embedded, so that the past training and background, current conditions and the future expectations are all considered and contribute to professional work (Etelapelto, Vahasantanen, Hokka, & Paloniemi, 2013). Thus whilst agency lives within the individual, each professional’s practice happens in the midst of the socio-cultural conditions of the workplace as well as the professional identity, knowledge and competencies, and experience that make up professional practice.

However, despite the debates about the primacy of structure or agency in human behaviour, the power of individuals is still a necessary condition for agency. Biesta and Tedder (2007) extend this line of thinking to regard teacher agency as something that is achieved, rather than possessed, and draw on current ecological understandings of agency to describe the active engagement of teachers within their contexts for action. In further explorations of teacher agency, Priestley, Robinson and Biesta (2011) theorise an ecological view of teacher agency where teachers’ agentic action is affected by the teachers’ past experiences, current school and learner needs and future stakeholders’ expectations. Drawing on studies of teachers’ work with new curriculum, the teachers’ agentic action has been found to be affected by factors such as the beliefs, values and attributes that the teacher calls on in a particular situation (Priestley et al., 2012). However, they also note that current conceptualisations of teacher agency are relatively under-theorised in the specific context of curriculum development (Priestley et al., 2012).

In arguments about professional agency in education, teachers are seen alternatively as agents of socialisation or as change agents (Campbell, 2012; Fullan, 1993). However, reform efforts such as school-based curriculum development can affect the teachers’ identity as much as they call on more agentic action (Lasky, 2005). Given the multiple roles that each professional has to play, each identity of the teacher is referenced to the parts of the self that are attached to the roles that he or she plays in society. Teachers involved in curriculum development therefore would have to contend with a new professional identity, that of being a curriculum developer and a meaning-maker of the discipline. It follows then that in designing curriculum, the teacher’s professional agency will manifest itself in at least two distinct ways—in maintenance of existing curriculum practices and in being an advocate of curriculum change. However, given that the professional identity can change according to the different circumstances (Stryker & Burke, 2000), even amidst this tension, there is constant shaping and renegotiation of the teachers’ professional identity as they go about their work, and this affects the teachers’ agentic action. When the teacher is going about changing curriculum to ensure that it is more concept focused, the teacher becomes an advocate for deeper learning and therefore calls on specific beliefs, values and attributes in order to achieve agentic action.

Two important questions arise when we look at how teacher agency is spurred on by teachers’ work in developing concept-based curricula: (1) What are teachers change agents of? and (2) what is the teachers’ purpose of change? Campbell (2012) pointed out that in curriculum contexts, teachers’ agency can be framed by the essential question of ‘agency for what?’ and how the answer to this essential question frames the multiple actions of the teacher during curriculum implementation, interpretation, change and subversion. In traditional transmission-based models of teaching and learning, teacher agency is called on when teachers refine externally developed curriculum in order to socialise the learner into understanding the concepts that are the norm of the discipline. However, teacher agency in concept-based curricula emphasises the teacher’s role in facilitating deeper understanding by questioning current mindsets and conceptions and in the process inviting the learner to create fresher links in the subject that was not seen hitherto. Whilst this facilitation of deeper understanding can happen sometimes in fact-based curricula, in concept- focused curricula, both facts and concepts are pushed to the foreground. Hence, when considering teacher agency in the curriculum development effort, the perspectives that teachers have towards the inadequacies of an existing curriculum in meeting current and future needs will have to be considered as well.

Additionally, Priestley et al. (2012) point to the iterative, practical and projective dimensions of teacher agency. This means that agency in the teacher’s curriculum efforts is at least related to the ways that the teacher values teaching and learning, and this can help in investigating how teachers design curricular experiences that are compatible with these values that engage students. Teachers therefore become active agents of change in understanding the discipline, firstly at the personal level and then at the individual learner and classroom levels. In this sense, curriculum development, particularly, that of concept-based curricula, becomes a concrete handle by which theoretical constructs such as teacher agency and identity transcend into the teacher’s practice in the school. It is profitable to consider how teaching and learning conceptually change the teachers’ view of what happens in learners and the outcomes that are expected, and this is explicated next using the Deleuzian poststructuralist theory (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987).

  • [1] Recent theories have made efforts at finding a “middle ground” and to blur the dichotomy betweenstructure and agency as can be seen in arguments made by Archer (2003), Bourdieu (1984) andGiddens (1984) as well as the arguments made about the holistic and individualistic strategies usedto explain agency (Hollis, 1994; Levine, 2005).
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