Can teachers ever achieve some degree of autonomy within the education system?
This is my first attempt at a literature review on teacher agency; a theory of the activities that teachers do in schools and colleges. As part of my doctoral studies, I aim to also tackle technology and politics as part of my research design…
An overview of key concepts
Teacher agency has been extensively theorised, however, agency “is not something that people can have– as a property, capacity or competence– but is something that people do” (Biesta et al, 2015). This paper, in particular, is concerned with how agency is achieved in concrete settings and ecological conditions.
Some argue that teacher agency is a neglected area of education research, with only 8,500 articles available on Google Scholar at the time of writing, may explain the current frustrations with teachers across the sector. There is very little research published on the ‘purpose of education’ and if any, what impact any published theory has on educational standards. In a paper published by Mark Priestly et al, 2015, the authors cite “three domains of purpose: qualifications, socialisation and subjectification, contending that education is dominated currently by the first of these.”
The concept of agency as a phenomenon is fascinating for several reasons. Biesta et al use an ecological model of agency, suggesting social and material conditions rather than “something possessed by individuals.” One of the first bold claims is that ‘agency’ is not something that teachers can have, but something people do as a byproduct of school cultural and structural reform. Agency is “far more than individual capacity”, and although I accept this viewpoint to a degree, my own social media use has been reliant upon technology, one other key aspect of my research and literature reviews, as well as my own desire to write and share knowledge. Without feedback from others, for example, blog comments or replies to tweets, my reflections on my professional practice would be largely isolated and worthless without contributions and views from others. The authors offer a “temporal relational review of agency: informed by the past (iterational), oriented to the future (projective) and acted out in the here and now (practical-evaluative)”, (Mark Priestly et al, 2015). It would be useful to explore this further and what this looks like in practice.
In ‘the role of beliefs in teacher agency’, the authors make it clear from the outset the difficulties within the sector, with a particular interest in how agency is achieved in concrete settings. “There is an ongoing tension within educational policy worldwide between countries that seek to reduce the opportunities for teachers to exert judgement and control over their own work, and those who seek to promote it. Some see teacher agency as a weakness within the operation of schools and seek to replace it with evidence-based and data-driven approaches, whereas others argue that because of the complexities of situated educational practices, teacher agency is an indispensable element of good and meaningful education.” Biesta et al., 2015
Biesta’s research uses ethnographic data from three Scottish schools and its relevance reaches “far beyond the Scottish borders, both to wider neoliberal educational contexts and as an exemplar analysis of professional agency valuable to other disciplines. It is also a much-needed critique of the rhetoric of much policymaking today,” (Mark Priestly et al, 2015). There are several interesting points argued regarding whose responsibility it is ‘out-of-school’ for learning, as well as teachers and their beliefs being influenced by “competing discourse within schools; their limited understanding of these discourses denies them possibilities to engage critically with policy and reduces opportunities for agency” is something I would like to explore in greater detail, with education stretched between what teachers believe matters and the demands made from external forces. In a review by Kirby and Mclaughlin, 2016, the authors suggest that there is “a generational and age effect in which older and experienced teachers are more richly resourced for more deliberative engagement”, where teachers with limited experience are influenced by current policy discourse. My own experience as a teacher, this has been apparent in my own evolution as a teacher and in my work with newer teachers to the profession as a school leader. Interestingly, I am keen to explore how the use of social media may now be bucking this trend.
Identification of major relationships or patterns
Teacher beliefs gather around two key themes: “Socialisation, and the development of key skills or competencies (Beista et al, 2015)”, long-term aspirations for the curriculum which are not concrete outcomes. The development of predetermined capacities and dispositions, equipping students to survive and contribute to society, rather than equipping them with skills to handle uncertainty. This view is interesting on many levels because this debate has been taking place for decades, with many employers and organisations stating that young people in education are not equipped with the skills they need, not only to secure a job but to be a productive and successful employee. For example, problem-solving or creative thinking. “The aim of education is somewhat tautological: the aim of education is learning, but there is little clear picture of what is being learned, or why (Biesta et al, 2015)”.
One of the most obvious needs within the education sector is external agencies finding better means to empower those working on the frontline so that teachers can “visualise alternative future in their practice” to support young people for the place of work, and to resolve the high levels of attrition within the sector, year on year. “Whilst teachers take their role seriously, they are limited by a preoccupation with the short-term processes of teaching – getting through the day and helping students – rather than its purpose and values” (Mark Priestly et al, 2015). A teacher’s moral compass is to fix students’ perceived deficits in-and-out of school, yet the ‘out-of-school’ aspect of teaching and learning remains a ‘grey area’ about whose responsibility it is for learning. Teacher performance, for example, data collection, pupil examination results, performance management and school inspection are examples of a performative culture across the sector, “with demands to meet externally imposed agendas and specified outcomes, have eroded teachers’ capacity for agency” (Kirby and Mclaughlin, 2016) arguing that new educational policies consider cultural and structural changes to empower teacher agency, particularly “constructive agency” allowing teachers to make judgements based upon better understanding of their practice.
Macro, meso and micro levels of policy are discussed, including frameworks for kickstarting teacher engagement at a national level, to curriculum planning at a school and local authority (meso) level. I would be keen to explore these issues further…
Identification of strengths and weaknesses
Kirby and Mclaughlin 2016, suggest a key gap in the research is “the absence of any mention of student agency” and more ethnographic data, exploring competing discourse within schools. Interestingly, this is evident on platforms such as Twitter, with progressive and traditional debates raging between individuals and perceptions of schools with a particular approach to educating young people.
In Biesta et al, 2015, the paper offers the research from six teachers, covering a full year in the life of Scottish schools, with data collection in three distinct phases, with prior data used to inform the next phase. The research used observations, semi-structured individual and group interviews, analysis of policy and “teacher network mapping.” All data was anonymised to protect the professional identities of each teacher and met BERA ethical guidelines. “At no point did any of the respondents talk, for example, about social justice or democratic values (Biesta et al, 2015).” Whether or not this was a deliberate action on the researchers to ignore this, or leave semistructured interviews with individuals free from bias, would be interesting to explore further, particularly on the point of teacher agency and the purpose of education from a teacher’s perspective. What would teachers want to do and achieve if education policy offered them a free platform?
Biesta et al, 2015 suggests that agency should be understood as a configuration of influences from the past, orientations towards the future and engagement with the present”, referring to “three dimensions as the iterational, the projective and the practical.” This is a fascinating theory of a triad of forces influencing the individual, from past thoughts and actions, reconfigured into possible trajectories. A model, where such enactment is influenced by cultural material and structural resources, is offered which I have shared below:
Teacher beliefs have been widely used in research to explain classroom decision making, heavily influenced by recent government policy, yet Biesta et al state that “agency is not simply a matter of individual capacity.” I would argue that teachers are making thousands of idiosyncratic decisions on their feet, every hour of the day, highlighting the “iterational dimension of agency” is complex.
There is a distinction made between aspirations, one particular category of beliefs and ‘beliefs’ itself, highlighting that the former is orientated towards the future and a motivating factor in achieving agency. Something worth noting is the ecological construct of agency which is subject to structural, cultural and material influences, which is worth exploring further; hindered by factors which are beyond a teacher’s immediate control. For example, marking after hours or getting through the syllabus. Discourse cited by Bietsa et al, 2015 offer “tensions in teachers’ beliefs about children and young people and their abilities and capabilities.” I argue that social media has allowed teachers to reach other teachers beyond their own classrooms, seeking solutions from others where line managers may hinder, stifle or block teacher agency.
“Protective mediation (Osborn et al, 1997), a way of acting where teachers – agentically – seek to protect their students from aspects of policies and practices that they consider unhelpful or harmful” suggest teachers do have some confidence demonstrating agency within their own classrooms. For example, taking risks or testing pupils without telling them in order to support their mental health, performance, the day-to-day work and its general educational challenges. This decision-making empowers teacher and protects the young people in their care, with success stories often “influencing [a teacher’s] professional dialogue about the purpose of education, approaching their work in the short term or long-term nature.” Biesta et al cite earlier research by Brown & McIntyre, 1993: “Teacher decision-making is driven by a perceived need to maintain a ‘normal desirable state’ in the classroom”, suggesting a disconnect between purpose and method as a result of teacher engagement in more strategic matters. This may manifest itself in a lack of systematic professional discourse, often influenced by the language of policy.
One example from my professional practice is a methodology used for teaching and school leadership: What? Why? How? is a structure I used when framing lesson plans or more strategic policies and practices. Today, at the time of writing, Ofsted, the watchdog for school standards, has recently published a new education inspection framework (EIF, 2019) and has designed the inspection guidance to move away from data collection towards curriculum coherence. Three ‘buzzwords’ currently being spoken by all teachers across the English profession are: Intent (What?), Implementation (How?) Impact (Why?). Not only do these words marry up perfectly, but they confirm my own phronesis and practice in-line with policy, but this is certainly something I could not have resolved on my own, or in my formative years as a teacher. It is no surprise that teacher dialogue is restricted by national policy.
Education policy reduces teacher agency and marries up with my experiences of working with teachers all across the country. There is not one school I have visited who today, is not working on their curriculum model for teaching and learning. “Teachers struggle to locate their work within deep consideration of the purposes of education (Biesta et al, 2015)” because government policy often determines what teachers should do next, rather than relying on each generation of teachers passing on knowledge onto the next generation of teachers. The nature of a teacher is that they are often highly proficient, despite being underfunded and ill-equipped with resources, and as a result, making their work become determined by short-term goals. This approach hinders teacher agency and wider influence on all pupils. In essence, teachers do a remarkable job, given policy influences and its restriction. School accountability can often hinder innovation.
There are aspects, and to a degree, evidence of teacher agency in practice which has been taking place for decades. For example, when teachers take responsibility to cultivate trust, to participate in media contributions, Ofsted and the Department for Education roundtable discussions, as well as informing curriculum guidance and examination specifications. With the increase of social media, reporting on accountability and how finances are used, as well as diversity and transparency suggests increasing evidence that teachers are being employed more and more to be autonomous and take part in policy discussions – and we can observe this happening more than we have been able to do before. Yet, “all of the teachers readily criticise the range of issues that they saw as impacting negatively on their ability to do their jobs (Biesta et al, 2015). Accountability, and “a perceived tendency for teachers’ voices to be ignored… have little or no immediate connection with schools and workload issues” and fail to acknowledge that teachers take pride in their work, can also be puzzling when teachers abdicate responsibility, on occasion, when they feel they are not being listened to.
Salomon, 1992 offers insights into a teacher’s responsibilities and it would be interesting to read further any connections with research on the topic of ‘trust within educational settings’. First, the teacher carrying out a role, transmitting content. Secondly, responsibility for learning processes and outcomes. Finally, consideration of method in terms of educational purposes and values.
Identification of any gaps in the research
One fascinating point on teacher agency which is often blurred is the notion of ‘Whose responsibility is it to educate the child?’ The parent, the school or the government, and at what point do these boundaries start and end. For example, who should teach a child how to spend money, to be kind, or to learn their multiplication tables? We may agree that this a collective responsibility, but much of the accountability lies with the individual teacher for a child’s examination performance, rather than with their parents. Biesta et al, 2015 sense that this is a “grey area. Thus, students with ‘poor’ ability or students who do not take ‘responsibility’ for their own learning provide justification for the teacher to abdicate some professional responsibility, blaming students as ‘mad, bad or stupid’ (Watzlawick, Wickland & Fisch, in Salomon, 1992, p.45)”. It will be interesting to explore this further, unpicking the gaps in this area of teacher agency research, alongside student agency.
There also appears to be an absence of long-term discourse about the purpose of education; “The absence of a robust professional discourse about teaching and education more generally (Biesta et al, 2015)” and although I can observe this on social media, it will be interesting to learn what educational research is published and what impact it has had, if any, on educational outcomes. This limits what teachers can achieve and binds current practitioners to particular beliefs. A matter of moving away from the here-and-now, towards a longer-term goal.
Today, the emergence of the Chartered College of Teaching and Research Ed, as well as many social media movements, allows individual teachers in some respects to form new groups, developing a form of activism which offers opportunities for educators to have a professional discourse beyond the traditional workplace setting. One goal that I hope to achieve in my research, is to evaluate if any, is the impact social media has had on teacher voice (agency) and any connections to educational policy.
Another aspect which needs exploring is the way in which teachers are offered, with unprecedented funding cuts, professional development (CPD). In contradiction and online at least, teachers are gathering to discuss professional ideas with ongoing (online) professional development. How CPD is structured and organised within schools, compared to teachers organising their own events in the evenings and weekends (in order to bypass routine professional development offered in the workplace during working hours) offers many teachers a degree of agency beyond line management and education policy. “Employees with a diverse Twitter network tend to generate better ideas (Parise et al., 2015)”
Whether this has any impact on the long-term effects of teacher agency, benefits teachers in the classroom or perhaps inadvertently, promotes a six-day working week and the notion that teachers (now) have to find and pay for their own professional development, may fuel and exacerbate the lack of CPD opportunities provided within schools themselves. The growing model appears to be that schools offer content pitched towards the latest policy guidance, rather than what teachers need, pragmatic solutions on how to solve complex, classroom problems.
Identification of any conflicting evidence
“Teacher agency is highly dependent upon the personal qualities that teachers bring to their work (Biesta et al, 2015)” with more experienced teachers being more proficient in their professional knowledge and skills. Beliefs and values play a significant role, and school culture, or at least a culture of schooling, in which a teacher works can be problematic. In a study by John et al, 2008, ‘extraversion’ was found to have the largest effect size (+0.17), and ‘agreeableness’ the lowest (+0.03). Individuals with high levels of emotional stability are calm, secure, and tolerant of stress. Could teacher personality have anything to do with empowering individuals to be agents of change?
Biesta et al, 2015 cite that there is “little evidence of long-term thinking about the purposes of education” and aligns with my own experiences in school and my own reading of Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan’s research on Professional Capital, 2012. “How can you expect your teachers to collaborate if their schools compete?” is an interesting question if government policy does not encourage teacher agency. Interestingly, on the topic of politics which is also one aspect of my literature focus, the lack of evidence on ‘the purpose of education’ “says more about the cultures of schooling than the structures” and confirms the current government’s approach to school reform, at least in England, of its academies and free schools movement, stripping schools and colleges of funding and potential, rather than equipping them with a longer-term solutions which would shape society itself. Fullan suggests that change “requires reculturing as well as restructuring.”
In essence, teacher agency is desirable but is hindered by the day-to-day mechanics of a teacher’s job. Other influences include the accountability placed upon schools and the time and investment granted by the government to empower teachers with the knowledge they already have, to support policymakers, parents and children.
- Teacher agency: an ecological approach . By Mark Priestley, Gert Biesta and Sarah Robinson Kirby P, Mclaughlin C British Journal of Educational Studies 2016 vol: 64 (4) pp: 557-559
- Biesta G., Priestley M., Robinson S: The role of beliefs in teacher agency Teachers and Teaching 2015 vol: 21 (6) pp: 624-640