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Research School Network: Agency, Capacity and Research ELE Mark Enser explores the research evidence around teacher agency

Agency, Capacity and Research

ELE Mark Enser explores the research evidence around teacher agency

by Durrington Research School
on the

The idea of teacher agency is rarely far from our thoughts. The idea that teachers should be able to make decisions for themselves, in their classrooms, based on the needs of the pupils that they know best is hard to argue with. Our classrooms can feel like our personal domains. We close the door and make thousands of micro-decisions about how to act. However, the reality in schools is often more complex with a balance being struck between these freedoms for teachers to decide for themselves what should be done and whole school policies that run on a spectrum from coaxing to dictating. The extent to which teachers should have agency’ is a question that provokes fierce debate, but I’d suggest it is the wrong question to ask; before we ask whether they should have agency we first have to establish if they could have agency.

Priestley et al (2015) suggest that agency is a term that is often applied loosely and uncritically (p. 19). They suggest that agency is often conflated with the idea of action and is seen as something that people can possess as an innate capacity. It is something that people either have, or they do not. In this view, teachers could be told you decide what to do about feedback in your classroom’ and this would mean they had agency. However, this is a too simplistic view of what it means and they urge us to see agency as an emergent phenomenon achieved through an interplay of personal capacity, resources, affordances, and the constraints of the environment. This builds on the work of Emirbayer and Mische (1998) who argue that we can understand agency as being achieved by a configuration of three dimensions: influences from the past (iterational), orientations towards the future (projective) and engagement with the present (practical-evaluative) (p. 963). Priestley et al. term this an ecological approach to agency. I think that if we use this ecological approach we can see the complexity that lies behind the idea that agency means the teacher closes their classroom door and does what they see fit.

A major constraint to teacher agency is that of personal capacity. We can only make decisions about what to do based on what we know. Being told we are free to make our own decisions about the feedback to use in the classroom, or the way that we use questioning and dialogue, only gives us agency if we know enough about our options to make an informed decision. This is why CPD (and research-informed CPD in particular) plays an important role if we want to truly develop teacher’s agency. We need to build that personal capacity. If teachers understand why some types of feedback are more or less effective than others at different points, or understand the role that different forms of questions play in the classroom, then they may have the capacity to make decisions. Not before.

Here we can see another potential constraint to agency, and another opportunity for research-informed CPD to overcome it; the issue of gatekeepers. In a school, someone is going to decide on the curriculum for CPD. They are going to identify school priorities based on their own criteria and then take teachers through that curriculum. If a teacher’s capacity to make decisions about feedback is improved, excellent, they may have more agency in this area, but what if they need to make decisions about setting homework or behaviour management or the myriad other parts of their job? They will lack true agency in those areas. However, we can increase personal capacity by giving teachers opportunities to identify and explore areas of their practice themselves. We can help to support the formation of a research-literate profession so that teachers can find, evaluate and act on the information they find.

Whilst there may be a great deal a school can do to develop the personal capacity of teachers to enable a greater degree of agency, the ecological approach to the issue helps to reveal certain structural constraints that may be harder to overcome. Firstly, there are constraints that individuals put on themselves. These constraints come from two areas. Firstly, there are constraints on our ability to take new actions due to existing habits that have developed over years of practice until automaticity has developed. (Hobbiss et al., 2020). If we have always asked questions in a certain way, or phrased feedback in a particular manner, simply sitting through CPD sessions is not going to change this. The second individually applied constraint to agency comes from existing teacher beliefs. As Opfer and Pedder (2011) note, teachers bring both past experiences and beliefs with them to the classrooms and this shapes not only how they choose to teach, but also what they are willing to learn (p. 387). This forms part of the iterational dimension of Priestley et al. ecological approach to teacher agency whereby our prior experiences may limit our capacity to question and innovate (2015, p. 31 – 32). We can try to overcome this constraint to agency by giving teachers the time to take what they have learnt and plan for its implementation themselves and then to reflect its implementation afterwards, preferably with someone who observed them trying it, before repeating and refining the processes slowly over time.

However, finding the time to do this becomes an often insurmountable barrier and points to the practical-evaluative dimension of a teacher’s role, which involves their day to day working environment (Priestley et al, 2015 p. 33). Schools in England have a very high ratio of lessons to non-contact time, far higher than teachers in many other parts of the world (Crehan, 2016). This gives very little time to read and consider alternative methods of teaching or to plan for their inclusion in the classroom. Teacher agency here is being constrained by limited access to the resource of time. What time teachers do have is already taken up with other aspects of their role such assessing pupil work, managing behaviour and communicating home. If we want to increase teacher agency it is not enough to develop the teacher’s personal capacity in terms of their knowledge and experience, we also have to increase their capacity in terms of time.

Finally we need to consider the constraints to agency created by the projective dimension of the teacher’s role. This refers to the way that we consider the consequences of our actions. In the high stakes system that teachers usually find themselves in it is difficult to take risks. If you have found that one method leads to consistent outcomes that you are then judged against, there is a constraint to exercising theoretical agency to do things differently, even if that different action would be more efficient in terms of time spent or more effective at improving outcomes in either this same area or in some other area that you value more highly. Our agency to act is constrained by whoever judges whether or not our action is successful and who has the power to reward or sanction based on this success or failure.

Discussions around teacher agency are important. Research from Worth and Van den Brande (2020) suggest that where people feel they have agency over their work they are more likely to report higher levels of job satisfaction and stay in their role. With a teacher retention crisis showing no signs of abating, we need people to stay. However, equating agency with a purely theoretical ability to make your own decisions misses the point. Agency is about more than closing your classroom door and being left alone to do what you want, agency comes from developing the personal capacity to make those decisions and to be able to do so within a system that supports this.

Mark Enser
is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College and an ELE with Durrington Research School. His latest book. Powerful Geography, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

Crehan, L. (2016) Cleverlands. London: Unbound.

Emirbayer, M. and Mische, A. (1998) What is Agency?’, The American Journal of Sociology, 103: 9621023.

Hobbiss, M., Sims, S. and Allen, R. (2021), Habit formation limits growth in teacher effectiveness: A review of converging evidence from neuroscience and social science’. Rev Educ. [early view] Available at https://berajournals.onlinelib…

Opfer, V. D. and Pedder, D. (2011) Conceptualizing Teacher Professional Learning’, Review of Educational Research, Vol. 81 (3): 376 – 407

Priestley, M., Biesta, G. and Robinson, S. (2015) Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach. London: Bloomsbury.

Worth, J and Van den Brande, J (2020)., Teacher autonomy: How does it relate to job satisfaction and retention? Slough: NFER. Available at:

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