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

September sees the publication of our forthcoming book, Teacher Agency: an ecological approach (note 1). This publication marks the culmination of a strand of work that has occupied us since 2011, when we commenced an ESRC-funded research project, Teacher Agency and Curriculum Change (ESRC reference RES-000-22-4208). This small project has elicited a lot of interest worldwide, and has already generated a number of publications – conference papers, journal articles and book chapters. And yet, I have not given this topic the attention it deserves on this blog, other than via a very general post in 2012 that flagged the concept (see https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/can-teachers-be-agents-of-chnage/). This post therefore briefly, but more explicitly addresses this topic, drawing on the title of one of the recent publications (note 2) from the project to pose two questions: first, what is teacher agency; and second, why does it matter? Readers interested in finding out more should read this chapter (listed below), as this provides a more detailed overview of the theory and its implications, in a sense being a preview of the book.

To address the first question, it is necessary to ask a more fundamental question, namely ‘what is agency?’. This concept has a long history in the discipline of 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 construe agency as a variable shaping human action, and as such also tend to view agency as capacity – as something innate or otherwise to the individual. Thus we hear talk of agentic individuals; policy discourse often conflates agency and capacity, seeing the enhancement of agency as being largely a matter of raising capacity.

The view of agency in out book is somewhat different to this, in that it is an ecological approach. This 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. This view sees agency has having three temporal dimensions. First, agency is rooted in past experience; and individuals with a wide repertoire of experience to draw upon may achieve agency more readily than those with a less rich reservoir of experience. 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 the present. There are two aspects to this dimension: the practical (i.e. what is actually possible given existing resources and in the face of existing constraints); and the evaluative (e.g. judgements about risk – and it is axiomatic in social science that perceived barriers to action can be as real in their effects as actual constraints) (note 3) .

In our book, we apply this theoretical lens to our discussion of the development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) by teachers in two secondary schools and one primary school. 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 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.

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 a critically engaged teacher workforce that can develop the curriculum in beneficial ways leading to better student outcomes. This view which 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) . It is also a notion strongly present within transnational discourses about the importance of the teacher (for example recent publications by the OECD and McKinsey & Co. – note 4 ). And yet such policy messages can be misleading and misplaced. Teacher capacity is undoubtedly important; 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.


  1. Priestley, M., Biesta, G.J.J. & Robinson, S. (2015, in press). Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/teacher-agency-9781472532886/
  2. Priestley, M., Biesta, G.J.J. & Robinson, S. (2015 in press). Teacher agency: what is it and why does it matter? In R. Kneyber & J. Evers (eds.), Flip the System: Changing Education from the Bottom Up. London: Routledge. http://hdl.handle.net/1893/21559
  3. With grateful acknowledgement to the comprehensive theory of agency expounded by Emirbayer and Mische – Emirbayer, M. & Mische, A. (1998). ‘What is agency?’ The American Journal of Sociology, 103, 962-1023.
  4. [a] OECD (2005). Teachers Matter: Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers. OECD, Paris. [b] McKinsey & Co. (2007). McKinsey report: How the world’s best performing school systems come out on top.