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Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach

reviewed by Scott Morrison - April 12, 2018

coverTitle: Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach
Author(s): Mark Priestley, Gert Biesta, & Sarah Robinson
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1474297366, Pages: 200, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

Whenever I talk about Student U, a college access program in Durham, NC, I usually start by describing what it feels like to work there: “Imagine being greeted with hugs and high-fives every day,” I might say, “and being told that you are making a noticeable difference in the lives of children and bettering the community, all while being provided with meaningful professional development opportunities that facilitate your growth.” Such an atmosphere is uplifting, empowering, and, according to Priestley, Biesta, and Robinson, a key component in the achievement of agency. In their book, they persuasively argue that “agency is a more complex concept than is often represented in the literature” (p. 164). An ecological understanding of agency, they posit, attends to the conditions by which agency is achieved rather than simply the capacity of individual teachers. This more complicated understanding of agency affirms what I have experienced as a teacher and teacher educator. That is, while individuals may certainly possess the knowledge and skills necessary to exercise agency, their life histories and experiences, the contexts in which they work, and the networks in which they interact may limit or liberate their beliefs, thoughts, and actions in an educational setting.

The impetus for Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach is the Curriculum for Excellence, the national curriculum for Scottish schools implemented in the 2010-2011 school year, which bears a resemblance to the Common Core State Standards in the United States. As opposed to decades of policies that de-professionalized teachers, this initiative “sought to move away from a top-down approach to educational improvement towards one in which teachers play a central and crucial role” (p. 1). The Curriculum for Excellence is framed around competencies rather than content (see Biesta & Priestley, 2013) and received “some criticism for a lack of theoretical rigor in its structure” (p. 9). The shift in emphasis from knowledge to skills, however, is a worldwide trend in curriculum policy (see Whitty, 2010; Young & Muller, 2010). Intrinsic in the Curriculum for Excellence “is a renewed vision of teachers as developers of curriculum at a school level, and more widely as agents of change” (p. 11). This move is substantial. As such, it prompted the authors to conduct an ethnographic study to investigate “what helps and hinders teachers in achieving agency in their everyday practice and settings” (p. 11). In other words, if the latest avenue for reform alters the work of teachers and complicates the expectations placed upon them, what factors enable and inhibit their ability to adjust? Before delving into the data, though, the authors take up the concept of teacher agency.

The first chapter is arguably the most significant in the book. Agency, the authors state, is “a term that is often applied loosely and uncritically” (p. 19) and erroneously conflated with action. Rather than a variable in explaining or understanding social change or an innate aptitude, Priestley, Biesta, and Robinson offer an ecological conception of agency that “emphasizes the importance of both individual capacity and the contextual dimensions” (p. 19) in shaping it. Drawing on Emirbayer and Mische (1998) in particular, the authors articulate a model that treats agency “as an emergent phenomenon, something that occurs or is achieved within continually shifting contexts over time and with orientations toward past, future, and present” (p. 25). Put another way, since agency is “not a fixed quality or disposition” but “something people do in social practice” (Lipponen & Kumpulainen, 2011, p. 813), a more appropriate understanding moves beyond personal attributes and accounts for past experiences, cultural values, social structures, and material resources as factors affecting the achievement of agency. This conception has implications for curricular initiatives and reform-based policies that rely on teacher implementation. Professional development and teacher education is thus limited and limiting because the focal point is on individual actors; there must be an added attention to cultures and structures. Calling on teachers to become agents of change is futile without attending to the dynamic contexts in which they work.

Priestley, Biesta, and Robinson (2015) use data from their study in the following four chapters to buttress and exemplify the ecological model of agency. The second chapter is about teacher beliefs, which they differentiate from aspirations, and their relationship to agency. Participants spoke of beliefs related to children and childhood, the role of teachers, and the purposes of education. The authors noted the mixed and often contradictory discourses in schools, which emerged in many of the interviews. For example, in reference to the Curriculum of Excellence, several teachers welcomed the emphasis on interdisciplinary work but later expressed concern over what that might look like in practice. Priestley, Biesta, and Robinson also noticed that the purposes of education expressed by participants were narrow and focused on short-term goals. This absence of a robust professional discourse about teaching subsequently confines the freedom and creativity allowed by the Curriculum for Excellence. Whereas this chapter zoomed in on what teachers say, the third chapter zoomed out for an analysis on the form of what teachers say and how teachers talk; the authors were interested in the vocabularies, or the material, that teachers think with. They found that the language of some participants was more elaborate and detailed than others, which they attributed to differences in experience and values. These differences, of course, affect the achievement of agency. In these two chapters, the focus was on the cultural forms that teachers utilize in their work: “the beliefs they hold and the vocabularies and discourses in and through which they articulate their beliefs and underlying values and concerns” (p. 85).

In the fourth chapter, the authors examine social structures: “the social and professional relationships experienced by teachers and the wider networks in which their work takes place” (p. 85). They begin with an overview of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), which are a common means of promoting collaboration, learning, and change within schools. After acknowledging critiques of PLCs (see Little, 2003; Vescio, Ross, & Adams, 2008) and highlighting what researchers have found to enhance the quality of teacher networks (see Coburn & Russell, 2008; Daly et al., 2010), the authors draw upon their data to “show how differences in context shape [teachers’] differing responses to the demands posed by new curricular policy” (p. 92). Teachers at one high school in their study were quite restricted in their achievement of agency; they exhibited anemic aspirations and lower confidence about their abilities to implement the Curriculum for Excellence and communicated a “sense of helplessness” (p. 96). This was not the case for teachers at a different high school, however, who talked about a culture in which innovation and risk taking were encouraged and supported. They described a strong web of connection characterized by high levels of collegiality, openness and approachability, and trusting relationships. If teachers are to achieve agency, the authors conclude, then administrators must consider the “relational conditions through which teachers achieve agency” and understand “that a collaborative culture to strengthen agency is to a large extent dependent upon the nature and scope of relationships within the school” (p. 104). As the title of this chapter indicates, relationships are important.

The authors take up a more expansive context in the fifth chapter. Like the United States, there has been considerable focus on performativity in Scotland for decades (see Apple, 2001), which creates a pervasive climate in which teaches are expected to meet the demands of external actors. This emphasis on accountability to the state in the form of output measures (e.g., standardized test scores and other statistical data) resulted in new discourses about education, tightly controlled input regulations (e.g., scripted curriculum), increased surveillance, and reduced professionalism and agency. The authors found that the teachers in their study struggled to overcome pressures of performativity that maintained prevalence despite the shift to the Curriculum of Excellence. Thus, they question the extent to which teachers can achieve agency in a context that prizes performance indicators above all else.

In the sixth chapter, Priestley, Biesta, and Robinson provide a succinct summary of the book and amplify their main points. In addition, they push back at studies and policies that isolate and magnify teachers as the key cog in the education system. “This focus on the quality of the teacher is understandable and well intentioned,” they wrote, “but ultimately misguided” (p. 140). Within an ecological understanding of agency, individual capacity is but one factor. Beliefs and values, school cultures and structures, historical precedence, input and output regulations, and material and relational resources all play major roles in the achievement of agency and, eventually, student learning. The conditions that surround teachers matter as much or more than individual qualities or abilities. Because of this, the authors do not advocate for top-down initiatives as the means to improve educational institutions and practices. Systemic approaches, they argue, are impersonal and unintelligent; teachers are inevitably responsible for interpreting, negotiating, and implementing such approaches. Success is optimized when and where an ecological approach to agency is present, which is from the bottom up.

Priestley, Biesta, and Robinson conclude with strategies for developing policies and practices based on an ecological approach to agency. At the macro level, they suggest moving away from learning outcomes in curriculum design, a concept that is based on a production model mentality. Instead, they prefer “generic outcomes or goals of education, enshrining clear educational principles and purposes, combined with indicative (but not too specific) statements of content and guidance on pedagogy, which are clearly identified as being fit-for-purpose” (p. 156). At the meso level, the authors recommend professional inquiry opportunities that engage teachers in meaningful curriculum development and current educational research, which will ideally broaden and deepen the vocabularies and discourses of teachers and shape school culture. At the micro level, they reiterate the importance of networks, which foster generative dialogue, collegial relationships, social connections, and professional learning.

In my view, Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach to Agency is an excellent resource for those interested in digging more deeply into the relationships among and between curriculum, policy, and teaching. Priestley, Biesta, and Robinson astutely identify the complexities of education, and they resolutely defend the art of teaching as well as the humanity of teachers themselves. Their ecological model of agency has already reshaped my own thinking in relation to past experiences and current research.


Apple, M. (2001). Comparing neoliberal projects and inequality in education. Comparative Education, 37(4), 409–423.

Biesta, G., & Priestley, M. (2013). Reinventing the curriculum: New trends in curriculum, policy, and practice. London, England: Bloomsbury.

Coburn, C. E., & Russell, J. L. (2008). District policy and teachers’ social networks. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 30(3), 203–235.

Daly, A. J., Moolenaar, N. M., Bolivar, J. M., & Burke, P. (2010). Relationships in reform: The role of teachers’ social networks. Journal of Educational Administration, 48(3), 359–391.

Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? The American Journal of Sociology, 103(4), 962–1023.

Lipponen, L., & Kumpulainen, K. (2011). Acting as accountable authors: Creating interactional spaces for agency work in teacher education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(5), 812–819.

Little, J. W. (2003). Inside teacher community: Representation of classroom practice. Teachers College Record, 105(6), 913–945.

Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(1), 80–91.

Whitty, G. (2010). Revisiting school knowledge: Some sociological perspectives on new school curricula. European Journal of Education, 45(1), 28–44.

Young, M., & Muller, J. (2010). Three educational scenarios for the future: Lessons from the sociology of knowledge. European Journal of Education, 45(1), 11–27.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 12, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22330, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 3:08:59 PM

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About the Author
  • Scott Morrison
    Elon University
    E-mail Author
    SCOTT MORRISON is an assistant professor of education at Elon University. He is the program coordinator for middle grades education and secondary social studies education, and he also coordinates a minor in environmental education. His research focuses primarily on ecologically minded teaching and social media in education. His work has been published in Educational Studies, Social Studies and the Young Learner, and Environmental Education Research.
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