This week I have been reading an interesting article about teacher agency. The article by Priestley et al. (2014) defines agency as "an emergent phenomenon, something that occurs or is achieved within continually shifting contexts over time, and with orientations towards past, future and present which differ within each and every instance of agency achieved". They point out that agency contains three components or dimensions:
1. Iterational - dependent on the individuals professional and personal history.
2. Projective - forward facing i.e. about achieving something in the short or long term future.
3. Practical-evaluative - within a cultural, structural and social context that must be considered when necessary judgements are made.
The authors of the paper seem to be basing much of their ideas around school teachers rather than those found in Higher Education. They described the current context of education as one where agency cannot always been achieved because of constrained curriculum and policies. They suggest that even where the tide has turned and teachers have more room to move in terms of curriculum, they are in a context which constrains them by the backdoor, for example, through school inspections. This description chimed with the experiences my mother shared during her almost 40 year teaching career in primary and secondary schools, but what about Higher Education?
Well for a while, I found myself feeling a little bit smug about it. I felt that no one really dictated my curriculum to me, I was free to decide what topics I taught and in what order and largely to what depth, provided they sat within the framework dictated (15 or 30 credit points). The framework provided me with a lose structure and I was quite happy to get creative within that space. I felt I had the ability to achieve agency in that space. But then over the period of few days a few things made me realise that this agency-permitting perception was more of a smoke screen.
The first incident was a chance conversation in the corridor about the student numbers of the degree programme that I teach on at King's College London. This programme did not exist in 2015 when I started there. We had a first graduates this summer. The programme has been hugely successful, in no small part due to a very dedicated teaching team having the flexibility of starting from scratch to build an effective degree which did very in the NSS and supported the universities TEF case. We started with around 100 students per year and our fourth intake includes nearly 180. The number mentioned in this conversation was 300. I have given up pointing out the issues with increasing numbers without resource and how unless increases are managed well, quantity can very easily damage quality. But this made me think about my agency - I cannot possibly continue with the assessment strategy and practice I have won awards for with 300 students. I cannot, for example, even with a great team of markers, turn around 600 assignments in 4 weeks (the College assessment policy). Increasing student numbers can constrain us unless resource is properly given.
The second incident relates to the Open University where I have been a tutor for almost 14 years. In that period the OU has undergone many changes, some of which I think were brilliant for the students (e.g. electronic submission of assignments and online alternatives for tutorials), whilst others were a loss (e.g. scrapping summer schools). The latest targets that the university has set mean that the module team running a module I teach on are constantly under pressure to get more students to pass. This is a demanding final year module. The university wants 75% to pass - not unreasonable you might think and in a conventional setting I would agree, but where a student can do any module they like, sometimes having never studied a topic before and they can do so whilst working full-time, raising a family and studying another two modules as well, that target becomes pretty optimistic. Even more so when you realise only 62% of students reach the exam on the module. Now I admit to having a slight bias here because I designed the module and the assessment originally and no one likes to see their 'baby' discarded. But I have felt this about other modules where I have little personal interest so I don't think my biases fully explain how I feel about this. The module team responses to tutors are thorough and considered but they are along the lines of ''we have no choice, we have to do this to get to the targets or at least look like we are trying. I can sympathise with this and I think targets like this, along with module evaluations, NSS an TEF are all factors which can constrain teacher agency in higher education.
Reflecting on these two examples (and there are many more I could give), I feel less smug about teaching in Higher Education rather than schools now. I feel we are just as restrained by our context as school teachers may be fixed curriculum.
I think teacher agency is important in and of itself because it can bring, for example, innovative education and contribute to a highly effective community of practice. But I also think that teachers who lack agency will not be able to provide the quality education students deserve because they will become puppets on the stage rather than genuine actors. I have no idea how we stop that happening though.