Learning and practice: agency and identities
Learning and practice: agency and identities

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4 Human agency

If humans negotiate rather than receive meaning and are active constructors of knowledge then the human mind has to be viewed in a particular way, a way that is described as agentive. An agentive mind is 'proactive, problem-orientated, attentionally focused, selective, constructional and directed to ends' (Bruner, 1996, p. 93). Human agency, or the ability to act, is the realised potential of people to act on their world purposefully in interactions where different courses of action are possible and desirable, depending on the participant's point of view. In this view of the human mind learners are decision-makers as well as knowledgeable. Many learning theories share this view of the human mind but a feature of a sociocultural view is how human agency is understood and the connection between agency and identity.

Activity 6

Think of a situation where you have been able to act on the world purposefully. Try to identify, in that experience, what were your goals, your focus and any ways in which you were problem orientated and proactive.

  • When you look back on experiences where you felt that you were agentive in a positive way, how did that make you feel?
  • Think now of an experience where you felt your ability to act was constrained. What caused those constraints?
  • How did you feel when you look back on experiences where your ability to act was constrained?


Understanding and having ownership of your goals are a key to knowing how to act and feeling able to act. Was this the case in the situation where you felt able to act purposefully? One reason why learning is said to be enhanced when the objectives for learning are shared with learners through formative assessment is because it directs them towards particular goals or ends. Other people can also enable individual agency or constrain it. In the situation that you thought of, did others enable you? You can probably think of many instances where a quick word with someone whom you thought would know something helpful has enabled you to move forward. The key to such agentive experiences is connecting with what you do not know, knowing who does know and being proactive. This view of how people learn together means that relationships are pivotal in affording learning. Agency is therefore relational. In the Solomon et al. study the hybrid spaces allowed people to function in this way. It follows from this that a person can be prevented from acting or feeling able to act because of a lack of know-how, or of feeling able to admit to a lack of know-how or of knowing whom to connect with to get that know-how. You may feel like this when faced with a new situation outside your normal spheres of practice: for example, when trying to decide whether to have a child vaccinated, or to go to another country for surgery.

Other people may constrain a person's agency if they have a different understanding of goals. You may have identified a problem and devised a solution through being proactive, only to have your solution resisted because it does not meet another person's agenda or conflicts with it. In this instance, the issue of power, and who holds it in relationships, comes into play. One colleague talked of his frustration at having to write a report, where he knew what he wanted to write and how to set about it, but was having the process constantly undermined because other people in senior management positions wanted something different from the report but never specified what. Having no clear direction undermined his ability to be proactive or to know what to focus on. It also made him feel that he could not do his job.

For some learners, the goals for their learning may be clear but seem irrelevant. Relevance is perceived, not given: people have to understand not just what the goals are but the point of them in relation to themselves. If something lacks relevance, you cannot connect it to your experiences; there is no attentional focus and therefore what to draw on to be proactive is obscured. In such a situation, you can only follow instructions. This inability to perceive relevance is likely to happen in schools where what to learn and how to learn are decided on learners' behalf. A sociocultural view of learning not only emphasises an agentive mind, but also provides ways of looking at experiences so as to understand and explain why agency is or is not experienced by individuals in particular situations.

Agency and identity are linked in a sociocultural view of learning and Wenger (1998) describes learning in practice as negotiating an identity. However, people are members of many communities and have multiple identities, which they bring into settings and have to manage as part of their participation. This is what Solomon et al. referred to as identity work. An example of identity management was observed in research into the organisation of single-sex teaching. As part of this study, a boys-only class of Year 9 students (aged 13-14) who were studying English was observed (lvinson and Murphy, 2007). The task that the teacher gave the boys was to develop a radio script for a live football commentary and to audiotape it and perform it for the class. The teacher assumed that the boys would draw on their experiences, and believed that all of the boys had access to this experience. But some boys had a great deal of difficulty in creating a script, and said in interview that they had never been to a live football match or listened to football commentaries. For one boy, Seth, the problem was even more complex, because of the public nature of the performance. He considered that reading out the script was potentially 'embarrassing'. He explained further:

Well if someone else is going to watch it, it makes you stand out more and people are like looking at you. If you're just like standing there like a bystander, you know they – the attention isn't drawn to you. So if you do something, like stupid, then you know.
(Ivinson and Murphy, 2007, p. 151)

When asked if he was more worried about the other people in the class or the teacher, Seth explained that it was definitely the other people in the class:

Well if it's like lousy then you know it's the whole popularity thing, you know what I mean? If you're not like funny or cool then they won't like you. And then you've got no friends and you know. Whereas the teacher, it doesn't really matter.
(Ivinson and Murphy, 2007, p. 152)

Here we see another key aspect of human agency: the way that groups like the boys in the class shape the learning environment through their agency. Seth wanted to maintain his identity as competent at English while at the same time being seen to have a gender identity that was acceptable to his male peers. Managing these identities influenced how he acted, the opportunities available for his learning and the way that the teacher perceived him. Seth was aware of doing identity work but for many learners this is not a conscious act.

Activity 7

Download and read the article "Literacies and Masculinities in the Life of a Young Working-Class Boy" by Deborah Hicks from the link below.

Literacies and Masculinities in the Life of a Young Working-Class Boy [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

As you read, make notes on the:

  • identities that Jake had at home and at school as a boy and as a competent and literate person, and their sources
  • shifts in these identities over time, and how this was mediated by his identities at home as a boy and a family member
  • opportunities to learn made available to him in the school and at home
  • implications for practice and those you feel that an institution can realistically manage.


Hicks draws a vivid picture of how Jake's participation in the family and at home had led him to give value to particular ways of being and doing. What his family did made sense and was therefore salient to him, and he brought that familiarity with him to kindergarten. This then influenced what he chose to engage with and how he engaged with it, for Jake, these were not just ways of being a boy. Through his participation in his father's craft and construction activities, he had developed competency and an identity as a craftsperson.

Rogoff (2008) points out how differences between accepted ways of acting at home and at school can create conflicts for learners and limit their learning. Hicks argues that schools should provide opportunities for children from diverse communities to 'engage in textual practices that draw upon and also extend or "pluralize" the means by which they mediate the boundaries of self (p. 140). This means that school practices should not only draw on and embrace the competencies and experiences, or funds of knowledge, that learners bring, but also enable their participation to go beyond the familiar. Going beyond the familiar means, for example, enabling them to see the value of engaging in literacy practices that they may not associate with what boys do, or, in Jake's case, with what people like himself and his family do. In this way, learners are enabled to extend the boundaries of what it means for them to be literate. Why did this not happen for Jake?

In kindergarten, the teacher commented about Jake that 'He's always on task; it just might not be your task' (p. 136). For Jake, if activities made no sense he either changed them or avoided them. Activities that lacked a purpose in Jake's eyes continued to make no sense to him, because he never participated in them and gained feedback about them. Faced with tasks that he could not see the point of doing constrained the opportunities for him to learn. Many of the learning opportunities that the teacher believed he had experienced never occurred. To catch up, Jake needed opportunities in school 'to see a cultural space for the things he most valued' (p. 140) and to have his literacy skills recognised and validated. The conflict he experienced, between valued literacy practices in the home and literacy practices in school, went unnoticed.

As Jake progressed through first grade, Hicks suggests, he had to move between two very different discourse communities. In the home, he had an identity of a gifted learner and of a very competent reader with literary talents. These identities were continuously validated by all family members, as well as by the evidence that Jake himself had of his growing competence in the world beyond school. In school, he was not afforded opportunities to demonstrate his talent as a learner, and he struggled in the literacy practices that were valued there. His identity was one of 'not belonging' and of restricted competence.

In second grade, his continuing experience of restricted agency contrasted markedly with his increasing autonomy and competence in his participation at home. Faced with this conflict, his coping strategies were to absent himself, 'in his head'. Yet because his teachers were unaware of what he had to cope with, his actions were seen as exerting agency through resistance rather than as a passive acceptance of something beyond his control. The accounts of the literacy practices in Ms Williams's second-grade class indicated the way that schooled practices could create spaces for Jake to experience schooled literacy tasks as valuable and purposeful and, importantly, to experience himself as competent. The impact of this was that Jake made considerable progress. However, when Jake reflected on his history of participation, it remained an experience of failure, with only moments of agentive engagement. Consequently, he began to distance himself from school and from being able to imagine himself on an educational traje v ctory. His vision of himself was reinforced by the future that his father imagined for him. In addition, the school, like schools in many systems, applied a normative view of progress. It did not matter that Jake had made rapid progress between first grade and the end of second grade. What mattered was his position in relation to his peers.

Hicks argues the need for a culturally responsive pedagogy that opens up the curriculum and allows for different ways of knowing and being. Her twin notions of embracing and extending are compelling, even if it seems very challenging to think of how to engage individual learners' funds of knowledge. The consequences of not trying (such as Jake being alienated from school by third grade, for example) seem unacceptable.

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