Exploring educational leadership
Exploring educational leadership

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Exploring educational leadership

4 Agency

Agency is a concept that has long dominated Western thought in sociology, economics, philosophy and psychology. The agency of individuals can be defined as the ‘capacity for autonomous social action’ (Calhoun, 2002) and it is often contrasted with social structures that can be seen as determining human behaviour, e.g. religion, social class, economics and family.

The ‘structure–agency’ debate has dominated discussions in sociology since the 1970s, particularly in relation to the capacity of individuals and groups (‘collective agency’) to change the context (or social structures) within which they exist. Moving beyond those oppositional views, Anthony Giddens (1984) argued that individuals have the capacity for reflective thought about their actions and use this knowledge to both create and change the structures within which they live, which is known as ‘structuration theory’. For Giddens (1984), structures and human agency are therefore interdependent. The concept of agency has been further developed by Archer (2000) and others. How we understand agency shapes how we understand the potential for change and autonomy for those engaged in leadership activities, which is important in the study of educational leadership.

One approach to thinking about agency is that of Biesta and Tedder (2007). They propose an ‘ecological’ understanding of agency, where agency by individuals is understood as an achievement rather than an essential characteristic. The achievement of agency emerges from the transactions between individuals within their environment at a given time and place. This is helpful in understanding how social actions can be agentive in some situations and not others, and that an individual’s achievement of agency will fluctuate over time.

Watch the following video about the importance of identity and how it relates to agency.

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Identity is an important concept in social science, because it impacts on how people behave. In the context of this module, that could be how they might respond to professional development opportunities or how they might react to change. Your identity is your sense of self. Because we are complex social beings, we have multiple identities which intersect and shape each other. Personal identity is fundamental. It is the concept you develop about yourself that evolves over the course of your life. It is based on things like your racial identity, your appearance, where you grew up, but also your values, your beliefs, and the sorts of things you do in your life. It is shaped by past experiences, relationships, the choices that you make, and how you spend your time. It is helpful to think in terms of social identity – your sense of who you are based on the social groups to which you belong. Professional identity is your sense of who you are in your professional role. It is based on your attributes, beliefs, values, motives and experiences. In this module, ideas about identity are underpinned by three assumptions. Identity is socially constructed – it emerges from and is constructed by life’s experiences, the influence of significant others, education, cultural norms and values. Identity is fluid – it changes with time and place according to interactions which take place. Identity is socially situated – how you see yourself depends on the context that you are in at the time. Your sense of identity is shaped by the world around you, but paradoxically your sense of identity also shapes that world over time. Your multiple identities give you a sense of purpose, self-efficacy, motivation and commitment. Your sense of identity will therefore impact on how you behave. Identity is linked to agency. All humans are able to exercise agency in a formation of our identities by selecting and rejecting influences and experiences to incorporate into our identity. In Unit Two, Priestley, Biesta and Robinson argue that personal and professional identity interact with aspects of contexts, such as the cultural values, social structures, relationships, and resources. And that agency emerges from that interaction. They call this an ‘ecological approach to agency’, and through their research have provided policymakers with a framework for considering how the ecologies of teaching may impact on teacher decision making and teacher action. This perspective is helpful if you are investigating distributed leadership and seeking to understand the extent to which people feel able to acquire and exercise agency. In Unit Nine, Day, Kington, Stobart and Sammons take a different perspective in their investigation of how variations in the work and lives of teachers affect pupils. They suggest that identity is formed as people take action in different sociocultural settings. This action is known as exercising agency. They find that teachers’ identity may be more or less stable and more or less fragmented depended on life, career, or situational factors. The implication is that in order to ensure that policy initiatives designed to support recruitment and retention are successful, the initiative needs to support teachers in building a stable and coherent sense of self. Both studies make a contribution to knowledge about how change impacts on teachers. Both studies see identity as socially constructed, fluid, and socially situated, but they have slightly different perspectives on how this relates to agency.
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Please note: ‘Unit 2’ and ‘Unit 9’ in the video refer to part of the Open University course not included in this OpenLearn course. Also, the reference to ‘module’ in this video refers to the Open University course EE811 Educational leadership: agency, professional learning and change [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .


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