Professional Development

Professional Enquiry And Teacher Agency: Putting Teachers In Control

Mark Priestley and Valerie Drew report on research into how teachers’ curriculum development activity was empowered through enquiry.

Engaging with big ideas and transforming curriculum 

It has become fashionable in recent years, resurrecting the ideas of Lawrence Stenhouse (1988), to discuss teacher (or practitioner) research (or enquiry1). The recent BERA-RSA inquiry into the role of research in teacher education (Furlong, 2014) identified two linked dimensions to this notion of, to use Stenhouse’s expression, the teacher-as-researcher. These were researcher into one’s practice; and a more general conception of the research-engaged teacher – someone who is research-literate, and who actively informs their practice through engaging with research. These discussions have taken on a sharper focus following a wave of curricular reforms, evident in many national education systems, which emphasise local flexibility in curriculum making, positioning teachers as autonomous developers of the curriculum. 

This article focuses on an initiative in Scotland, which sought to enhance teachers’ capacity for curriculum making, utilising the methodology of Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry (CCPE). Through CCPE, teachers explicitly engaged with the big ideas (purposes and principles) of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), framing subsequent curriculum development in terms of fitness-for-purpose – that is fit-for-purpose knowledge content and fit-for-purpose pedagogies

This process involved both dimensions of teacher-as-researcher; it was informed by participants reading research papers, who undertook a form of research – termed enquiry – as they engaged in curriculum making in their schools. The teachers were supported by university researchers, acting as critical colleagues and providing access to pertinent cognitive resources, including research articles.  Using an ecological approach to understanding of  teacher agency) we illustrate how teachers’ agency in curriculum making increased as their confidence and professional knowledge grew, as they developed supportive and focused professional networks, and as their contexts for curriculum development were tailored to explicitly encourage sustainable innovation. The article draws upon research – qualitative data generated from three cohorts of participating teachers in a curriculum development project.

The changing landscape of the curriculum

The period since the start of the millennium has witnessed a curricular turn away from prescriptive national curricula in many countries, characterised by a number of common trends. These include: 

  • a shift from the specification of knowledge content as the basis for curriculum planning towards genericism (Young, 2008); 
  • an emphasis on the centrality of the learner (Sinnema & Aitken, 2013); an articulation of curriculum as assessable outcomes, accompanied by increasingly pervasive regimes of accountability and cultures of performativity; and 
  • (in apparent contradistinction to the previous point) a [re]construction of teachers as agents of change and professional developers of the curriculum 
  • (Priestley, Biesta & Robinson, 2015).  

This curricular shift is a manifestation of a wider transnational discourse that ‘teachers matter’ (OECD 2005), which potentially provides opportunities for teachers to achieve and exercise agency in their professional lives. Nevertheless, currently such aspirations are not achievable, for a number of reasons that continue to erode teacher agency. First, the pervasive regulation of teachers’ work through an emphasis on outcomes – accountability, surveillance and governance by data (e.g. see: Leat, Livingston & Priestley, 2013) – has done much to inhibit teacher agency. These factors clearly run counter to the political rhetoric expressed in policy about autonomy and agency, and have been linked to the development of cultures of performativity in professional settings (e.g. see: Keddie, Mills & Pendergast, 2011). Thus, curricular policy intentions can be undermined and diminished by the effects of other policies and associated practices. 

Second, the development of aspirational policy to promote teachers’ professional agency has not been accompanied by a cultural/discursive environment that might foster such aspirations (Reeves & Drew, 2012). Part of this lies in the above-mentioned performativity; however, the problem is also situated in professional thinking about education and the professional language used to describe and define educational practice (e.g. see: Priestley, Biesta & Robinson, 2015). Many teachers lack an educational language with which to engage critically with policy, and to develop their practice, and existing educational discourse remains problematic in its technocratic and often linear nature. This can be seen, for example, in the ubiquitous use of ‘uneducational’ language to describe educational practices, a phenomenon described by Hood (1995, p.105) as ‘new managerial catchwords’, which have become so extensive that they constitute a ‘new global vocabulary’ (ibid). This may seem like a trivial issue but it is in fact significant, in that the language and metaphors we use frame the way we think about and enact practice. 

CCPE, as we shall illustrate can act counter to these tendencies (Drew, Priestley & Michael, 2016). In the next section, we describe a project, School-based Curriculum Development through Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry, which sought to break the mould of existing curriculum development practices.

Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry

This project ran with yearly cohorts of around 25 teachers between 2012 and 2015, within a single Scottish Local Authority. Each cohort comprised small groups of teachers from early years, primary and secondary schools, attending six workshops over the academic year. From the outset, there was an expectation that each school should send a group of teachers, including at least one member of the senior leadership team. 

A review of 42 studies of collaborative inquiry by DeLuca et al. (2015) identified three principal interrelated structural elements: dialogic processes; taking action; and engaging in reflection. All three elements are embedded in the CCPE model, which comprises a two stage process:

  • Stage 1: a conceptual engagement with the ‘big ideas’ of the curriculum2, considering fitness for purpose and addressing contextual conditions. 
  • Stage 2: undertaking CCPE

The aim of the first stage was to engage practitioners with the principles and purposes of current curricular policy in Scotland and relevant curriculum theory and processes, addressing the issue that many teachers have a poor understanding of these (Priestley & Minty, 2013). Underpinning this activity is an assumption that existing practices might be fit-for-purpose. However, it also assumes  that participants do not necessarily know whether this is the case, unless they are critically evaluated against the CfE attributes and capabilities as well as broader educational purposes, principles and values. An exploration of the big ideas of the curriculum is accompanied by consideration of fit-for-purpose knowledge/content and pedagogies. Participants are encouraged to think about barriers to and drivers for their planned innovation, stimulating discussion about how, for example, accountability practices and school systems might impede their plans. 

The CCPE stage involves three processes or phases: focusing, interrupting and sense-making (Drew, Priestley & Michael, 2016). During the first phase, the participants engage in professional dialogue with colleagues, drawing upon academic readings to identify an area of interest or concern in their practice related to pedagogy, content or assessment. By the end of this phase, the CCPE groups generate a broad ‘critical’ question for their enquiry and devise a collaborative plan for implementing it. In Phase Two, groups interrupt existing practices through implementing and trialling new approaches.  They continue to critique and refine or modify their conceptual framework during this phase, through ongoing critical engagement with reading and professional dialogue. The process of engaging in systematic generation and gathering of empirical data (both process and outcomes) takes place throughout all three stages, but is perhaps most prevalent during this stage as the practitioners undertake the interruption in practices.  In Phase Three there is a focus on collaborative sense-making through analysis of data and interpretation of evidence, as the CCPE groups begin to evaluate the impact of the interruption. 


Teacher agency

The data generated by this project have been analysed using the conceptual framework provided by the ecological approach to understanding teacher agency (Priestley, Biesta & Robinson, 2015). It is important provide a brief overview of this approach here, as it differs from traditional sociological accounts of agency in significant ways. Foremost amongst these is the notion of agency as an emergent phenomenon, rather than as a variable in social action, as characterised in the longstanding structure/agency debate: 

[T]his concept of agency highlights that actors always act by means of their environment rather than simply in their environment [so that] the achievement of agency will always result from the interplay of individual efforts, available resources and contextual and structural factors as they come together in particular and, in a sense, always unique situations. (Biesta & Tedder, 2007, p. 137; emph. added).

Agency, in other words, is not something that people have; it is something that people do or, more precisely, something they achieve. It denotes a ‘quality’ of the engagement of actors with temporal-relational contexts-for-action, not a quality of the actors themselves. For a more detailed account of this conceptualisation of teacher agency, readers should refer to Priestley, Biesta & Robinson (2015).

CCPE and teacher agency

In this section we examine, through analysis of teachers’ voices, the impact that participation in our CCPE project has exerted on teacher agency. We broadly frame this analysis in two areas: 

1] The effects of CCPE on teachers’ individual capacity to engage with curriculum policy; and 

2] The ways in which this project has impacted upon the contexts which shape teachers’ responses to curriculum policy.

Teacher capacity to engage

Previous research suggests an erosion of Scottish teachers’ capacity to develop the curriculum in school, a risk-averse and often instrumental approach to curriculum development, and limited teacher capacity to envisage alternative futures and to manoeuvre between repertoires in their practice (e.g. Priestley & Minty, 2013; Priestley, Biesta & Robinson, 2015). In particular, there is evidence that many schools simply recycle old practices and ideas when addressing new curriculum development problematics.

CCPE appears to address some of these issues, by interrupting habitual ways of thinking, by introducing new ideas in a way which is relevant to practice, and through its emphasis on collaborative sense-making. As such, the process clearly enhanced teachers’ professional knowledge, through providing external impetus for engagement. The view of one Secondary Deputy Head illustrates sentiments more widely expressed by participants:

I led the group; I had a way I wanted to go, a set of rigid ideas of what I considered it to be… my vision was narrow; by reading and research and working with Val and Mark, that expanded our thinking… Read stuff I had never heard of before … it really helped me have a wider perspective – a key driver was research and reading. (SDHT1)

Several teachers spoke about how the project allowed them to develop alternative ways of looking at the process of curriculum development, explaining how this opened up horizons and made new thinking and new practices possible. 

One teacher articulated similar sentiments:

It has reminded me not to simply accept ‘the ways things are’ within my classroom and to engage and reflect more critically upon things, which I feel are issues or problems, considering what I can do to improve this by engaging with literature of enquiry within my classroom. (PCT8)

Interestingly, the process seemed to challenge, in some cases at least, the prevailing tradition in Scotland of looking at ‘best practice’ in other schools, identified within school inspections and often uncritically applied. Instead, the process encouraged a more reflexive approach to developing practice from first principles. For many of these teachers, CCPE represented:

A change in seeing – it gave them time to see the impact of doing research based enquiry and the impact that professional reading can have directly in your classroom…  it made them question each others’ practice as well. (PHT2)

In turn, this “allowed practitioners to be creative and innovative” (PHT2).

In summary, the project appears to have developed teachers’ professional knowledge. It has opened up new ways of thinking, and afforded opportunities for alternative practices and changes to often axiomatic and routinised ways of teaching. Crucially, it seems to have made participants more critical in their engagement with policy.

In terms of teacher agency, the individual capacity of teachers is clearly important. The project appears to have boosted this, leading to a greater ability in many cases to draw upon a wider repertoire for practice and to envisage alternative futures that had previously been unthinkable. In doing so, these teachers seem to have become less risk averse, more reflexive about their practice and enthused by a new curriculum that had previously often been a source of anxiety. 

Factors which shape agency – contextual issues

Nevertheless, teacher agency is not just a matter of raising capacity; it is also important to address the structural and cultural constraints and affordances that help shape agency. In the next section of the paper we examine this issue.

In relation to context, the achievement of teacher agency is often about the availability of resources – material, cultural and relational – or the lack thereof, and about judgements of risk made in situ by busy professionals. CCPE, as a structured intervention, subtly altered many of these dynamics, making possible new practices and enhancing teacher agency. The following examples illustrate this change.

First, CCPE seems to encourage the development of more collaborative and collegial cultures in schools. Several teachers spoke about the breakdown of hierarchies and the development of genuinely collegial working. This in turn opened up the availability of what might be called relational resources. There are several dimensions to this, including the development of a supportive and protective environment, where colleagues could experiment and share the risks and benefits of innovation.

It’s a good way to gather a team together, working  together, sharing research , sharing your understanding … planning changes, how you will look at success and how you will measure it and what changes you are going to make [….] we had a shared goal, we had to work, research, evaluate, plan and present together. It was all a team effort; really positive to develop relationships in the staff between HT, DHT, new and existing teachers. (PDHT2)

One effect of this way of working seems to be increased confidence by classroom teachers. A related effect was a reported increase in teachers’ professional engagement in the development of the curriculum. In Scotland, this has not always been the case. Earlier changes to teachers’ working conditions had specified that curriculum development was to be part of a teacher’s professional remit, although this has often been slow to develop in a hierarchical system where top-down practices have been widely prevalent.

CCPE appears to be promising in addressing some of the contextual issues. Because of our insistence on senior management involvement in the programme, there appears to have been a substantial buy-in from school leaders to the methods and aims of the project, and increased support for resultant practices. This has provided a layer of protective mediation in respect of external demands relating to accountability. It has aided in the development of collaborative professional cultures and school systems, which in combination have enhanced the availability of relational resources in the schools. Moreover participation in the project has helped to change attitudes and boost staff confidence, meaning that many of the teachers have become more likely to engage in different decision-making about curriculum development. This relates to the ‘evaluative’ aspect.

Breaking the mould of practice 

Our research in one Scottish local authority suggests that CCPE is a powerful mechanism for engaging teachers with curriculum policy and breaking the mould of existing practices. The research suggests that this approach has enjoyed some success in enhancing teacher agency – through augmenting professional knowledge, challenging existing preconceptions and ways of working and through mitigating some of the cultural and structural barriers to curriculum development that currently exist in schools. Moreover, the data suggest that this has led in some cases to sustainable changes to practice in the participating schools. 

There are also clear implications in relation to the importance of understanding the ecology within which – and by means of which – the curriculum is made in schools. Governments and other agencies concerned with developing educational policy and practice have tended to over-emphasise the importance of teachers as key actors within the system. For instance, the OECD (2005) has claimed that ‘teachers matter’. While not denying the importance of good teachers and good teaching, recent research on teacher agency (Priestley, Biesta & Robinson, 2015) has pointed clearly to the vital significance of attending to structural and cultural dimensions of teachers’ professional lives, as these can be highly influential shapers of teacher agency. 


Strengthening professional relationships

The CCPE approach is helpful, as it actively addresses these issues. This, and previous research, indicate clearly that the types of structures formed and reproduced in schools are important in shaping what is possible for teachers to do, as they engage with the curriculum making (also see: Priestley, Biesta &  Robinson, 2015). A key issue lies in the nature of relationships experienced by teachers in their professional contexts, and the relational resources afforded by such structures. CCPE actively addresses this dimension, in particular through facilitating the formation of strong professional ties, with the apparent effect of reducing the effects of hierarchy in schools. CCPE also addresses cultural issues in schools. It promulgates the dissemination of new ideas, through engagement with research and the actions of critical colleagues (in this case, university researchers), both of which can act to interrupt habitual thinking and practices.

The critical contribution of leaders

This, in turn, points to the crucial role played by school leaders. Early iterations of CCPE were less effective because they did not involve school leaders as active participants in the process. Innovations thus tended to wither on the vine in the absence of senior leadership understanding, enthusiasm and support. In our recent projects, we have insisted on the active engagement of school decision-makers in working groups, and they have tended to become active promoters for the enquiries in question, playing an important role as advocates for innovation, as protective mediators who shield teachers from external risks (e.g. those associated with accountability mechanisms), and as providers of resources to enable innovations to thrive. 

Clearly further experimentation, and more research will be needed to test these claims; however, we would argue on the basis of existing evidence that CCPE is a promising approach with the potential to enhance teacher agency and ultimately to lead to more meaningful curriculum development in schools.

Mark Priestley and Valerie Drew, University of Stirling.


We wish to acknowledge the enthusiastic participation of around 75 teachers and senior managers over the three years of the project. We also wish to offer our thanks and appreciation to East Lothian Council, particularly Alison Wishart for her support in making this programme happen. 


1. We use the Scottish spelling ‘enquiry’ throughout the chapter, in preference to the more commonplace ‘inquiry’.

2.  In the case of CfE, these are set out in the Four Capacities – the key competencies that form the front-end purposes of the curriculum. They have become a sort of mantra, widely visible as slogans on posters in schools, but often stripped of meaning. In fact, they form a useful starting point for curriculum planning, being broken down into a set of key competences known as attributes and capabilities, which define the skills and knowledge to be acquired by an educated person. See:


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