Agency & Coaching
Agency is a much-used term in education, but how well do we understand this concept and how does it relate to our efforts to support the development of educators, and to coaching? This month’s Curious Convos webinar guest, Professor Mark Priestley outlines the ‘ecological’ view of teacher agency in this short blog post. In the book Teacher Agency that Mark wrote with Gert Biesta and Sarah Robinson (2015) the authors propose that agency is not something that people possess but something that they achieve. According to the ‘ecological’ view, agency emerges dependent on the quality of the engagement of individuals with “temporal-relational contexts-for-action” (p.23) rather than as a quality of the individuals themselves. It follows then that effective coaching could enable the achievement of agency for teachers by facilitating thoughtful and deliberate engagement with their own contexts-for-action. This way of thinking about agency is appealing because it acknowledges the background experiences that shape us as educators and the immediate contextual influences that are the backdrop to teachers’ professional work, as well as our human desire to be self-directed learners. The ‘ecology’ in this definition of agency is summarised as “a configuration of influences from the past, orientations towards the future and engagement with the present” (p.25). It is not hard to make links here with the Solutions Focus coaching principles and techniques that underpin the Growth Coaching approach.
The work of Priestley et al also prompts us to consider our understanding and experience of the related concepts of autonomy and self-efficacy which are often cited as desirable outcomes of coaching. Where autonomy can be seen as an attractive and empowering outcome of coaching, to some, the term can initially suggest complete independence and freedom from external influence or constraint. This is rarely the case in education – instead we more often have ‘freedom within form’. Similarly, self-efficacy – the belief in one’s capacity to act on challenges - is undoubtedly a worthy goal of coaching. However, there is a difference between belief in our own capacity and the degree to which contextual conditions enable us to take this action. This is where ecological agency is a helpful concept because it draws our attention to our ‘contexts for action’. A skilful coach will help a coachee to build a greater sense of self-efficacy, through strengths-based and solutions-focussed approaches, and to exercise agency by helping them to identify ways forward and next steps that are within their control.
In their chapter, ‘Coaching for Agency: the power of professionally respectful dialogue’ for Flip the System Australia (Netolicky, Andrews & Paterson (Eds), 2018), Queensland educator Jon Andrews and GCI’s Chris Munro argue that what we are really striving for when we coach teachers and school leaders is to enable them to exercise agency. Drawing on the ecological approach, they consider how coaching can facilitate and sustain teacher agency over time, ultimately resulting in a critically engaged profession able to respond to the complex needs of our students and school communities.
- Andrews, J., and Munro, C. (2018). Coaching for Agency: the power of professionally respectful dialogue. In, D. M. Netolicky, J. Andrews & C. Paterson (Eds.) Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education. (pp. 163-171). London: Routledge.
- Priestley, M., Biesta, G., and Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach. London: Bloomsbury Academic.