What is agency?

The most recent communication from the IBPYP outlining some of the changes we can anticipate from the launch of the enhanced PYP later next year both highlighted some anticipated changes and raised new questions.

“Introducing the concept of agency changed the way we looked at the framework. Augmenting the original learning and teaching focus of the ‘written, taught, assessed’ structure with the human element – the learner and the learning community – underlines that everyone connected to the school community has an important role to play in supporting student learning.” Head of PYP Development, Nicole Bien

Given the visual provided with the new release, it appears that agency is referring to students, teachers, and others in the school community. So what is agency?

I found a number of definitions in the research literature and they were divided into two categories: student agency and teacher agency.

student agency: “the concept that students should be in control of their educational decisions rather than following a prescribed path determined by others” (Zimmerman, 2015).


student agency: “in which students own a strong perception that they are the key agents of their learning” (Williams, 2017)


student agency: “the capacity and propensity to take purposeful action” (Ferguson et al, 2015)

The research on student agency consistently identified the ideas of “voice and choice” as being key ingredients, as does the IBPYP’s visual. This does not signal a significant change in the PYP to my mind, I think it is more an acknowledgment of the direction many PYP schools have taken. We are involving students more heavily in the planning and assessment of their units of inquiry. We are providing them more options and resources in terms of how they will find out about their topic and how they want to represent their learning. Maker spaces, redesigned learning spaces, and more integrated use of technology are making it easier for students to exercise agency in their learning.

What I find more exciting is the idea of teacher agency. In their paper, Understanding Teacher Agency: The Importance of Relationships, researchers discuss how the last few decades of educational reform have de-professionalised teaching. The language of accountability and publishing of high-stakes testing results which named and shamed teachers has even impacted on those of us working outside of these systems. There is a feeling amongst most teachers that their professionalism has been called into question by either their systems, administrators, and/or parents and in the vast majority of cases it is completely unjustified.

Is this the IB’s effort to signal more loudly that they not only trust teachers to make educational decisions but believe them to be indispensable in the creation and implementation of curriculum? Does it acknowledge teachers and coordinators as experts who can determine things like how long a unit needs to last and whether its appropriate to run one unit year long in upper primary? This new communication seems to indicate, yes.

And why is teacher agency important? According to Priestly (2015), “we desperately need critically engaged teachers who can develop the curriculum in constructive ways leading to better student outcomes.” While there is no question that PYP teachers have been and continue to be critically engaged in developing curriculum for students, some of the programme constraints of the PYP have put us in challenging positions. How many of us struggle with using the current PYP planner in the early years and have spent considerable time devising ways around it?

Teacher agency: “The capacity of teachers to act purposefully and constructively to direct their professional growth and contribute to the growth of their colleagues” (Calvert, 2016).

What I am hopeful of is that it will also lead to a redesign of the IB’s professional development options. Perhaps we can get away from the costly and largely ineffective three day workshops and honour the work being conducted in schools using collaborative inquiry to delve into important pedagogical issues within their own context. Could we work with the IB to register these inquiries and develop resources that will support all of us in our efforts?

The idea of teacher agency resonates with me because it feels like we are extending the IB’s mission. Maybe this will be an opportunity for us to explicitly encourage teachers “across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.” (International Baccalaureate Mission)


Calvert, L. (2016). Moving from compliance to agency: What teachers need to make professional learning work. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward and NCTAF.

Charteris, J., & Thomas, E. (2017). Uncovering ‘unwelcome truths’ through student voice: teacher inquiry into agency and student assessment litracy. Teaching Education. 28(2), pp. 162-177.

Deed et al. (2014). Personalised learning in the open classroom: The mutuality of teacher and student agency. International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning. 9(1), pp. 66-75.

International Baccalaureate. (2017). Preparing for the Enhanced PYP communication. Accessed November 15, 2017.

Jackson, B. (2003). Education Reform as If Student Agency Mattered: Academic Microcultures and Student Identity. Phi Delta Kappa International. 84(8). pp. 579-585.

Priestly, M. (2015) Teacher agency: What it is and why it matters. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/teacher-agency-what-is-it-and-why-does-it-matter, accessed November 18, 2017.

Scheisfurth, M. (2006). Education for global citizenship: teacher agency and curricular structure in Ontario schools. Educational Review. 58(1), pp 41-50.

Williams, P. (2017). Student Agency for Powerful Learning. Knowledge Quest Power to the Pupil: Student Agency in the School Library. 45(4), pp. 9-15.

Zimmerman, M. (2015). The Value of Student Agency. Phi Kappa Phi Forum.


2 Thoughts

  1. Excellent insight and reference share, to clarifying the deeper meaning behind agency connected with the upcoming enhancement in the PYP. Thank you for this!

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