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  • Publication
    Peeling the Curriculum-reform Onion: How to Avoid Teachers Ending Up in Tears? A multi-phase, multi-method study exploring teacher agency in the context of engagement with Ireland's new Curriculum
    (University College Dublin. School of Education, 2022) ;
    The imminent redevelopment of Ireland’s national curriculum promises to promote agency by giving teachers the autonomy to make significant decisions regarding the content, sequence and pace of instruction in their classrooms (NCCA, 2020a). While the explicit positioning of teachers as ‘change-agents’ (Fullan, 2016; NCCA, 2009, 2020) is welcome, international studies which focus on the phenomenon of teacher-agency with regard to curriculum reform are only recently beginning to emerge (Biesta et al., 2017; Pantic, 2017a; Priestley et al., 2013; Priestley, Biesta, & Robinson, 2015; Priestley & Drew, 2019a; Pyhältö et al., 2018). A review of this burgeoning pool of empirical investigations reveals a tendency to theorise agency at the level of overarching national curriculum frameworks. A study of teacher agency, which sharpens the focus of investigation to the disciplinary-specifics of curriculum reform, presents the next logical phase for empirical study. This research aims to make a distinct contribution by exploring teachers’ lived experience of a new national language and literacy curriculum in Irish elementary schools. Building on the conceptualisation of Emirbayer and Mische (1998), the current work proposes a definition of agency as ‘teachers’ capacity to critically shape their responsiveness to curriculum change’. Set against the backdrop of the recent introduction of the Primary Language Curriculum - the first of a series of major national curricular reforms - the study draws its conceptual framing from both ‘ecological’ and ‘sociocultural’ approaches to theorising teacher agency (Biesta & Tedder, 2007; Pantic, 2017a; Priestley, Biesta, & Robinson, 2015). It employs an exploratory, sequential, multi-methods design (Morse, 2009, 2010b), which incorporates focus groups with key stakeholders, phenomenological interviews with twelve teachers across four school contexts and a single-site case study of teacher agency for curriculum enactment in a professional learning community. The sequential, multi-methods design aims to move beyond a potentially reductive ‘snapshot’ in time perspective (Sugrue, 2014), as it cumulatively adds colours to the canvas of agency-understanding. This Irish ‘case’ points to the centrality of teachers’ ‘knowledgeability’ (Giddens, 1984) regarding the reform-effort, and highlights the sustained, supported, collaborative and incremental manner in which this needs to be developed in order for vistas of agentic possibilities to be revealed and realised for teachers. The influence of ‘mediating artefacts’ (Vygotsky, 1987) on agency’s dynamic emergence highlights another important contribution. The potential for agency, it is argued, is influenced by the material infrastructure which scaffolds the reform measure. In this regard, existing planning templates were shown to infuse the leaden feet of change with calcified reluctance. The importance of teachers’ ‘existential feelings’ (Ratcliffe, 2005, 2008) in orienting themselves to the particular reform provides a final insight of particular consequence. Arguably the curriculum-reform/agency nexus underestimates the significance of these feeling and in doing so, is in danger of relegating reform to the realm of superficial adoption or, more worryingly, teacher burn-out. Appreciating how the emergence of teachers’ agency can be supported by professionals in the educational arena is the primary focus of this doctoral work. The research will present an Irish perspective on this international phenomenon. In doing so, it offers significant potential to contribute to this gradually burgeoning field of study and to support policy-makers, teachers and learners into the future.