Structure, agency and hard work

Today is my (our) wedding anniversary. Around about 47 years ago my father took his future son-in-law to one side and asked him whether he really wanted to go through with this marriage – my father was straight out of the Victorian era and doubted I would make a suitable wife – too many ideas of my own and insufficiently domestic 🙂 At the same time my mother took me to one side and asked me if I really understood what hard work marriage would be. However, a strong family belief was that anything could be achieved with hard work – so it must have rubbed off somewhere, since it seems to have paid off. We are still together after 47 years.

Also today, 47 years after my mother’s heart to heart, I have been hard at work thinking about the relationship between structure and agency in learning, for a paper I am writing with my Austrian friend and colleague Jutta Pauschenwein. So many people and well-known theorists have written about this that I wonder why it still seems to be a significant issue. That is what we are trying to pin down in our paper. I’m not sure yet if we will be successful. Despite my parents’ beliefs, hard work doesn’t always pay off, but I hope it will in this instance.

But pay-offs aren’t always what we expect, particularly if we keep an open mind about what might crop up, i.e. be open to emergent learning. I have done a lot of reading this month. Pay-off enough for me is coming across an article that makes me ‘sit up’ and leaves me thinking about it for days. This month it has been Osberg and Biesta’s paper on emergent curriculum.

Osberg, D., & Biesta, G. (2008). The emergent curriculum: navigating a complex course between unguided learning and planned enculturation. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(3), 313–328. doi:10.1080/00220270701610746 – Retrieved from

This made me think about structure and agency in relation to the role of the teacher/facilitator in a learning environment that promotes emergent learning. Having started on my teaching career 47 years ago, I feel quite resistant to the idea that it is a role of decreasing significance in a world of open learning, where it is thought by some that everyone teaches each other. Of course I understand that everyone is capable of teaching others to some degree, and that open learning has increased the potential of learning from anyone and everyone, but I don’t think that this negates the significant role of the teacher. I am still working on why I feel so strongly about this.

My third experience of ‘hard work’ this month came from a 5 day city break to Berlin, where I walked miles and came back ready for a break! There is so much of interest to see in Berlin (we barely scraped the surface) and the German people are very hospitable. I would recommend a trip to Berlin for anyone who is interested in history, art, culture and architecture – and according to my son Berlin has a great music culture and night life – although we didn’t explore this – too exhausted after hours of walking!

Brandenburg Gate

Of course, there is plenty about Berlin that can be related to hard work and structure and agency. Once you start thinking about structure and agency, you see it everywhere 🙂

4 thoughts on “Structure, agency and hard work

  1. ep September 1, 2015 / 1:46 am

    sehr schoen 😉

  2. jennymackness September 1, 2015 / 8:23 am

    Thank you Emily 🙂

  3. Lisa M Lane September 2, 2015 / 12:13 am

    Thanks for the article, Jenny! I have likely been thinking in the “old” way – as structure versus freedom, rather than agency. I have tried to create a balance of it in my classes – freedom and agency within my structure. But I, the teacher, am needed to build the structure.

  4. jennymackness September 2, 2015 / 7:00 am

    Hi Lisa – thanks for your comment. I have been finding these terms – structure, agency, freedom, autonomy and so on difficult to unpick as they seem to have slightly different meanings depending on the discipline that is discussing them. Before I started all this recent reading, I thought I had understood them 🙂

    Perhaps a difference between freedom and agency is that freedom is bestowed whereas agency is taken? I’m not even sure if I believe that. And re structure, from my reading around this, learners themselves contribute to the structure with what they bring from their past and their aspirations for the future. Their agency can influence the structure as much as the structure influences their agency.

    You have probably gathered that I am still trying to sort all this out in my own head. I think I have understood it and then I read something else! But all this resonates with me because of the work we have done on emergent learning.

    Isn’t it interesting that Osberg and Biesta were writing their paper when we were in CCK08! So while we were thinking about autonomy, openness, interaction and diversity, they were coming at this from a different context but with very similar ideas.

    Thanks Lisa. Good to hear from you 🙂

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