What is the ‘feel for the game’ – agency in curriculum development in higher education

Year: 2019

Author: Annala, Johanna, Lindén, Jyri, Mäkinen, Marita

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Curriculum change in higher education may be viewed as a ‘complicated conversation’ between different interests (Pinar 2004). It entails evaluation of what is valuable and what needs to be changed and why, selecting the issues to be solved through educational practices (Grundy, 1987). Thus curriculum change has different layers: the personal, institutional and societal power relations that reflect a certain historical context. Besides individual people, also groups may have agency in curriculum change (Archer, 2003; Ashwin, 2009). In this study, we explore how university teachers construct their agency during curriculum change.

The research data was collected by semi-structured interviews concerning practices and processes in curriculum development at a multidisciplinary research university in Finland. A longitudinal study investigated the same people twice, in between three years: first, during an intermission of curriculum development preceding strong disciplinary autonomy, and second, during a comprehensive curriculum change concerning the whole university. The data is comprised of 34 interviews for 17 faculty members. The informants represent a wide variety of disciplinary fields. The strategy for organizing the data was based on the premises of directed content analysis (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005).

Six agentic profiles were found. Five of them, namely progressive, oppositional, territorial, bridge-building, and accommodating profiles appeared in the first and second data. In the latter data, emerged one new profile, powerless profile. When looking at the expressions of agency, there were various changes in the agentic profiles, connected with individual, communal, institutional and societal layers. The local disciplinary communities seem to have a key role in agency, but the power relations and status of both people and disciplines had a role especially in the university-wide reform.

The results show how curriculum change can be characterised as a game where different players compete in order to maintain and develop different types of symbolic capital (e.g. Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). It is the question of habitus: how the games are experiences by agents. The capital that one scholar had valued did not work in the new context of curriculum change. The rules and logics of the game changed, revealing who can legitimately become an agent in the curriculum process, who is “fit” to the processes. There is a risk that the agency of individual people are emphasized in the reforms instead of supporting the agency of the communities. The power struggles inside academia may also hinder seeing the broader, societal purposes given to higher education.