University of Sussex
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How the light gets in: an exploration of children’s agency in the primary school classroom

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posted on 2023-06-09, 14:51 authored by Perpetua KirbyPerpetua Kirby
This thesis examines where and how children achieve agency in the primary classroom, identifying the conditions that extend and limit the scope and scale of their agency, to understand more of the details of a phenomenon viewed as central to education but often glossed over in research. The study draws on a multimodal ethnography of a Year One classroom, within an ordinary English primary school, including an in-depth focus on the experience of a few carefully selected children. In addition, a week was spent undertaking a ‘rapid’ ethnography in a Year One class in an ‘outstanding’ teaching school. The research details the conditions of the ‘on-task’ modern primary classroom, a performance-focused environment centred on delivering a knowledge-based national curriculum. There is an emphasis on children’s conformity, including a moral and bodily discipline, with children expected to learn only what the teacher knows. Practices designed to promote agency (e.g. setting by current ability, and promoting learning behaviours such as resilience and aiming high) can promote pupil anxiety and re-inforce existing hierarchies. The thesis explores what children’s agency looks like in the on-task classroom, drawing on a relational conceptualisation of agency, where children act purposively to achieve outcomes of educational relevance. This includes a focus on children’s agency ‘orientations’ – their cultural, social and emotional experiences and outlooks – as well as discourses, practices and the materiality of classrooms. The thesis identifies children’s competence in understanding what is expected of them, and agency in performing the ‘good’ and ‘clever’ child subject positions, helping to make classroom life more liveable, although this form of agency is limited and unhelpful for dealing with the new and unexpected. Children also deviate, becoming the ‘desiring’ child, finding moments to pursue desires and ways of knowing not provided for within the on-task classroom. Here, children’s many practices, which include to laugh, move, speak, create, collaborate, as well as to sit and listen, offer embodied ways to think about, understand, re-imagine and transform the world. The children’s desires offer a critique of the on-task classroom, with its narrow focus on gaining knowledge and skills, and socialisation in moral rectitude, insinuating a desire to be educated through the transformation of the subject and existing social orders. All children pursue their desires in the classroom, but the middle class, male and oldest children have the greatest scope to deviate. Through tracing lines of desire, acting with the presumption of equality, I suggest children become political subjects, engaged in the act of ‘dissensus’ through the redistribution of what is understood as ‘sensible’ within the classroom. They also raise a ‘common concern’ about the need for a different type of classroom. The thesis concludes with teacher dilemmas emerging from the research highlighting the inherent complexity in deciding which of the different purposes of education to foreground at any point. It identifies the need for future research on pedagogical spaces that allow for children’s transformation as well as their conformity, and the mental health implications of the on-task classroom. The thesis draws on post-structuralist perspectives, together with new materialism (e.g. Gert Biesta, Michel de Certeau, Karin Murris, Saba Mahmood, Sevasti-Melissa Nolas, Jo Moran-Ellis, Jacques Rancière).


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  • Social Work and Social Care Theses

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  • doctoral

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  • phd


  • eng


University of Sussex

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