Teachers as change agents by Dr. Nicola Carse

Nicola Carse is a Lecturer in Primary Education in the School of Education, University of Edinburgh. In this blog, she describes a paper from her PhD which examines the link between professional development and teacher-initiated curriculum change.

Teachers as Change Agents….

I recently had a paper published from my PhD research titled “Primary teachers as physical education curriculum change agents”. This paper explores the link between teachers undertaking professional development and it then leading to them initiating curriculum change. This work resonates with the current policy agenda within Scotland where professional development and professional learning are being highlighted through the GTCS revision of the professional standards and introduction of professional update. It also reflects the emphasis Curriculum for Excellence has placed on teachers as curriculum developers. In this post I will provide a summary of this paper.

teachers teachingThe Research

My research followed five primary teachers with a postgraduate qualification in primary physical education (Pg. Cert.) over an academic year. I used semi-structured interviews, unstructured interviews (planning conversations) and observations as my research methods. The aim of the research was to find out how the teachers had responded to this professional development and if/how they were applying this learning within their school contexts. What I found from my research was that the Pg. Cert. had a significant effect on both their teaching approaches and the primary physical education curriculum they were planning and delivering. These teachers were innovators and change agents for primary physical education within their school contexts. To understand why and how the teachers were able to lead change I used the work of Michael Fullan. He suggests that to engage in change agentry teachers require informed professional judgement and the capacities for change: personal vision; mastery; inquiry and collaboration. Fullan (1993) suggests that the presence of these capacities can support teachers to engage in and lead curriculum change. Analysing the interviews with the teachers and the observations of physical education lessons revealed that these capacities for change were present within the teachers’ work.


In contrast to their prior understanding of physical education, which had centred on activities and their own teaching, the personal vision the teachers developed following on from the Pg. Cert. centred on the children and learning. As they enacted their personal vision the teachers were committed to extending and deepening their physical education knowledge and understanding, what Fullan describes as mastery and inquiry. As the teachers experimented with new ideas in physical education lessons, enacted their personal vision and reflected on their practice they became immersed in a process of continuous learning which was embedded within their everyday work. Through the Pg. Cert. the teachers were encouraged to critically analyse their practice in physical education and were introduced to holistic, social constructivist and more child-centred teaching approaches which promoted learning in and through physical education. Furthermore, rather than prescribing a specific programme to follow, the Pg. Cert. challenged the teachers to develop a physical education curriculum grounded within their individual school contexts. While the teachers sought out opportunities for collaboration with other colleagues this was a constraining factor on their change efforts. The teachers spoke of feeling isolated within their school contexts as they felt many colleagues did not understand their revised conception of physical education and lacked an interest in the subject.


For those charged with developing policy and practice, the findings from this paper indicate how, when afforded professional trust teachers can exercise their agency to take a lead role in shaping the curriculum. The data generated by this study also suggests various factors that may contribute to teacher agency, enabling teachers to view curriculum change as a process they are part of rather than a reform foisted upon them. These include:

  • Long term professional development;
  • Time and space for teachers to become immersed in the change process, reflecting on and then improving their practice through continuous learning; and
  • Genuine opportunities for collaboration and professional dialogue where teachers can develop networks, undertake peer observations and engage in collaborative professional learning.

These factors are reflective of the literature on curriculum change, which highlights the need for teachers to have ownership and an understanding of change as a process.

Teachers as change agents…what do you think?

Nicola Carse, Lecturer in Primary Education, University of Edinburgh

Useful References

Carse, Nicola. 2015. “Primary teachers as physical education curriculum change agents.” European Physical Education Review 21 (3): 309-324. doi: 10.1177/1356336X14567691.

Fullan, M. (1993) Change Forces, London: The Falmer Press.

Thorburn, M., Carse, N., Jess, M., & Atencio, M. (2011). Translating change into improved practice: Analysis of teachers’ attempts to generate a new emerging pedagogy in Scotland. European Physical Education Review, 17(3), 313-324.

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