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Children’s agency and the curriculum

Written By: Dominic Wyse and Yana Manyukhina
3 min read


The curriculum is a vital part of education because it has such an important influence on what learners experience in classrooms during the school day. Research on curriculum aims, knowledge and control have been, and continue to be, central to what are known as curriculum studies. Curriculum studies can be traced to as early as the 19th century; for example, in an early critique of the poor quality of international comparison of curriculum approaches (see Fraser, 1964). More recently, in the 20th century, an influential book that addressed the sociology of education more generally, as well as the curriculum, included contributions by Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu, and was simply titled Knowledge and Control (Young, 1971).

The sociologist Basil Bernstein described curriculum as ‘the principle by which units of time and their contents are brought into special relationship with each other.’ (Bernstein, 1971, p. 48) In other words, the time that children experience in formal education settings is reflected in a timetable of activities that teachers plan. These activities or ‘contents’, as Bernstein terms them, are organised according to a range of principles. A curriculum principle that Bernstein identified was a distinction between ‘framing’ and ‘classification’. If we think about a school curriculum, or a national curriculum, the framing represents the extent to which the learner and the teacher are able to control the selection, organisation and pacing of the knowledge to be taught and learned. So, if the framing is strong then the teacher or educational system has more control. If the framing is weak, the learner has more control. Classification represents the strength of the boundaries between the contents of the curriculum. For example, the organisation of a school curriculum in traditional school subjects reflects a strong classification, whereas the use of multi-disciplinary themes represents weaker classification in Bernstein’s terms.

Curriculum studies is a field rich with research and scholarship internationally, as the 90+ authors and 62 chapters of The SAGE Handbook of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment (Wyse, Hayward and Pandya, 2016) reveal. This two-volume set includes reflections on aims, knowledge and control – topics that were also explored in a special issue of the BERA Curriculum Journal which included Michael Young (someone who has advocated ‘powerful knowledge’) as a respondent to the papers (Wyse, Hayward, Higgins and Livingston, 2014).

Research studies have revealed that agency is important. If learners believe they are capable of exercising agency, this facilitates independent learning (Brown, 2009). Teachers can positively or negatively influence a sense of agency through their attitudes to learners, including the ethos they create in the classroom (Mercer, 2011). The consequences of lack of agency (in the context of a high stakes testing culture that links assessment to curriculum) were memorably captured by a pupil who participated in a study on the links between students’ understandings of themselves and learners and their perception of tests: ‘I’m frightened I’ll do the SATs [statutory tests] and I’ll be a nothing’ (Reay and William, 1999, p. 345). The opposite from this is when students improve academically when given the power to co-construct curricula alongside their teachers (Ruddock and Flutter, 2000).

The most recent curriculum studies research has included attention to agency, for example, in relation to the extent to which teachers are able to exercise control over the curriculum, particularly in comparison with national curriculum requirements (e.g. Sinnema, 2016). A new line of research on agency that we are leading in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy is about young children’s agency in relation to curricula at national and local levels. We define agency as children’s capacity to act independently and to make choices over matters important to them. Therefore, learner independence is inextricably linked with agency.

Our HHCP research differs from much previous research in the curriculum studies field because of its focus on the youngest children and the consequences for their agency in relation to knowledge and control. For example, some of our recent research has shown the extent to which national curriculum texts in countries ranked highly in international comparative tests emphasise learner agency (or not). Notable was Hong Kong’s strong emphasis on learners’ agency in its curriculum guide (see Manyukhina and Wyse, 2019; and Wyse and Manyukhina, 2019).

One of the implications of our research is that children’s agency can be prioritised at the same time as ensuring progress in learning as assessed in traditional ways such as the pupil assessments used in some forms of international comparisons.

Take-away points:

  • If you changed your normal practice to allow more agency for the children you teach, what effects on their development would you see?
  • What are the implications for children’s learning in relation to national curricula that are heavily knowledge-based?
  • What are the possibilities and constraints for you to influence change in relation to the national curriculum in your country?
  • Brown J (2009) Self-regulatory strategies and agency in self-instructed language learning: A situated view. The Modern Language Journal 93(4): 570-583.
  • Bernstein B (1971) On the Classification and Framing of Educational Knowledge. In: M Young (Ed) Knowledge and Control: New Directions for the Sociology of Education (pp. 47-69). London: Collier MacMillan Ltd.
  • Fraser S (1964) Julien's Plan for Comparative Education 1816-1817. Teachers College, Columbia University: Bureau of Publications.
  • Manyukhina Y and Wyse D (2019) Learner agency and the curriculum: a critical realist perspective. The Curriculum Journal 30(3): 223-243.
  • Mercer S (2011) Understanding learner agency as a complex dynamic system. System 39(4): 427-436.
  • Reay D and Wiliam D (1999) 'I'll be a nothing': structure, agency and the construction of identity through assessment. British educational research journal 25(3): 343-354.
  • Rudduck J and Flutter J (2000) Pupil Participation and Pupil Perspective: 'carving a new order of experience'. Cambridge Journal of Education 30(1): 75-89.
  • Sinnema C (2016) The Ebb and Flow of Curricular Autonomy: Balance Between Local Freedom and National Prescription in Curricula. In D Wyse, L Hayward and J Pandya (Ed) The SAGE Handbook of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment. London: SAGE.
  • Wyse D, Hayward L, Higgins S et al. (2014) Editorial: Creating curricula: aims, knowledge, and control, a special edition of the Curriculum Journal. The Curriculum Journal 25(1): 2-6.
  • Wyse D, Hayward L and Pandya J (Ed) (2016) The SAGE Handbook of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment. London: SAGE.
  • Wyse D and Manyukhina Y (2019) What next for curriculum? BERA Blog. Available at: (accessed 17 August 2020).
  • Young M (Ed) (1971) Knowledge and Control: New Directions for the Sociology of education. London: Collier MacMillan.
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