A collective sense of purpose: Critical and creative agency

Collective purposeValidity inquiry 1: What big purposes will shape your curriculum and assessment design?

This is not an easy question to answer, as there are multiple purposes for learning in school, and each discipline area will have traditions about what knowledge is valued. Assessment is valid when it is fit for purpose. Therefore an important starting point in designing valid assessment is to have clarity about the purpose. Your experience might be similar to one of the teachers in this project who shared:

It’s happening all the time in my head. I think, when I’m at the movies, when I’m reading a book – wherever I am … I’m often thinking, oh this might actually work in my classroom.

Teachers are creative designers

Teachers draw their personal sense of purpose from a multitude of sources:

  • Curriculum documents are typically framed by statements about the aims and/or rationale for a subject or learning area, and this provides teachers with explicit direction in relation to the intended purpose of learning.
  • A teacher’s prior learning and personal knowledge of historical and philosophical approaches to education is another source that informs an overarching belief about purpose.
  • The specific school context that a teacher works within, as well as the culture of their Department/Faculty, can impact their perspective on purpose.
  • Interactions with students and understanding individual student needs provides new and renewed points of focus for our purpose.

A new syllabus provides new opportunities to talk about big ideas and big purposes.

Biesta (2009) argues that there are three main purposes of education, including achieving qualifications, becoming socialised into social and cultural identities, and the personal impact of becoming more independent, enlightened and emancipated. Learner agency relates to the social and personal purposes of schooling, that can support the achievement of qualifications.

Collective purpose

Agency is understood as the power of individuals to make choices and take action to develop a degree of control over their own lives (Archer, 2003).

Critical and creative agency – what does it look like in practice?

Agency is an aspect of learning engagement that focuses beyond the classroom context to consider how learners will lead their own lives and contribute to a changing world. Agency is assumed in the discussions of 21st century capabilities (QCAA, 2015). Recommendation 18 of the Queensland Review of Senior Assessment and Tertiary Entrance report (Matters & Masters, 2014) indicated that each assessment task should include at least one 21st century skill such as creativity, responding flexibly, or collaboration (p. 75). For students to learn how to develop their agency, teachers need to deliberately design opportunities within their curriculum, pedagogy and assessment for students to have greater:

  • Participation, choice, and influence
  • Recognition of strengths, personal interests and goals,
  • Self assessment and control over the quality of their work
  • Development of an identity of a future professional expert (Jääskelä et al., 2016; Charteris, 2015, Willis, 2010)

In this project, secondary English teachers in two Queensland schools were asked to design assessment that would make the most of the opportunities within the new syllabus to enhance students’ critical and creative agency. You can see how they justified their approaches and also embedded opportunities for agency in their curriculum design for a Year 11 English unit about the play, The Crucible.

School A:  School A unit overview 11 Crucible unit overview and School A Argument for validity

School B: School B The Crucible Unit plan with teacher comments

Critical and creative agency are two dimensions that have real relevance to the discipline of of Senior English. Drawing on the work by Cope and Kalantzis (2009), these ideas were understood in this project as:

  • Critical agency includes exploring causes and effects, develop chains of reasoning and explaining patterns in text, as well as evaluating relationships of power, possible motives behind actions, and their own processes of thinking.
  • Creative agency  involves being able to make a change in the world by applying new ideas or fresh perceptions, in innovative ways. It can involve transferring personal interests, or previous knowledge into a new setting, or new concepts or experiences to their present world.


In developing agency, students draw on past patterns of how they have participated in school, imagined possible futures and practical evaluations of their possibilities for action in the present (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998). Assessment occurs at every moment, as students make ongoing evaluative judgments about whether they understand ideas, how the learning might be relevant to their present and future, and if they have the skills for success. As inquiry 4 explores, planning keeps changing in response to students. Planning for agency is an open-ended, reflexive process.

Collective purposeDiscuss with a colleague:

What might assessment look like when it is designed to enhance student critical and creative agency?

What big purposes and possibilities does the new syllabus provide for your students?


Archer, M. S. (2003). Structure, agency and the internal conversation. Cambridge University Press.

Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability (formerly: Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education), 21(1), 33-46.

Charteris, J. (2015). Learner agency and assessment for learning in a regional New Zealand high school [online]. Australian and International Journal of Rural Education, 25(2), Aug 2015: 2-13.

Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2009). “Multiliteracies”: New literacies, new learning. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 4(3), 164-195. p. 186

Emirbayer, M. & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? American Journal of Sociology. 103, 4 pp. 962-1023

Jääskelä, P., Poikkeus, A., Vasalampi, K., Valleala, U. M., & Rasku-Puttonen, H. (2016). Assessing agency of university students: Validation of the AUS Scale. Studies in Higher Education. DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1130693

Matters, G., & Masters, G. N. (2014). Redesigning the secondary-tertiary interface: Queensland review of senior assessment and tertiary entrance. Extract – Recommendations. ACER.

QCAA, (2015). 21st century skills for senior education: An analysis of educational trends. 

Willis, J. (2010). Assessment for learning as a participative pedagogy. Assessment Matters2, pp. 65-84.

Willis, J. (2015). Making space to learn through informal AfL interactions. In AERA Annual Meeting, 15-21 April 2015, Chicago, Illonios.