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Adaptive agency: Some surviving and some thriving in the ‘interesting times' of English teaching

Andrew Cecil Goodwyn (School of Education and English Language, University of Bedfordshire, Faculty of Education and Sport, Bedford, UK)

English Teaching: Practice & Critique

ISSN: 1175-8708

Article publication date: 29 August 2019

Issue publication date: 18 September 2019




This paper aims to introduce the concept of adaptive agency and illustrate its emergence in the field of English teaching in a number of countries using England over the past 30 years as a case study. It examines how the exceptional flexibility of English as school subject has brought many external impositions whilst its teachers have evolved remarkable adaptivity.


It proposes several models of agency and their different modes, focussing finally on adaptive agency as a model that has emerged over a 30-year period. It considers aspects of this development across a number of countries, mostly English speaking ones, but its chief case is that of England. It is principally a theoretical paper drawing on Phenomenology, Critical Realism and later modernist interpretations of Darwinian Theory, but it is grounded by drawing on two recent empirical projects to illustrate English teachers’ current agency. It offers a fresh overview of how agency and accountability have interacted within a matrix of official policy and constraint.


Adaptive agency has become a necessary aspect of teacher expertise. Such a mode of working creates great emotional strains and tensions, leading to many teachers leaving the profession. However, many English teachers whilst feeling controlled in the matrix of power and the panopticon of surveillance, remain resilient and positive about the future of the subject.

Research limitations/implications

This is to some extent a personal and reflexive account of a lived history, supported by research and other evidence.

Practical implications

Adaptive agency enables teachers to conceptualise the frustrations of the role but to celebrate how they expertly use their agency where they can. It makes their work and struggle more comprehensible. In providing the concept of harmonious practice, it offers the hope of a return to more satisfying professional lives.


This paper offers an original concept, adaptive agency, and discusses other valuable conceptualisations of agency and accountability. It combines a unique individual perspective with a fresh overview of the past three decades as experienced by English teachers in England.



Goodwyn, A.C. (2019), "Adaptive agency: Some surviving and some thriving in the ‘interesting times' of English teaching", English Teaching: Practice & Critique, Vol. 18 No. 2, pp. 153-169.



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