Attempting to Find a Sociocultural Perspective on Agency


IB education is rooted in sociocultural theory and practice.  In the simplest terms this position holds that knowledge is constructed first and primarily through social interaction and is then internalised by the individual. The vehicle through which knowledge is constructed is discourse, or our varied interactions with others (Mercer 2000).  This discourse happens in  the narrative of culture and is mediated through the conversations we have, the songs we sing, the books we read, the choice of toys we set out for a child’s play.  The list could go on. 

When reading a book to a child we may transfer knowledge such as how to read the word the. Sociocultural theory and practice would ask, what else is being taught.  What about the roles of different individuals or the relationships between individuals? Are these being modeled and established through the text?  These everyday seemingly benign acts are acts in a dialectic exchanging and establishing cultural patterns and rules.  The child then internalises these patterns and rules and they become habit and character.  

In a multicultural learning context, this raises an interesting question of what values, traditions, patterns and rules are being carried by the choice of a song, a book, a toy.  This is where the cultural in sociocultural comes into importance.  The importance of this to the IB and the PYP can be seen in the document entitled The Learner, (The International Baccalaureate Organization, 2018) which states ‘teachers create learning environments and experiences that are both adaptable and appropriate to young students, and they understand the important influence of their sociocultural contexts.’  

How often do we think of a toy or a choice of a classroom or bedtime story as an act of cultural transmission?  Probably very seldom as they are afterall everyday acts aimed at achieving simple goals.  Perhaps we don’t think of it because cultural values can be hidden or camouflaged in our actions.  If we can not see them, how can we question them?  We have all heard the statistic that upto 90% of all communication is non-verbal.  Similarly, the sociocultural theory holds that a large percentage of what is taught is implicit and subtle.

A few years ago, while teaching a P4 class, I began to get a sense that different students in my class were responding to the read-alouds I was choosing in different ways. Some students were uncomfortable with some of the texts I read, albeit subtly so, and they and I did not know why.  I wondered if there was something deeper going on than just everyday preferences, the likes and the dislike of different students. A sentiment by Bronwyn Davies came to mind.

Children’s stories are far from being transparent and innocent; they are powerful vehicles in the government of children: the mode of shaping them into particular kinds of governable subjects appropriate to their times.  This analysis has important implications for teachers working with children learning to read. (Davies, 2005)

In response to my queries, I applied tools of linguistic analyses from Systematic Functional Linguistics (SFL) to an American book I had read in class titled The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein and an Indian book I had read titled All About Nothing by Nina Sabnani.  The sample below is a short section of my analyses and is meant to raise more questions than it answers.  It is meant to provide an example of how the benign everyday words we choose can implicitly carry deep cultural values. The analysis is called a transitivity analysis identifying ‘who does what, to whom, where, when and how’ (Coffin et. al., 2009) and who or what holds agency. 

In The First Drawing, (Gerstein, 2013) the protagonist, a young child living in a cave thirty thousand years ago, has become frustrated that no one else can see the images in the shadows and jumps up and traces them out on the cave wall with a burnt stick. In that act, it is said, the child invented the first drawing.  In the following, the red indicates the who or what that is doing the action.










And you look at what you have done.

You have created the world’s first drawing.


Here, the child is the agent responsible for the act of invention.


In the Indian text, All About Nothing, (Sabnani, 2000) the main character Muchu, has awoken from a dream.  He doodles circles on his page.  It is his daughter who asks “Oh, is this a new number, Bapu?”  At this point he begins to realise an invention has occurred.  Again, red indicates the who or what that is doing the action and blue indicates who or what the action is being done to.  What do you notice?











It was saying something

but he couldn’t hear…

Muchu’s head buzzed furiously.

It felt as if it would burst.

 It almost did.

There was one loud bang inside.

 And then, oh, it was all so clear.


Similarly, in the introduction to the same story it says,


So Zero stayed hidden.  It waited impatiently to pop out of someone’s head.


In the American text the protagonist is the agent.  In the Indian text the protagonist is not exactly the agent responsible for the invention.  The agent is referred to vaguely as ‘something’ and then ‘his brain’ though not quite Muchu himself.  He is the agent only when he is trying to hear what his brain is saying.  In the introduction, Zero itself is explicitly the agent responsible for the act of invention.

So what’s the big deal?  In the American text, the child fights against adults who can not see the images.  Through dogged determination, prevails and in the end the naysayers come to see that the child is correct.  The child/protagonist is the agent that does not bow to the naysayers.

In the Indian text the protagonist is not fighting the naysayers.  If anything, he himself is the naysayer.  He is awaking from a blissful dream and chanting a mantra and so is attuned with nature and in a state of harmony.  It is in this state that he is the conduit for the invention to come through.

These are two very different ways of representing knowledge and learning.  As is my cultural practise, when a student challenges a statement I make I get excited, now we are learning.  The child is being an agent in their own learning, much as the child in The First Drawing.  I engage in a respectful dialectic with the child or the class as a whole and we celebrate the new learning.  But what if the student is from a culture more in line with that reflected in All About Nothing?  Manchu asserts agency by tuning himself to nature, listening and being a conduit for knowledge to manifest.  When a student sits listening without externally engaging, I may think, from my cultural perspective, that they are not taking agency.  Is it that, in their cultural perspective, agency takes a very different form.

Of course, in this small sample one needs to be very careful about generalising the examples to broader cultural patterns, but the examples do raise questions.  Would we raise more questions if we looked at other samples of the text?  I think the answer is yes and hints at the ubiquity to which cultural messages and values permeate childerens’ texts.  What if a teacher filled a classroom and read aloud texts from one cultural context?  What about toys?  Would the provocations in the classroom  draw on and connect back to the child’s own experiences and to the world around them?  

The Enhance PYP documents, released in 2018, begin with a discussion on student agency. In defining agency, The Learner document states, 

‘PYP students with agency use their own initiative and will, and take responsibility and ownership of their learning. They direct their learning with a strong sense of identity and self-belief, and in conjunction with others, thereby building a sense of community and awareness of the opinions, values and needs of others.’ (The International Baccalaureate Organization, 2018)

Referring to the examples above of the two potential narratives on agency, if a student learns ‘with a strong sense of identity and self-belief’ should we not accept a cultural multiplicity of agencies?  Do the words ‘awareness of the opinions, values and needs of others’ not point to the essential importance of seeking out and striving to understand the cultural multiplicities of agency?  I would suggest we need to start by knowing that we don’t know. Then we can be open to seeing and learning.

One answer to the question posed above,  what if a teacher filled a classroom and read aloud texts from one cultural context? is, why is the teacher making those choices?  Of course the teacher has a role to make certain choices as an adult entrusted with guiding the students, but the choice to share choice can provide the students’ voice and as a consequence allow a path for a diversity of implicit, fundamental cultural values and practices to enter the learning environments.  This is embracing sociocultural theory and practice.  This lays bare the fact that the teacher is as much the student and that the teacher also does not know.

Further, if the current lockdown has taught us anything, it is that teaching is a partnership, not just a partnership between the students and the teachers but also a partnership with the parents.  Are the parents not making choices in the classroom?  They are after all the cultural teachers for their children. While the choices may be very implicit, they are important and the parents will make the right choices.


Coffin, C. Donohue, J., North, Sarah. (2009) Exploring English Grammar: From Formal to Functional, Abington, Routledge.

Gerstein, M. (2013) The First Drawing, New York, Little Brown and Company.

The International Baccalaureate Organization (2018) The Learner, Cardiff, The International Baccalaureate Organization.

Mercer, N., (2000) Words and Minds: How We use Language to Think Together, London, Routledge.

Sabnani, N. (2000) All About Nothing, Chennai, Tulika.