Towards a research program on agency through the capability approach


  • Daniele Morselli
  • Piergiuseppe Ellerani



Teacher training; Capability approach; Agency; Vygotsky; Qualitative inquiry.


The concept of agency is increasingly mentioned in policy documents and its use in education according to a capability approach is particularly recent. This paper sets to review the studies on the matter to identify theories, instruments on how to promote agency in teachers according to a capability approach. It presents three perspectives on agency in professional contexts, these are the sociocultural studies originated from Vygotsky, the identity and life-course notions, and the social realist theory. In the conclusions the paper integrates the ecological model with the social realist theory, and eventually hypothesizes two research streams to study agency according to the capability approach. These concern, on the one hand, the development of forms of agency for active participation and positive social change, while the other pertains to the identification of the specific factors that in each context allow for its substantial achievement


Alkire, S. (2005). Subjective quantitative studies of human agency. Social Indicators

Research, 74(1): 217-260.

Archer, M.S. (2000). Being Human: The Problem of Agency. Cambridge University.

ASviS (2019). L’Italia e gli obiettivi di sviluppo sostenibile. Rapporto 2019.

Roma: Agenzia per lo Sviluppo Sostenibile.

Benozzo, A. & Piccardo, C. (1996). Etnografia organizzativa. Una proposta

di metodo per l’analisi delle organizzazioni come “culture”. Milano: Raffaello


Biesta, G. & Tedder, M. (2007). Agency and learning in the lifecourse: Towards

an ecological perspective. Studies in the Education of Adults, 39(2):


Biesta, G., Priestley, M. & Robinson, S. (2015). The role of beliefs in teacher

agency. Teachers and Teaching, 21(6): 624-640.

Biggeri, M. & Santi, M. (2012). The missing dimensions of children’s wellbeing

and well-becoming in education systems: capabilities and philosophy

for children, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 13(3):


Boni, A. & Walker, M. (2013). Human Development and Capabilities: Reimagining

the university of the twenty-first century. New York: Routledge.

Burchardt, T. (2009). Agency Goals, Adaptation and Capability Sets. Journal

of Human Development and Capabilities, 10(1): 3-19.

Clandinin, D.J. & Huber, J. (2010). Narrative Inquiry (Eds: Penelope Peterson,

Eva Baker, Barry McGaw). International Encyclopedia of Education,

Elsevier, 436-441.

Cleaver, F. (2007). Understanding Agency in Collective Action. Journal of

Human Development, 8, 2: 223-244.

Coleman, P. T., Deutsch, M. & Marcus, E. C. (Eds.). (2014). The handbook

of conflict resolution: Theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Czarniawska, B. (2000). Narrare l’organizzazione. Torino: Edizioni di Comunità.

Demopolis (2019). Gli italiani e la povertà educativa, in https://www.conibambini.


sentazione_Demopolis_Con_i_Bambini-002.pdf (verificato 14 maggio


Denzin, N. K. & Lincoln, Y. S. (2018). The Sage handbook of qualitative research

(Vol. 5). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Dozza, L. & Ulivieri, S. (2016). L’educazione permanente a partire dalle prime

età della vita. Milano: Franco Angeli.

Engeström, Y. (2011). From design experiments to formative interventions.

Theory & Psychology, 21(5): 598-628.

Engeström, Y. (2015). Learning by expanding. Cambridge University.

Engeström, Y., & Sannino, A. (2010). Studies of expansive learning: Foundations,

findings and future challenges. Educational research review, 5(1):


Eteläpelto, A., Vähäsantanen, K., Hökkä, P., & Paloniemi, S. (2013). What

is agency? Conceptualizing professional agency at work. Educational Research

Review, 10: 45-65.

European Union (2020). Supporting Key Competence Development: Learning approaches and environments in school education. Directorate-General

for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture 2020 Education and Training.

Bruxelles, UE.

Fedeli, M., Grion, V. & Frison, D. (eds.) (2016). Coinvolgere per apprendere.

Metodi e tecniche partecipative per la formazione. Lecce-Brescia: Pensa MultiMedia

Galliani, L., & De Rossi, M. (eds.) (2014). Videoricerca e documentazione

narrativa nella ricerca pedagogica. Lecce-Brescia: Pensa MultiMedia.

Goldman, R, Pea, R., Barron, B. & Derry, J.S. (eds.). (2009). Videoricerca

nei contesti di apprendimento. Teoria e metodi. Milano: Raffaello Cortina.

Haapasaari, A., Engeström, Y., & Kerosuo, H. (2014). The emergence of learners’

transformative agency in a Change Laboratory intervention. Journal

of Education and Work, 29(2): 232-262.

Lackéus, M., Lundqvist, M., Williams Middleton, K., & Inden, J. (2020).

The entrepreneurial employee in the public and private sector - what, why,

how. Luxemburg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Lanzara, G.F. (1993). Capacità negativa. Il Mulino: Bologna.

Leont’ev, A. N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality. Englewood

Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lindvall, J., & Ryve, A. (2019). Coherence and the positioning of teachers

in professional development programs. A systematic review. Educational

Research Review, 27: 140-154.

Margiotta, U. (2019). La costruzione sociale dell’insegnante. Capability Approach

e contesto professionale. In G. Alessandrini (ed.), Sostenibilità e

Capability Approach (pp. 45-55). Milano: Franco Angeli.

Morselli, D. (2019a). The Change Laboratory for teacher training in entrepreneurship

education. A new Skills Agenda for Europe. Cham: Springer.

Morselli, D. (2019b). Testing the Vygotskian model of double stimulation

in a formative intervention. The contribution of educational research.

Formazione & Insegnamento, 17(1): 39-58.

Mortari, L. (2007). Cultura della ricerca e pedagogia. Prospettive epistemologiche.

Roma: Carocci.

OECD - PIAAC (2019). Skills Matter. Additional results from survey of adult

skills. Paris: Oecd Publications.

ONU (2015). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.

Retrieved from

Otto, U-H. & Ziegler, H (2006). Capabilities and Education, Social Work &

Society, 4(2): 269-287.

Priestley, M., Biesta, G.J.J. & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher agency: what is

it and why does it matter? In R. Kneyber & J. Evers (eds.), Flip the System:

Changing Education from the Bottom Up (pp. 134-148). Abingdon: Routledge.

Ravitch, S. M., & Carl, N. M. (2019). Qualitative research: Bridging the conceptual,

theoretical, and methodological. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rodriguez, G. M. (2013). Power and agency in education: Exploring the pedagogical dimensions of funds of knowledge. Review of Research in Education,

(1): 87-120.

Sannino, A. (2015). The principle of double stimulation: A path to volitional

action. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 6: 1-15.

Sannino, A., & Sutter, B. (2011). Cultural-historical activity theory and interventionist

methodology: Classical legacy and contemporary developments.

Theory & Psychology, 21(5): 557-570.

Sannino, A., Engeström, Y., & Lemos, M. (2016). Formative interventions

for expansive learning and transformative agency. Journal of the Learning

Sciences, 25(4): 599-633.

Santi, M. (2019). Problem solving collaborativo e Philosophy for Children.

Scuola Democratica. Learning for Democracy, I: 83-102.

Saroijni Hart, C. (2014). The Capability Approach in the educational research.

In C. Saroijni Hart, M. Biggeri, B. Babic (eds.), Agency and participation

in childhood and youth (pp. 17-44). London: Bloomsbury


Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. Oxford University.

Sen, A. (2010). La Disuguaglianza. Bologna: Il Mulino.

Stewart, F. (2008). Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict: Understanding Group

Violence in Multiethnic Societies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sumner, L. (2006). Utility and capability. Utilitas, 18(1): 1-19.

Tappan, M. (1998). Toward a Dialogic Conception of Human Development.

Narrative Inquiry, 8(2): 391-396.

ul-Haq, M. (1999). Reflections on human development (2nd ed). Delhi: Oxford

University Press.

Varpanen, J. (2019). What is children’s agency? A review of conceptualizations

used in early childhood education research. Educational Research Review,

: 1-10.

Virkkunen, J. (2006). Dilemmas in building shared transformative agency.

Activités, 3: 44-66.

Virkkunen, J., & Newnham, D. S. (2013). The Change Laboratory. A tool for

collaborative development of work and education. Rotterdam: Sense (trad.

it. Il Change Laboratory. Uno strumento per lo sviluppo collaborativo nelle

organizzazioni lavorative e in ambito educativo, Armando, Roma, 2019).

Vygotskij, L. S. (1974). Storia dello sviluppo delle funzioni psichiche superiori.

Firenze: Giunti Barbera.

Walker, M. (2006). Towards a capability based theory of social justice for

education policy making. Journal of Education Policy, 21(2): 163-185.



How to Cite

Morselli, D., & Ellerani, P. (2020). Towards a research program on agency through the capability approach. ITALIAN JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, (24), 84–101.