Investigating Educational Policy Through Ethnography: Volume 8

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Table of contents

(15 chapters)

Ethnography has become one of the major methods of researching educational settings. Its key strength is its emphasis on understanding the perceptions and cultures of the people and organisations studied. Through prolonged involvement with those who are being studied, the ethnographic researcher is able gradually to enter their world and gain an understanding of their lives.

The present chapter is about social and cultural reproduction in education. However, it is not just concerned to illustrate again how classroom events reflect the inertia of dominant State ideologies. Rather, with a focus on classroom work and student and teacher talk, I will try to uncover some of the ways in which reproduction can be disrupted and disturbed as a basis for radical pedagogy (see also e.g. Giroux, 1983; Taylor, 2000). This commitment is in line with Troyna’s (1994) view of critical social research as research that doesn’t just describe what is going on, but also tries in some way to suggest what can be done to change things. In this way the chapter can hopefully offer something toward the rethinking of education practices. One hundred and twenty hours of participant observation and 20 hours of structured observation in mathematics lessons in three schools have been drawn on. Eighty and 10 of these (respectively) were in one school. In addition 30 conversational interviews with students and 10 with maths teachers have been made. All of these activities were part of a broader ethnographic study that involved half-time fieldwork in these schools from August 1997 to March 1999.

Meadway School for Girls (not its real name) is a London comprehensive school for girls aged 11–16. I worked there for just under four years as a part-time learning support teacher, with students who had been identified as having ‘special educational needs’. Some of these students also participated in my ethnographic research into the micro/politics of ‘special educational needs’ (Benjamin, 2002). Meadway is, in current terms, a ‘successful school’: relatively high proportions of its students attain examination results at or above normative levels, and it has a low rate of student exclusions. Every year, when the local league tables of schools’ examination results are published, Meadway vies with another local girls’ comprehensive school for top place. This contest for league table precedence is played out on the battleground of percentages of sixteen-year-old leavers achieving at least five passes at grades A to C in the externally-administered General Certificate of Education (GCSE) examinations. These examinations, traditionally regarded as school leaving examinations, measure individuals’ performance on a scale from A (the top grade) to G (the lowest grade), though employers, further education institutions and the media commonly recognise only grades from A to C as passes. Schools’ overall results are collated, and local ‘league tables’ based on the percentages of students scoring five or more A to C grades are compiled and published. In the academic year ending in 2001, just over sixty percent of Meadway’s leavers attained this ‘benchmark’ of externally-recognised success: the school’s best ever score. Such a figure is above the national average, and is well ahead of the National Learning Target of 50% of sixteen-year-olds achieving such a standard by 2002 (DfEE, 1999). In the statutory documentation of school performance, Meadway itself scores an ‘A’ grade when compared with ‘other similar schools nationally’: that is, comprehensive girls’ schools in which over thirty percent of students are eligible for free school meals.

This chapter reports research conducted in Melbourne, Australia that is focused on the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in schools and families. The emphasis is on the relationship between technology, learning, culture and (dis)advantage. It is generally agreed that ICTs are associated with major social, cultural, pedagogical and lifestyle changes, although the nature of those changes is subject to conflicting norms and interpretations. In this chapter we adopt a critical, multi-disciplined, relational perspective in order to examine the influence of ICTs, in schools and homes, on a sample of students and their families.

The horizons ring me like faggots Tilted and disparate, and always unstable. Touched by a match, they might warm me, And their fine lines singe The air to orange (Plath, 1977).I first read Sylvia Plath’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ almost twenty years ago, when I taught it as part of a poetry anthology. I am a keen walker, and I have often repeated these lines to myself when out walking, to encourage myself over particularly difficult terrain. At times, I have wondered why Sylvia Plath, an American, had written a poem entitled ‘Wuthering Heights’. It was only this year, when I read Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home (Plath, 1999) and Elaine Feinstein’s biography (Feinstein, 2001) of Plath’s husband Ted Hughes, that I realized that Ted Hughes’ family lived near Wuthering Heights. In short, to enrich my understanding of the poem, I needed biographical detail.

Coaches have long been recognized as key contributors to youth sport (DCMS, 2000; Smoll & Smith, 1980). Coaches are singled out in ‘A Sporting Future for All’ (DCMS, 2000) as playing a central role in the development of sport at every level and improving the accessibility of coach education and the quality and quantity of coaches in all sports is deemed important. In the last decade in Britain, the demand for coaches has increased because organized sport experiences have become commonplace for children as young as six years of age (English Sports Council, 1997).

The rise of a performativity discourse in education in England emanates from the importation of an economic ‘market’ structure for schools in order to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the outputs of learning and to increase the opportunity of choice for the ‘consumers’ of education (Ball, 1998). Institutions focus their policies and practice, on improving performance and survival to maintain and develop their market share. This is due to the competitive nature of a market structure. The performativity criterion of efficiency and effectiveness is an optimisation of the relationship between input and output (Lyotard, 1979). In the case of education this means both ensuring a favourable qualitative award from a national inspection service and raising the achievement levels of pupils in national tests to ensure a high position in published tables of educational performance. High ratings on these two performativity indicators improve a school’s attraction to parents and students in the educational market place. This results in improved resources, increasing the opportunity for the school to be more selective about the students it accepts and the quality of the teachers it employs.

This chapter examines the ways in which literacy is used in the daily life in one rural village community in Simbu in the Papua New Guinea highlands.1 An ethnographic perspective enables us to see how literacy is incorporated into already existing concepts and conventions regarding aspects of village cultural and social life. The material presented here relates to how the uses of reading and writing are strongly associated with local notions of self-promotion, economic relations and decoration. At the same time, I will show that the panoply of literacy uses in these contexts are overlaid and to a large extent governed by literacy’s associations with modernity. The chapter first provides a general overview of the kinds of reading practices that occur in the village setting, noting that many of these practices do not correspond to the ways in which agencies responsible for imparting literacy, particularly the local school, intend. The ensuing sections demonstrate how uses of writing in the village are shaped by local concepts of prestige, chance and reciprocity. These are not intended to be seen as discrete and mutually exclusive but rather as general, albeit overlapping, social phenomena which help illuminate the processes by which literacy has been added to the communicative repertoire.

David Buckingham (1998, 2000) has recently argued against rigid dichotomies in the contemporary study of commercial artefacts and childhood culture. On the one hand, children are seen as easy victims of commercial exploitation from big companies, and on the other, they are seen as highly competent agents, immune to any outside influence. Both views feature different types of romanticism. The view of children as victims is partly created around Victorian ideas of childhood innocence, whereas the romantic view of the active child sees children as open, creative, and competent learners, who effortlessly acquire new literacies, including media literacies. Such a view is partly implicitly inscribed into the Swedish School Curriculum (1998) (Läroplan för det obligatoriska skolväsendet, förskoleklassen och fritidshemmet. Lpo 94. [Curriculum for the compulsory school, the pre-school class and the after-school centre. Lpo 94]). In his criticism of the passive-active dichotomy, Buckingham argues in favour of studies of actual practices, that is, what young people actually do with artefacts and media, instead of empty speculations, far away from children’s play arenas. Buckingham’s own studies are mainly based on group interviews with children in the U.K., where he has analysed what was said on a micro level. A fundamental principle in his research is that children’s agency can be seen in their language use. Also, he advocates that we contextualize children’s activities by analysing the social processes of which they form a part. One way of doing this is to relate a study of children’s everyday interactions to media debates and to changes in our views of children as social agents (Buckingham, 1994).

Contemporary primary school populations in the Netherlands represent a wealth of languages, ethnicities, and cultures. In 1999, 14.7% of the total population of 1.54 million pupils were registered as minority pupils (Statistics Netherlands, 2001). Most of these are of Turkish (23.7%) and Moroccan (20.4%) origin, speaking Turkish, Arabic, and/or Berber at home apart from or instead of Dutch (Extra et al., 2001). As in many other Western European countries, a significant difference can be observed between the school achievements of pupils belonging to a cultural-linguistic minority and the pupils belonging to the majority group (Walraven & Broekhof, 1998). Turkish and Moroccan pupils, for instance, lag behind a bit less than half a learning year in arithmetic and more than two learning years in Dutch language proficiency by the end of primary school (Tesser & Iedema, 2001). Besides sociolinguistic background, socio-economic, cultural, and school factors account for the underachievement of language minority pupils.

In the field of second language acquisition, much attention has been paid to which variables (such as age, race, social class, ethnicity or gender) have influence on language learning, or to how such variables may affect language acquisition. The intent of this study was to examine gender at an intersection with ethnicity by exploring it within an ESL experience. Ethnography as method helped such an exploration. The past twenty-five years or so have presented educators with a wealth of research on what happens to girls in schools, though female ESL students may not be benefiting from this same research (Cochran, 1996; Sunderland, 1994, 1995, 1998; Vandrick, 1999a, b; Willett, 1996; Yepez, 1994). As a result, there is a compelling need to bring feminist pedagogical research to ESL research. In this ethnography the amount of talk in an ESL classroom was measured and discussed, settling largely on a lack of linguistic space of girls in this language learning context. The concept of ‘linguistic space’ was first used by Mahony (1985) when referring to conversational participation in a British classroom. This study borrows her use of the term as a way to explore the language production in a Canadian ESL classroom.

Navigating the social fields of identity on the playground, in the classroom and in the community is a complex and intricate set of networks, each of which may simultaneously support or restrict certain individuals. For students in an American English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) reception class, and an ESOL pull-out program, these navigations are perhaps the most important and far reaching negotiations they enter into. Content-based study, knowledge of English, and cultural competency (all of these very important skills and understandings) pale in comparison to the social identity survival games played out by students and staff in the school yard. Over the course of 15 months in an American elementary school, the conflicts between non-discriminatory policy and discriminatory practice were examined.

Understanding the concepts of policy and policy-making is far from straightforward. There has now been considerable empirical and theoretical work on the nature of policy development and implementation, and it is abundantly clear that the whole process is far more complex, dynamic, and interactive than any of the traditional linear or staged models suggest. There have been many attempts to describe and analyses this complexity, and the models produced have frequently been highly contested. However, it is evident that policy is not made ‘once and for all’ by people called ‘policy-makers’. Any attempt to make change within the educational system is the result of compromise and circumstance and, even where the change is incorporated in law, the nature of that change that results is often far from clear. This ambiguity and lack of clarity is not necessarily due to poor drafting of the law, but is usually the result of the constraints within which most legislation comes to be agreed.

Lawrence Angus is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne. Much of his work has been conducted in relation to educational policy and institutional restructuring, which he connects with issues of social formation, culture and equity. Angus’s current interest is in the part played by schools in the construction and legitimation of various forms of culture and knowledge associated with the use of new technologies, and the implications of these for educational practice, inclusion/exclusion and (dis)advantage. Angus has a strong research and publication record in socio-cultural analysis of processes of schooling, and a record of strong policy work including participation in government advisory committees. His analyses of educational processes and practices and what these mean for the conceptualisation of educational policy and educational reform have been especially influential. His most recent book, with Terri Seddon, is Reshaping Australian education: Beyond nostalgia (Australian Council for Educational Research, 2000). He has extensive experience of qualitative research and has published internationally on methodological debates and innovations in critical ethnography.Karin Aronsson is a professor at the Department of Child Studies, Linkööping University. Much of her research concerns multiparty conversations in institutional settings, e.g. family therapy talk, pediatric interviews, and classroom conversations. Other investigations concern codeswitching in bilingual children’s play, and language shift phenomena in relation to sibling caretaking. Several of her studies map the social choreography of talk-in-interaction along specific continua; e.g. formality-informality and alignment-disalignment. A series of recent studies concern classrooms dialogues as arenas for informal learning.Dennis Beach is a senior research fellow and associate Professor at the Department of Education Gööteborg University, Sweden. His main responsibilities are for the development of ethnographic research methods at the department, the supervision of Ph.D. research and teaching within the sociology of education. Together with Marie Carlson from the Department of Sociology at Göötborg University, Beach is currently leading a recently funded Research Council project on the restructuring of adult education and the collective renewal of Swedish For Immigrants Education (SFI). His previous research projects have been in the restructuring of upper-secondary education and of various programmes within university-based vocational education.Shereen Benjamin has worked as a class teacher of young children in primary and special schools, and as a learning support teacher in the secondary school in which her doctoral research was based. Her Ph.D. was completed at the London University Institute of Education, with the support of an Economic and Social Research Council studentship. She is currently lecturing in the Inclusive and Special Education division of the University of Birmingham. She is interested in the intersection of gender/sexuality, social class and ‘special educational needs’, and is researching inclusive school cultures in collaboration with practising teachers and with colleagues from The Open University and Leeds Metropolitan University.Jeff Bezemer (1976), MA, studied Language and Culture at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. In 1999, he graduated with a specialisation in Dutch as a Second Language. Since 1999, he is affiliated to Babylon, Center for Studies of Multilingualism in the Multicultural Society at Tilburg University. After having been involved in empirical-analytical studies on school achievements of islamic school pupils, and adult lingua-franca-interaction, he is currently engaged in an international-comparative, empirical-interpretative Ph.D. project on multilingualism and education in a multi-ethnic, Dutch primary school.Diann Eley is currently a Research Associate at Loughborough University in the Department of Physical Education, Sport Science and Recreation Management. Her main research interest is the social-psychology of volunteerism and leadership in young people and sport.Laura Dawn Greathouse received her doctorate, from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 2000, for her dissertation dealing with refugee and immigrant students in English for Speakers of Other Languages classrooms. Her research focus remains on inequality and education, especially in linguistic minorities. In her current position as assistant professor of anthropology at California State University, Fullerton, she is responsible for the administration of the credentialing of students with a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology to teach at the elementary or secondary educational levels. She is currently working on social acceptance of Middle Eastern descent students in a post-September, 2001 America.Caroline Hudson’s research interests include basic skills provision for offenders; the relationships between basic skills, offending behaviour and social exclusion; school attendance and truancy; evidence-based policy; the effectiveness of basing police officers in schools; and the literacy demands of the secondary school curriculum. Her doctoral ethnography was of young people’s perceptions of the relationships between their family structure (intact nuclear, reordered nuclear and single-parent) and their experience of family and schooling. Formerly a secondary school English teacher, Caroline has worked as a Research Officer at the University of Oxford, and is currently Basic Skills Development Advisor at the Home Office National Probation Directorate.Bob Jeffrey is a research fellow in the Faculty of Education and Language Studies at The Open University. He was a primary teacher for twenty years before joining The Open University as a project officer on an Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) research project concerned with creative teaching in primary schools directed by Professor Peter Woods. Under the same direction he gained another ESRC research award focusing on the effects of Ofsted inspections on primary teachers. He has continued his research in three areas, creative teaching and learning, primary teacher’s work and research methodology, publishing extensively both individually and with a team within his university faculty. He has also established extensive European connections in the area of creativity and ethnography through the administration of email discussion lists, co-ordinating an ethnography network at the European Conference of Educational Research, submitting European Union research proposals, and organising a Special Interest Group within BERA. He has been invited to give papers at Padua University, Italy and to run methodology workshops in Tallinn, Estonia.Allyson Julé (Ph.D., University of Surrey Roehampton, London, U.K.) currently teaches in the TESL Certificate Program at Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia and at the English Language Institute at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her research interests include gender in ESL; the Punjabi Sikh experience in Canada; ethnography in education; and classroom talk analysis in teacher education.David Kirk is with the Department of Physical Education, Sports Science and Recreation Management at Loughborough University. His research interests include educational reform and curriculum development in physical education, young people in sport, and situated learning in physical education and sport. His most recent book is ‘Schooling Bodies: School Practice and Public Discourse, 1880–1950’ (Leicester University Press, 1998).Eamonn McKeown is a Senior Research Fellow in Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at University College London. His background is in Social Anthropology having completed both his first degree and Ph.D. at Queen’s University, Belfast and he has previously been employed as a Research Fellow and tutor at Queen’s University, Belfast and University College Swansea. He has published on a range of educational research issues (selection in Northern Ireland, male recruits to primary school teaching, gender and science teaching, occupational sex-typing among primary school children) and has conducted extended fieldwork in Papua New Guinea examining the relationship between formal education and local culture and in New York investigating the nature of contemporary Irish-American identity. He is currently completing a book on literacy appropriation in a Papua New Guinean highlands community.Ann MacPhail is currently a lecturer in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, University of Limerick. Her main interests revolve around young people in sport and curriculum development in PE During the past three years Ann has been involved in a number of projects involved with school PE and sport, including model-based teaching and learning in school PE and an ethnography of junior sport participation.Ilana Snyder is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Australia. Her research focuses on changes to literacy, pedagogical and cultural practices associated with the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Four books, Hypertext (Melbourne University Press & New York University Press, 1996), Page to Screen (Allen & Unwin and Routledge, 1997), Teachers and Technoliteracy (Allen & Unwin, 2000), co-authored with Colin Lankshear, and Silicon Literacies (Routledge 2002) explore these changes. In collaboration with Simon Marginson and Tania Lewis, her current research includes a three-year Australian Research Council-funded project examining the use of ICTs in higher education in Australia. The focus is on innovation at the interface between pedagogical and organisational practices. She is also working on the application of Raymond William’s ideas about technology and cultural form to a study of the Internet.Anna Sparrman has a professional background as a museum curator. She received her Ph.D., in 2002, from the Department of Child Studies at Linkööping University, Sweden. The thesis was concerned with images and visuality in children’s culture as well as commercial childhood. Her main research interest is visual culture in everyday life. She now works as a researcher at the Department of Child Studies.Wendy Sutherland-Smith is a research associate at the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne, where she is undertaking doctoral studies in Internet literacy practices of tertiary English as a Second Language (ESL) students. She teaches international students entering tertiary studies, where she focuses on writing processes and issues of intellectual property. In her doctoral work, Sutherland-Smith is particularly interested in Bourdieu’s notions of symbolic violence, cultural capital, habitus and field, and applies these critically in analyses of international students and their interactions with academic culture, print-centred and internet learning styles, and issues of intellectual property. She has published articles in The Reading Teacher and Prospect on her research of international students’ reading practices in paper-text compared to hyper-text environments.Geoffrey Walford is Professor of Education Policy and a Fellow of Green College at the University of Oxford. He was previously Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Education Policy at Aston Business School, Aston University, Birmingham. His recent books include: Affirming the Comprehensive Ideal (Falmer, 1997, edited with Richard Pring), Doing Research about Education (Falmer, 1998, editor) Durkheim and Modern Education (Routledge, 1998, edited with W S F Pickering), Policy and Politics in Education (Ashgate, 2000) and Doing Qualitative Educational Research (Continuum, 2001). His research foci are the relationships between central government policy and local processes of implementation, choice of schools, religiously-based schools and ethnographic research methodology. He recently directed a Spencer Foundation funded comparative project on faith-based schools in England and the Netherlands.

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Studies in Educational Ethnography
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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