In my last post, I wrote about how focusing on the 'achievement gaps' of groups of children - in this case British white working class children, but it could apply to any arbitrary group of children - may lead to teachers (and society in general) adopting a deficit view of these children, thus reproducing negative stereotypes.
I suggested at the end of the post, drawing on inspiration from educators such as Sherri Spelic (@edifiedlistener), Sarah Thomas (@sarahdateechur) and Jenn Binis (@jennBinis), that we might (a) counter-act this narrative by amplifying positive actions of children who are construed as deficient, and (b) address student issues on an individual basis.
Following this post, Bansi Kara (@benniekara) drew my attention to a post she wrote in 2011 about white working class underachievement, which has made me think very carefully. In this post, Bansi says:
...there’s something we should be talking about and we’re just not... I feel decidedly uncomfortable with that notion, simply because the long terms effects of ignoring this problem may be much worse than the twinge of discomfort felt in useful and important discussions, where clear strategies are established for the re-engagement of the white working class.
I have spoken very briefly with Bansi about this; we are trying to arrange a space to talk in more depth (I find that Twitter is no substitute for conversation).
Before that happens, and I may well be getting the wrong sense about what Bansi is saying, I take the post to suggest that we shouldn't ignore achievement gaps, that we should identify and name the categories of students that require additional support, and then put measures in place to provide this support.
Perhaps Bansi is saying that pushing the positive is not enough to address systematic underachievement, or that it is not practical to address students issues on an individual basis? Or perhaps she is just saying that we should use information regarding the commonalities of people to help them? Or perhaps something else.
There is a dilemma with aggregated data analysis. On the one hand, the analysis may suggest that there are groups of students that require additional help. However, on the other hand, by naming and intervening, we re-inscribe (static) deficit categories, viewing issues as problems that can be 'solved'.
My current thinking is that we as educators should consider very carefully the effects of focusing on achievement gaps produced by aggregated data analysis. Although students may face common issues due to formal and less formal groupings and overlapping forms of experience, and in some cases a similar intervention may work for a group of students, I think the negative effects of reinforcing deficit categories (such as stereotyping) may be damaging. And, of course, what might help one student may not help another just because they are in the same (say) socioeconomic group.
For these reasons, I still subscribe to the view that we should focus on positives, and help students on an individual basis.
That does not mean to say that we should ignore the problems that children face due to their position in society - we should try to find out as much as we can about the struggles people face, or have faced. By listening to individual stories we can gain a greater understanding of the difficulties they, and perhaps other children in similar circumstances, have encountered - and be in a better position to offer support. It is for this reason that I would like to give a brief account of my experience.
I must stress that this is my experience; I am telling this story as it may resonate-with, or provide insight into, others' experience, and not because I think it is necessarily typical in any way.
I am currently reading the (1981) book Learning to Labour in which the author Paul Willis records conversations-with and observations-of children and parents from working class families, in an attempt to explain 'why [British] working class kids get working class jobs'. Here is an extract from the book that resonated with me:
The rejection of school work by 'the lads' and the omnipresent feeling that they know better is also paralleled by a massive feeling on the shop floor, and in the working class generally, that practice is more important than theory. As a big handwritten sign, borrowed from the back of a matchbox and put up by one of the workers, announces on one shop floor: 'An ounce of keenness is worth a whole library of certificates'. The shopfloor abounds with apocryphal stories about the idiocy of purely theoretical knowledge. Practical ability always comes first... Whereas in middle class culture knowledge and qualifications are seen as a way of shifting upwards the whole mode of practical alternatives open to an individual, in working class eyes theory is riveted to particular productive practices. If it cannot earn its keep there, it is to be rejected. [My emphasis]
This passage is guilty of reinforcing the image of the (static) category 'working class' as having a (fixed) attribute: the subordination of the theoretical to the practical. With that said, it resonated with important aspects of my personal experience.
Throughout my childhood, my older brother (and to a lesser extent my father) used to tell me that, 'I was clever, but had no common sense.' This statement used to bother me greatly. My brother left school with no qualifications, perhaps always knowing he would work for the family plumbing business. I idolized my brother; I spent much of my childhood trying to emulate him, and did not take my education very seriously.
I think I was desperately trying to seek his approval, to be like him. I was determined to go into the army at 16, and then 18 (he also wanted to go into the army), but my sister 'strongly encouraged' me to study for my A-levels and then go to university. I was the first person in my family to do so - when I told my mum I got a 1st in my degree, she replied: "Is that good?".
So, why did my brother's statement bother me so much? Bourdieu describes common sense as:
Practical sense, social necessity turned into nature, converted into motor schemes and body automatisms, is what causes practices, in and through what makes them obscure to the eyes of their producers, to be sensible, that is, informed by a common sense. It is because agents never know completely what they are doing that what they do has more sense than they know.
What was my brother suggesting in asserting that I had no common sense? That I had no practical sense, that I was not practical; and If Paul Willis' analysis of the working class is to be accepted, we could interpret my brother's comments as suggesting I was not of the working class. In some sense, he was suggesting that I was not like him, or my family, not of-my-background.
Do other working class children feel the same conflict, that to 'be academic' positions them outside of their (family and friends') identity?
I spent my teenage years getting into trouble in and out of school in attempts to assert my status/identity as a member of the working class - to be one of 'the lads' - but I never really belonged to this or any group.
The conflict between my family identity and my own personal (changing) identity has remained with me ever since. I am incredibly proud of my working class roots, and remain uncomfortable at times with my status as a member of the middle class; it is as though I identify as working class, but my life and actions are of the middle class. This may partially explain my propensity for self-destruction.
Us and them
I don't speak to my brother as much as I would like, and am aware we are getting older - this makes me sad every time I think about it.
In a different post, Bansi wrote beautifully about her sadness at not feeling part of her family due to her changing identity:
I have made a life out of rejecting my own culture. It is only now, at this age, that the real impact of this has hit home. My grandfather passed away two weeks ago and I didn’t go the funeral. While I know deep down there were many reasons for this, one reason stands out and points at me. I knew I would find it hard to communicate with people in the language they know and I don’t. I know today that one of the things that is most tragic about this wholesale movement away from my past is the growing gap between me and members of my family – particularly the older generation. I have chosen at some point along the line to deny myself the language that would connect us. In forgetting the words, I have forgotten them. This is something I can now never rectify.
Bansi's (family) history and culture are very different to mine, but this passage resonated with my experience. There is a sense of betrayal of loyalty that I too feel very strongly.
The sense of betrayal comes across very clearly in James Rebanks' autobiography A Shepherd's Life which I read recently, about his life as a farmer and as an Oxford academic. In the book, he describes the influence of his family culture on his education:
My grandmother once scolded me for idleness when she caught me reading in the house. The gist of it was that there couldn't possibly be so little else of value to do on the farm that I could justify reading a book in day-light hours. Books were considered a sign of idleness at best and dangerous at worst. My school successes (increasingly rare as I got older) also seemed to worry my grandfather, like a flashing warning light that he might lose hie heir to another culture...
He was indoctrinated (in his own words) to life on the farm, and did not see the value in school. Despite this, he attended Oxford university, thanks to the positive influence of his girlfriend (and now wife). He describes how he felt on returning to his local community from university:
A lot of my farming friends see me at the [sheep] sales and have no idea that I am now at university. I don't tell them. Others know, and are watching to see if I have lost the plot. One or two folk are not sure what I am anymore. They start to say 'I thought you were...', then realize it is still me and we talk sheep... I had been reclassified as 'clever' and was not entirely comfortable with it...
The theme of conflicting/changing identities is here vividly depicted. There is throughout the book a sense of us and them, of the divide between the working class and everyone else. This has been an ever-present narrative in my experience, the divide between classes, between north and south, between the practical and the theoretical, between us and them.
Do such categorisations help or harm our children? I would suggest they do more harm than good. The re-production of static social groups (in the family, at school, in the media) goes some way towards explaining why class remains so firmly entrenched in our society, and why some working class children might find it difficult to identify with 'being academic'.
But this is just my experience, what I consider 'common sense', and may not be that of others.