Why i’m committing to #AcWriMo and why blogging will be part of it

Education, higher education, PhD

I’d always fancied taking part in NaNoWriMo for the pure challenge of it but there were two things that put me off. Firstly, that I actually didn’t have a burning idea for a novel and secondly that I’m not entirely sure a number of words should be the motivator. You see, like calorie based diets, they lead people to obsess over the wrong thing. When you are aiming for a numerical goal, it is the numbers that count but when you are focused on a target, for example changing the make up of what you eat, you focus on the content and what you actually want to achieve.

So this year it has happened that #AcWriMo , an academic focused version of this has synced with my first official month of the PhD. Now as you can imagine at this stage a lot of what I’m doing is exploratory reading and much form filling! What I do also have on the back burner is developing a paper for a conference from an abstract I submitted. This therefore seemed a perfect focus.

The actual volume of words needed to complete these tasks is limited but they are all reliant on that writing being quality. The other motivator for participating is the hope that it will help me get into a writing routine. This is why blogging will also be part of my goals. I find blogging an ideal writing task when i’m getting a block about how to phrase something or when the process is getting me down as it adds variety. It is the same with reading, occasionally you have to move from the academic to the more everyday to spur you on, especially when dealing with complex theoretical texts.

So to outline my goals, I plan to finish my conference paper, finish first drafts of my learning contract and an initial draft of my RDC1 and blog at least twice (in addition to this one) before the 30 days are out. I am not focusing on words but time. I am making space for a hour a day on 5 days a week, plus the option to carry on at the weekends. I’ll be interested to see how it works. Yesterday I started with an hour and managed about 5, although that is not sustainable, it allowed me to make an excellent start of two of the pieces which has given me the enthusiasm I needed to see the benefits of committing to the challenge. If you fancy joining me, all the details are on the PhD2published site.

Reading Lists: Recommendations, Rabbit holes and Reputation

Education, higher education, PhD

I was recently asked to try and write a blog to explain my reading strategy. The questions posed were how I decide what to read, when and why. I was also asked about how I read and take notes. I am going to take this into two posts, the first focusing on how my current reading pile has come about.

Why has this stack of books come about?

I hadn’t really thought about this before so I took what I currently had and realised there were three main reasons books and references to follow up were there, namely some form of recommendation, a follow up from a reference i’d come across in other reading or the fact that I felt something was a seminal text in the areas i’m researching.

Recommendation

Recommendations that have populated my list have come from several sources. Some have been as a result of twitter, some from seeing mailshots and stands at conferences and some through personal recommendation.

For example, Education, disadvantage and place came onto my radar through a flyer from Policy Press. Other recent books to drop into this category are the Education Policy Research book I reviewed last week, which came as a result of attending a symposium at the BERA conference and Zizek’s First as tragedy, then as farce recommended by @andewilkins on tiwtter following a conversation about cynicism as ideology that has fascinated me since the BSA conference earlier in the year.

Rabbit holes

When you begin immersing yourself in one topic, you find references to many things you feel you should read, things that look interesting and things that might be central to your research. The process of following one reference to another without really knowing where you will end up brought to my mind the idea of Alice following the white rabbit in her adventures in wonderland and as a result I decided to term these texts my rabbit holes.

There are a number of journal articles relating to this  category in my list, probably too numerous to mention and often this has been a useful way to carve out my reading into relevant studies. It has also lead me to explore specific texts from authors that may have also fallen into the final category; that of reputation. Two examples here are Bourdieu’s Pascalian Meditations which Steven Jones talks about in his chapter in Education Policy Research and in which I wish to explore the notion of ‘playing the game’ further. Bauman’s Wasted Lives has also ended up on my must read list as although I have read several of his books this was cited in another chapter and I feel may have some relevance to issues surrounding my thesis.

Reputation

The books that I would currently put into this category are actually ones on my reading list to revisit. I have read with interest Mills’ Sociological Imagination, Bourdieu’s Distinction and Becker’s Telling about society and all have extensive notes in them. The reason they are still sitting in my reading pile, however, is that re-reading certain parts in light of other thoughts i’m having, now specifically related to my thesis may help me develop my own thesis by drawing on the issues and concepts that these works highlight.

What do I do with this reading?

I wouldn’t suggest by any means this list is exhaustive, nor that my way is the best way but this is how my current reading list has been shaped. It would be interesting to here if this resonates with anyone else or if people have very different strategies for deciding what to read. I will be following up this post by exploring the idea of how I read and think through reading in another post in due course.

All by myself? The misrecognition of success as an individual endeavour

Education

In one symposia at BERA conference 2014, there was an interesting comment from the floor that in one village a colleague lived in, there were three millionaires and two were hairdressers. This comment was interesting as after all, not all hairdressers are millionaires . I would argue in fact that those that are often exist as exceptions to the rule. This suggests that there must be other issues in play. Repeatedly at primary age there seems to be a convergence of aspiration around particular careers such as being a vet, a doctor, a lawyer (the mechanism for which I have talked about here) yet rarely do these become realities for these children. I propose therefore that whilst there is a commonality of aspiration, there is a uncommonality in the realities of the existences of these young people.

The recently reported statistic that 71% of judges come from 7% of schools begins to illuminate the issue but I would argue that it is less superficial that a simple financial or educational privilege. The age-old mantra of success breeding success might begin to get to the heart of the issue. In Distinction, Bourdieu talks about different capitals and the importance of certain forms of cultural capital to get on in life. Many of these capitals relate to the ability to network, to form common bonds with others and to fit in, yet the neoliberal agenda and the emphasis on individualised education and meritocracy does not help build this collectivist approach to success but instead keeps returning consistently to one of individualism.

High levels of graduate unemployment often relate to the inability to break into a desired field due to a lack of a route in. In some cases this is due to a lack of financial capital. It is well documented how the media industry often relies on a period of poorly paid or unpaid internships to gain entry to higher level jobs. Other reasons include an absence of jobs within that field in the locality in which they live or simply because many opportunities come not from what is formally advertised but through contacts within the industry and where they are formally advertised, employers often have candidates who are previously known to them earmarked for the job. All three reasons contrast starkly with the discourse that individuals are not trying hard enough to find work or that their degrees are ‘useless’

An emphasis on hard work and striving to make it into a particular career can therefore be seen to be at odds with the structural realities of the employment market and the discourse of striving; success for those who work hard. This individualistic approach is not entirely the model that successful people will follow. There is an element to success that is by its nature collaborative. Be it being seen at the right time by an influential person in the field or knowing someone who can act as a gatekeeper to an employer or a potential business contact, or even just as a mentor for moral support when success takes time so that individual doesn’t abandon their aspiration when faced with obstacles. 

I would argue, therefore that if we are to begin to tackle issues of aspiration, one area of the curriculum in schools that needs to address is that around how to develop these skills, not just in discreet careers education but as a central part of every subject. The use of project based working not just within one classrooms but between classrooms and across geographical boundaries. Helping young people to develop the skills and knowledge that it is ok to work with others to achieve a common goals and that often you need to move outside of their immediate peer group to find the collaboration that will be the most useful in any given circumstance.

Common dreams for an uncommon reality

Education

Throughout the papers during the first day of BERA conference 2014, researchers repeatedly told of young people in their studies who consistently talked of being aspirational in their future career plans and dreams for the future, something which is consistent with my own experience and the blog Kim Allen and myself wrote on this topic recently. Like so many of the young people I work with, there are classed, gendered and ethnocentric elements to this. White working class boys often talk of wanting to be in the armed forces whilst Asian young people often talk of careers with prestige such as in Medicine.

There is, however a discord between these aspirations, the qualifications gained by these young people and the realities of the job market. Through the lens of Bourdieu and Passeron’s Reproduction in Education, I would argue what is happening is a creation of legitimacy of certain occupations and a devaluation of others framed by the beliefs and values of those in the upper classes. More often than not this is brought into not just consciously but subconsciously by individuals and communities through their educational practices.

I would argue that current educational policies have served to reinforce this devaluation of more technical occupations and increasing legitimisation of others. For example the introduction of the EBacc measure of GCSE success gives weight to those young people who possess certain levels of academic knowledge in a specific range of subjects and devalues those whose strengths lie within vocational qualifications. Moreover, the reduction in weight in league tables of BTEC qualifications also reinforces this devaluation.

The issue is wider than the policies of secondary schooling; from the differentiated funding streams for STEM subjects in universities and the initiatives to the numerous initiatives to encourage  young people to choose STEM careers over others all work together to legitimise this discourse. By creating this perceived hierarchy of value, is it any surprise that parents who want their children to succeed buy into the discourse of certain careers and subjects being better than others, regardless of the talents or interests of their children?

To break this cycle of devaluation of careers and pathways that may create happier, more successful young people, those who understand the mechanisms at work need to begin to challenge them. By entering into a dialogue with those who perpetuate these myths of ‘better’ careers, more ‘valuable’ degrees or more ‘useful’ subject choices, we can begin to help young people find careers that they want to do and that they will be successful in instead of those which they are led to believe are superior.

Book Review: Contemporary Debates in the Sociology of Education

book review, Education

Within this volume, Brooks, McCormack and Bhopal set out show how the sociology of education can cast a critical eye across the global issues in education from schooling through to university in the mainstream and to the margins. Opening with an outline of the theoretical, political and institutional contexts of the sociology of education, the book gets the reader up to speed with the state of the field before taking them on an editorial journey through the various stages of education by way of an interesting and thought provoking range of chapters based on cutting edge empirical research.

There are a number of chapters on compulsory age schooling examining issues of international comparisons in assessment, citizenship education, academic selection, masculinities, race and gender issues in schools. The most poignant chapter on schooling comes from Carolyn Jackson who explores the issue of fear and anxiety in schools. This is one of the few chapters that focuses on teachers as well as students, an area that on the whole the collection glosses over.  Recent debates surrounding increasing pressure from inspection and policy change on education professionals would suggest that this is an area central to contemporary debates. This however, is a comment as much on the speed of change and the current state of research in the sociology of education as much as it is the book.

The most interesting chapters are those that take the reader those beyond the scope of other texts. Firstly, Kagendo Mutua and Sandra Cooley Nichols chapter on special education in the USA and how gendered identities are constructed within it during adolescence which takes a very different stance on exploring special education provision beyond outcomes and process to explore how individuals develop a sense of identity. There is also an excellent chapter by Steve Roberts focusing on the lifelong educational opportunities of retail workers where he explores the tensions of between an instrumental credentialisation of skills and learning that is useful for life. This chapter is an important contribution as workplace learning is often omitted from debates in the field.

That said, no volume on contemporary debates would be complete without the obligatory chapter on working-class students and university. Wolfgang Lehmann provides this from a Canadian perspective and this highlights another key strength of the volume that in drawing from global perspectives, it helps the reader create a comparison of similarities with more local debates. This is complemented further by Heather Mendick’s exploring issues of the gendered nature of subject selection in Mathematics. Understanding these processes is key if issues of equal access based on gender are to be addressed within STEM subjects.

The final chapter by Keri Facer and Neil Selwyn is a provocation highlighting issues of technology and the importance for sociologists of education to be ready to explore these. They argue that given the ubiquity of technology within all areas of education, that there is sizeable gap in the research literature. In ending on this note, the volume challenges the reader to consider how they can fill this gap and hopefully will act as a stimulus for much needed work in the sociology of educational technology.

This collection serves its purpose of stimulating thought on the contemporary debates of the sociology of education and as such would provide an excellent starting point for those new to the field or who are currently engaged within education but would like to explore a more sociological analysis of some of the issues and challenges they face.

 Reference

Brooks, R., McCormack, M., Bhopal, K. (2013). Contemporary Debates in the Sociology of Education, Basingstoke; Palgrave macmillan

 

Mind the gap? or enjoy it? The benefits of a break before the doctorate

EdD, Education, PhD

When I had to abandon my original plans to start a doctorate last September, I must admit I was a bit despondent and irritated I couldn’t continue to the next level straight away. On reflection, this has probably been the best thing that could of happened and I thought it would be useful to blog about why I feel this way.

One of my major worries was that I would lose the impetus of study and the time and space for it within my busy work and home life. This hasn’t happened, in fact I’m probably spending as much time reading and writing as I ever did during my masters! The difference is, i’m finally spending the time exploring texts and ideas that I want to. What has really helped is attending a few conferences and workshops over the period since I ended my study and following up interesting ideas.

Having come into Sociology and Education through a quite eclectic route of study, this time and space has also allowed me to read some of those classic text I missed out on. Recently these have included Willis’ Learning to Labour, Lukes’ Power: a radical view as well as a number of more specific texts to the area I now plan to do my doctorate around.

This time and space to broaden my reading I feel is something that I would have missed out on if I embarked immediately onto a doctoral programme and now has me much more excited and focused on the next stage feeling more prepared than I ever could have done if I had started back in September. As I reflected on previously, it has also allowed me to explore exactly what I wanted from a doctorate and which one is right for me.

Hopefully the next few months will give me the space to continue this reading and to develop my writing through this blog, contributing to some other blogs and a few other projects to help hone some of these skills before I return to the formal journey towards a doctorate.

Live tweeting: Why and how: A reflection on #Britsoc14

digital sociology, Education, higher education, public sociology

This years British Sociology Association conference must be my tenth foray into live tweeting from a conference or event and over time I have developed how and what I tweet. I think some of this has come from reflecting on of why I am live tweeting in the first place and this blog will explore some of the benefits of live tweeting as a central part of attending a conference as I see them through my emerging practice.

Distilling ideas

In the same way that twitter has helped me hone my ideas through concise writing, so has tweeting key ideas from a session helped hone my thinking on these ideas. In order to process a 20 minute paper which is often densely packed with material into key ideas, concerns or questions of interest, you develop a skill in trying to not only identify what is important about the paper but which ideas might resonate with a wider audience or prove useful to engage with further.

Engaging in the debate

As a beginning researcher, I think twitter provides an excellent ay to engage with, debate and question ideas in a relatively safe environment. Many people forget how nerve wracking it can be to ask a question or challenge a concept in a paper during a question session. Doing so via twitter can often provide a space to do this more confidently. It also provides a space to develop ideas from a paper in discussion with others both within the session and far beyond it.

 Sharing ideas beyond the audience

Over the past few years, especially working within education, I have become mindful of how difficult it is for those practitioners and doctoral researchers who hold juggle other employment and academia to attend conferences, especially in their field of education when they often clash with scheduled teaching. From my own experience, having live tweets from events has been invaluable in order to get a feel for what is going on during a session I myself would have liked to attend.

Allowing other conference attendees to get key messages from other streams

This inability to attend every paper that is of interest also extends to other conference attendees. Certainly this was my experience of this years BSA conference and there were times where I chose to go to a different session knowing that there would be enough live tweeting going on in another that I would not be completely missing out. This is not unproblematic as it sometimes leads to regret for not choosing a different stream but it does to some extent compensate for some of the difficult choices that need to be made between parallel sessions.

Forming networks of practice

The reciprocity and sharing of ideas from one session to another and from one conference to another leads to building of networks of practice. By reading what others are sharing on a conference hashtag it is possible to find and connect with other academics that are interested in similar topics as you and thus allow the development of networks. It is by doing this I managed to gain so much more from this, my third BSA conference than I ever was able to from my first conference three years ago.

 

I am sure there are more elements to it and there is probably some merit in exploring these in more depth which I hope to do in future but I felt it was important to document where my thinking is at now on the purpose of live tweeting and the digital back channels behind conferences in building networks and sharing knowledge and ideas.

Which Doctor: To PhD or to EdD that is the question?

EdD, Education, higher education, PhD

The issue that has been consuming most of my time recently is what to do next. Originally I was going to start my PhD in January looking at how parents construct and manage issues of risk. There were several reasons for not starting; lack of funding, starting a new job, but most importantly that I realised my interests are me closely aligned to issues related to education opposed to parenting.

The network I have built up on twitter had been invaluable in working through my choices of what to do next. Everything seems to have emerged naturally. Following an impromptu meeting with Katy Vigurs (@drkatyvigurs) that just happened because I was in Stoke-on-Trent visiting a ceramics exhibition, I left our conversation more confused than when I started. Previously I had been focusing predominantly on the PhD route and dismissed the EdD option. Having done a bit more research, one incarnation of the latter is looking appealing, especially when my interests lie very firmly within the Sociology of Education.

Let me start with a caveat, I’m not sure all EdD programmes are made equal and some seem to be better suited to my interests than others. Whilst my interests are in the field of education, they do not originate in the classroom but at a higher level, more concerned with policy and social justice. This position doesn’t always correlate with the offerings of many EdD programs which either seem to focus on leadership and management or pedagogical topics. There are, however a couple which would cater for my interests.

From talking to a range of colleagues in several different institutions, there seems to be both advantages and disadvantages to straying from the more familar PhD route.

Firstly the structure the EdD programmes offer can be both a support and a bind. Having been used to the structure of distance learning Masters, this is not particularly problematic to me but I can see how it may be less flexible than the PhD.

Secondly, the inherent isolation of doctoral study, especially that is often experienced by a part-time student is buffered by the taught element of an EdD programme where there is a cohort element which can offer a much-needed community of practice. In fact it is the way that one EdD at Staffordshire in particular has used twitter to support this idea of communities of practice that has particularly peaked my interest (you can follow their exploits on twitter using #EdDSU6 )

Thirdly, however, there still seems to be a stigma in some camps over the PhD being ‘superior’ to the EdD in terms of academic currency. This I find interesting as I haven’t experienced many negative comments toward the EdD other than in terms of positioning a PhD as a preferable option, especially if you already have a strong idea of a research proposal.

Finally, it was interesting to hear how some experienced examiners felt that there was the potential for the initial stages of the EdD to restrict some candidates whose theses they had read and thus left them feeling that the PhD might have offered a better vehicle for the research, allowing more time and space to jump into the literature earlier

What is interesting though is the feedback from those on an EdD programme and the positive reviews they give it. Most of the people I have spoken to are in the early stages though, I’d be interested to see if this is the same for those nearing completion or those who are on the next step of their journey.

What does seem to emerge from discussions though is the importance of the people in choosing where to study at Doctoral level. It seems that regardless of the flavour of doctoral degree, a good fit with a potential supervisory team is invaluable in terms of experience and eventual success.

For me, I am veering towards the direction of the EdD. Whilst I have a good idea of what I want to do and the general direction of travel for my research, I think the structure of the EdD is likely to support a stronger eventual thesis. There really is no option for me to undertake a full-time PhD at this point in my career so considering either option would be part-time by necessity, I think the structure of the EdD may also support my motivation and focus and help me to develop the initial stages in a structured way. I also feel that having missed out on a lot of the face to face teaching at masters level having done those through distance learning, it would be nice to be part of a cohort of like-minded people and to develop those communities of practice.

One thing I realised when I started exploring this question, however, was how little writing there is about the process of choosing between the two so I’d be keen to continue the debate here and for people to add their own experiences through the comments. Hopefully this may also help future students puzzled by which route to pursue.

The superiority complex of the TeachFirst model

Education

Michael Slavinsky, the Programme director for The Brilliant Club wrote a well reasoned response to my previous blog on TeachFirst which I felt deserved a slightly more in depth and argued response than would be possible in a comment box. Firstly, let me say I have no issues with the individual teachers who pass through the TeachFirst program. I am sure there are many that undertake the program with the same attitude of any other teacher trainee, my issue however is with the philosophy espoused by the program. I strongly support the idea of every child getting the best education for them, but i’m concerned that the model that is promoted by TeachFirst may not always offer the chances that are most suitable for every child.

The initial issue with me originates in the title of the programme: TeachFirst. The fact that it is something to do before going on to better things, expressly leadership and management roles. This is one place where I think the idea is flawed. Teaching is a vocation and something that requires a special sort of person to do well and that should be celebrated and applauded, not seen as something to do on the way to better things, or something to do if your planned career didn’t work out.

My second issue with the model is the transformative nature, the way these trainees are given the status of miracle workers that can fix problems in challenging schools, as if it is the only way and that existing teachers are ‘not good enough’. I think this is one thing that troubled me the most. In their first few weeks, many trainees, including myself, struggle to get the engagement of a class to maintain the required pace of learning. Certainly in my placements, this was addressed by gradual introduction to teaching through starters, team teaching and finally to full lessons. From the portrayal in the program it seems that these trainees were thrown in with a full class on the first day. To me, this is not fair on the children. They may have an excellent subject knowledge, but is does not always translate to the ability to teach. In my mind it is a craft that needs to be learnt and it seems that the model does not allow the space for this although I am more than happy to be corrected on this point if anyone knows differently.

This brings me onto the third point, that of class and portrayal. Michael mentions that the program has many BME entrants or those from non middle-class backgrounds. I would argue, however, that this does not separate the issue that they are bringing in a class based model of what aspiration is. The notion of them being ‘good’ graduates of a ‘good’ university creates an other ing notion of ‘poor’ degrees from ‘poor’ universities. I will to examine this in more depth in a later blog as it is a loaded argument but a key one in order to drill down to one of the areas that I find the most unsettling.

I want to finish by extending an invitation to those readers who disagree with what I am saying. My vision of TeachFirst is that which is portrayed through a lens of TV producers and Marketing literature. If I am wrong, show me. Point me to the graduates that have been accepted from non-Russell group universities and let them tell their stories. Like many people my concern is that every young person has the chance to aspire to what they want to do and be, not what a classed model of society says they should be. For some of them, these paths will be the same, for others they will be very different but I am interested in seeing evidence that every type of aspiration is being valued by the trainees of the model, from the future mechanics and doctors, to the future artists and sports coaches.

TeachFirst and the colonisation of the classroom in #toughyoungteachers

Education

Like many people, I began to watch BBC three’s new series Tough Young Teachers this week and saw first hand the initial experiences of trainee teachers following this route into teaching. What I wasn’t prepared for was how unsettling I was about to find the following thirty minutes of television. Having spent time in similar schools to those billed as ‘challenging’ by the programme, what I wasn’t prepared for was the unsettling class reproduction issues the show demonstrated.

TeachFirst is a program that according to their website aims to ‘find, train and support people to become brilliant teachers, inspiring the young people who need them the most’. This seems at the face of it a commendable aim and something nobody could argue is a good thing. The reality, however has some worrying facets to it. Like many other graduate programs, it aims to attract the ‘best’ graduates from the ‘best universities’. This notion of ‘the best’, often provides trainees that fit very clearly into a category of a privileged middle class, something that is examined in grater depth by Sarah Smart, Merryn Hutchings, Uvanney Maylor, Heather Mendick  & Ian Menter in their paper entitled ‘Processes of middle-class reproduction in a graduate employment scheme’. Here they explain how the processes of recruitment focus often narrow the frame of who is suitable to make it through the selection process.

What Smart and her colleagues also highlight is how the middle class position of the trainees often sets students apart from them as an ‘other’ someone who is not like them. The reason this felt so unsetting to me was that it resonated with discourses surrounding Empire and colonisation of uncivilised peoples that needed converting to the ways of thinking of those colonising them. This is exactly what I saw unfold on the screen. It felt more like a wildlife documentary than a program about teaching as the trainees were talking about the young people as if they weren’t equal humans but were some kind of animal that needed training. It was when one trainee was trying to explain negative numbers and using an analogy of scuba diving; something that was likely to be as alien to the child in question as the negative numbers themselves.

Perhaps the most enraging part of it was when one trainee said “I don’t care about them because they don’t care about learning”. To me, this showed their lack of empathy and understanding for young people who hadn’t followed the same learning trajectory as they did and hadn’t developed an early understanding of the value of education. Another trainee talked about not understanding why they didn’t care. I find it interesting that I never head similar from any trainee i’ve ever come in contact with and that makes me wonder if this is a danger of TeachFirst?

By training and working only with other trainees of a similar class background, does a middle-class picture of what education should be taint their understanding and view of the classroom before they even enter it? If so, does that prevent them from considering the diversity of learning paths and trajectories in order for all students to achieve and create a culture of support for those who can fit into a model of middle-class learning ideals, i.e supporting those who ‘care about learning’ and letting those who don’t, i.e. the ‘other’ to fall by the wayside?

It will be interesting to see if this class related divide does begin to reduce over time in the series or whether the idea of converting the students to a middle-class ideals remains a focus of the trainees efforts.

References 

Sarah Smart , Merryn Hutchings , Uvanney Maylor , Heather Mendick & Ian Menter (2009) Processes of middle-class reproduction in a graduate employment scheme, Journal of Education and Work, 22:1, 35-53, DOI: 10.1080/13639080802709661