Education, higher education, PhD

Reading Lists: Recommendations, Rabbit holes and Reputation

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.

Education

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

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.

Education

Common dreams for an uncommon reality

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.

EdD, PhD, widening participation

Education and equality: A critique of the ‘poverty of aspiration’ agenda

You can find a guest blog from Kim Allen (CelebYouth) and myself on the BERA respecting children and young people blog. This excellent project seeks to stimulate public debate on Social Justice in education in the lead up to the 2015 elections and I am very happy to have contributed to it. It is also my first co-authored piece and I think it turned out rather well.

 

Education and equality: A critique of the ‘poverty of aspiration’ agenda.

Education

How (not) to engage teachers with education research #BERA2013

The divide between the practicalities of the classroom and the world of academic research is not a new one and is one of the things I find particularly problematic about educational research. The previous labour government tried to increase the value placed on research by teachers by encouraging Masters level study by providing funding for it. This is something that has now more or less all dried up. In fact if you want to study a Masters in Education in 2013/14 you are looking at £4500+ with little hope of funding. Given that few schools pay any more for teachers with Masters degrees where is the incentive?

Strangely, some teachers do still want to study at a higher level and understand more about why interventions and policies are effective or not. I am one of those. I managed to gain some credits from my PGCE but it still cost me £2500 to study the remaining modules for my MEd (which I have just submitted the final assignment for). I have learned a few things but here is where the problem lies.

There is no time allocated in a normal teaching load to continue to pursue any research activities. Yes, I can try things, use some of the theory I learned to develop my own practice but if I want to continue to conduct more in depth research into my own practice that adds to the academic literature then that’s for my own time. Hardly a way to encourage practitioner research is it?

What has prompted this blog post though is the British Educational Research Association’s (BERA) annual conference. Scheduled for, you guessed it, the first week of a new academic year for teachers in primary, secondary and further education. Also the first week of many PGCE programmes. To me, this shows how divorced parts of the academy are from their coalface of education. Yes, conference fees are not cheap but you know what, had it have been scheduled in the 6 week school break, I probably would have paid to attend (and I can’t be the only one!).

What is particularly ironic is that the conference coincides with the publication of Why Educational Research Matters which states that “Educational research is necessary for the advancement of knowledge for education and of education”. Hardly the best way when very few individuals involved with using the research presented to inform their practice can attend the annual conference of the association which should be helping encourage and promote the link between the academy and practitioners.

I strongly believe educational research DOES matter but a there needs to be a reconsideration of how to address the issues that divorce it from classrooms.  One start would be to schedule BERA2014  so it was actually accessible to teachers and educational practitioners and furthermore if BERA really do see educational research as being so important then maybe they need to start explaining to Policy makers why providing time and space for practitioners to be able to get involved in research is imperative!

Edited: What makes it worse is that they have already scheduled 2014 and 2015 according to their website – both in September!