Different discourses!

Professor Russell Bishop gave a fascinating keynote on the theme of how different discourses we use in education are the single most important determinant for the student learning experience. This Blog is my recollection of what he said and although I think I have the key points of the argument, there may be errors!

In setting the context for his presentation, the professor also established the two main challenges for educational institutions in NZ as being diversity and disparity.

The professor went on to describe his research that shows the most important determinant in pupil’s achievement is the quality of teaching and that the most important feature of this is the relationships between teachers and students. A further significant finding was that in NZ, this is a fact that most teachers deny with pupil�s home circumstances believed to be the most important reason for ‘failure’ at school.

Discourses in use
To illustrate the point about discourse, Prof Bishop drew on his research in NZ schools with Maori students who although often in the numerical majority find themselves in a ‘cultural minority’.

The research project described by Prof. Bishop asked parents, students, and teachers about what they believed that the major influences on performance were. Subsequent analysis used the following three categories to describe the data:
1. child and the home circumstances
2. the structure of the school
3. relationships between teachers and pupils

In a nutshell, the research showed that students overwhelmingly believed that relationships with teachers to be the most important factor, parents that a relationships were also most important but this was less pronounced with a significant number citing structures and home circumstances. However, the most startling finding was that teachers believed that child and home were the most important determining factor.

This clearly illustrates that there is a large barrier to change. As long as the preferred discourse of the teachers is around the failure of pupils and home circumstances, change is unlikely as these are the factors least likely to change!

Repositioning for Self-determination – a prerequisite for dmocratisation

This view of teachers that that ‘the problem’ is located elsewhere and is significantly limits their ability to make a difference. It is their use of a ‘deficit discourse’ that frames their thoughts and actions albeit in an unintentional way. In the Maori New Zealand context this is a manifestation of minoritisation, colonialism, neo-colonialism, post colonialism rule – that is Maori Kids in a minority and seen as the problem (deficit theorizing). For Jerome Brunner theses are connected to issues of folk pedagogy and unless it is addressed meaningful change will be difficult if not impossible to achieve.

Most teachers already have a ‘child centred’ philosophy and desire to help their pupils, but they are stuck in a discourse and resultant folk pedagogy that prevents this being carried through to action.

So what can be done? The strategies that can bring about change is the use of positive discourses developed through becoming a truly critically reflective practitioner. By critical reflection, we can reposition ourselves and change the discourses that we employ and shift to alternative discourses that move the locus of the blame away from the pupil and their home circumstances to the school. For example, if pupils �bunk of lessons� do we use a discourse that describes this as in some way deviant behaviour or do we use a discourse that questions the relevance of lessons and the relationship between pupil�s and their teachers?

At another level, many school�s pedagogy have a dominant discourse that is tied in with social and structural arrangements. In secondary schools, the discourse is largely around transmission of subject-based knowledge. An alternative structural arrangement that promotes discourse about effects of their practice on the students would move the school focus in a positive direction.

At its heart, this is an epistemological and ontological argument. That is our interpretation of situations (our knowing), and our learning and communicating about the world differs from individual to individual and between different cultures. The issue of culture is often referred to as a ‘world view’.

6 thoughts on “Different discourses!

  1. Andy

    “the most startling finding was that teachers believed that child and home were the most important determining factor”

    Well yes. Teachers are always blaming the parents, backgrounds and social conditions. Just spend 5 minutes in any UK staffroom and you can hear this. The ethnic and colonial factors probably have little or nothing to do with it, it’s more a question of class consciousness with teachers being led to believe they have some sort of stakeholding in social improvment and then showing a general disdain for working class conditions and aspirations.

  2. stephen powell

    I think that in the NZ context, it isn’t possible to overstate the sensitivity with regards to ‘colonialism’ and how this particularly impacts on the Maori students as thier home culture can be very different. However, I would agree with you Andy that there is much in this as a way of analysing and understanding the UK’s educational systems.

  3. Nick Austin

    Interesting stuff this. Did he say anything about the influence/importance of the child’s peer group, both at home and at school? From my own experiences both as an educator and a parent I’ve noticed how both small subversive groups of aspiring anarchists form their own sub-culture within the classroom, much in the same way as groups of switched-on, well motivated kids will study together and push one another.

    Of course teachers are important, as are caring parents but I can’t help but think that peers are of equal impoortance…so maybe we need to explain to kids how important this is. On the negative side, all those ‘best mates’ who wreak chaos don’t tend to stay as such once they’ve left the school – so no real investment in friendship there, then.

  4. Stephen Harlow

    Thanks for sharing this Stephen. I’ve added my two cents worth elsewhere, but you maybe interested in reading Russell’s book Culture Counts. At the time of publishing he does not have NZ research evidence to quantify the importance of the teacher-learner relationship, but nevertheless emphasises its importance and interestingly suggests narrative therapy as a useful tool in supporting the relationship (p. 159). I’m particularly curious about the whole idea of narrative in education, so again thanks for helping me make the connection.

    Andy, Bishop also responds to the peer pressure issue in the Maori context in Culture Counts (p. 154). While he recognises it as important, he believes teaching that connects with learners’ culture is more powerful—culture counts. 😉

  5. Stephen Powell

    Hi Nick, nope no mention of peer groups. I suspect it isn’t that he would dismiss this as an important factor, more that it just isn’t the thrust of his work and I suppose it is one of the factors that teachers can’t do much about?

    Thanks Stephen, I couldn’t remeber the name of the book and he does in fact have a new book out in a month or so. There is also a report on http://www.minedu.govt.nz/ somewhere but after a quick glance I couldn’t find it.

  6. Eve Thirkle

    “the most startling finding was that teachers believed that child and home were the most important determining factor.” – I’m not surprised about that here in Britain – the determinant for spending on SEN [non-statemented] provision is the number of pupils on ‘free’ dinners – thus allying the performance straight to the home life and possible deprivation.!


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