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 pupilï¿½s 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 ï¿½bunk of lessonsï¿½ 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 pupilï¿½s and their teachers?
At another level, many schoolï¿½s 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’.