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21st century learning and the need for conversations across difference January 15, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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from Associate Professor Carol Reid

 Here, Carol Reid explores how questions of social and cultural diversity and difference impact upon schools and young people, and how they can be addressed through imaginative learning design.

Late last year in the Sydney Morning Herald, an article discussed where migrants liked to live in Sydney. Professor Ang, UWS Centre for Cultural Research, commented that it was vibrant areas that attract migrants, in particular ‘Asian’ migrants. However, this is only part of the story. Areas of Sydney where there are churches and very good schools are also a major pull factor. Some of these areas are very quiet indeed, although shopping strips have been reinvigorated in the ways Professor Ang discussed. Areas that were once largely ‘Anglo’ are now increasingly populated by migrants who, once established in Australia and ready to buy their first home, choose areas on the basis of local schools. In this respect, they are no different to other cultural groups but of course socio-economic factors play a major role in the capacity to choose, and more recently arrived skilled migrants are generally professional and more able to do so. Refugees on the other hand have less choice.

Responding to this article, Deborah Cameron on ABC702 on November 8th ran a discussion asking: “Are parts of Sydney too monocultural?” Reference was made to school composition and the benefits and dilemmas associated with diversity or the perceived lack of diversity in local schools. This is a hot topic whenever it occurs and I have been embroiled in many of these debates, both willingly and not so willingly. So what are the educational implications for learning  in our schools and suburbs in what appears to be increasing heterogeneity on the one hand, and persistent homogeneity on the other?

I was forced to consider this question a few years back when we had the Cronulla riots and again when the UK riots exploded on our screens in 2011. To understand and respond to these vexed questions requires a brief overview of where we are at in the sociology of knowledge.

To begin, it is very hard in a blog piece to cover the intellectual terrain of the past 50 or so years but it is necessary to do so, however brief, to examine this issue, which seems to have so many tentacles. So here is what I will try to do. First, a brief explanation of where we are at in terms of ‘big ideas’ about social life and education more generally and then second, what this might mean for some of these concerns about diversity. This approach draws on French scholar Bourdieu (1988) who maintained that we need to provide a strong critique of the reasoning for what we do.

Mid 20th century we thought that progress (modernisation or modernism) of a particular kind – technological – would provide us with the ideal society. We set up schools to provide labour for this kind of society. The schools were well-ordered, taught mostly the same things to mostly different children and some made it to the top, while others became fodder for the factories. This ‘sifting and sorting’ (Parsons, 1961) disappeared for some time in the radical education movements of the 1970s and 1980s but came back with vengeance in the mid- 1990s and is still with us despite the factories not being there. The factory model of schooling broke down knowledge into small parts and the bits very often didn’t relate to the other bits or to the lives of the students.

At the turn of this century the theories that had seemingly replaced earlier modernist approaches promulgated a new direction. Postmodernism (Perry, 1998[1]) argued that there was no universal understanding about society (such as the earlier belief in progress through development and a utopian future) and we didn’t need to speak, think and do it all the same way because attending to difference could be productive. However, to understand difference required concrete responses. Our rich multicultural heritage and past strong policies in this regard attended to differences although not without critique and revision. The development of ethnic or language specific schools and the further development of religious schools other than Catholic and Protestant also demonstrated difference was a reality and beyond mere rhetoric. The proliferation of choice in public schooling is another dimension of these shifts.

So what does this mean for schools? At a broader level this does mean we are seeing increasing inequalities as those that ‘can’ choose, do. Those left in schools where capital in all its forms has been reduced or removed (social, cultural, intellectual, linguistic, economic) – either by processes of selectivity or parental choice – do suffer. For example, recent research points to the importance of peer effect (Webber and Butler, 2007; NSW Department of Education and Communities, 2011) on learning outcomes. These are major concerns for policy makers in education and will, without due attention, lead to social inequalities that will impact on society quite profoundly. They call for nothing short of a restructuring of education to provide new pathways, new ways of learning and a link to future work, such as the emergent ‘green’ industry. It is somewhat ironic that increasing diversification of choice in terms of where to go to school is not matched by real choice for these students in terms of learning.

Given the increasing division of students on the basis of a range of social categories, what can we do to intervene when things go wrong? A project I was involved, post-Cronulla riot, with six high schools in south-western Sydney, might provide some answers and is in part a reflection of what we have learned from the two theoretical movements discussed earlier. First, there was a wider context where it could be shown that discourses about particular Australians – young middle-Eastern males – had hit an all-time low. We had been through the war on terror, the Bali bombing and the refugee boat arrivals being painted as less than human. All this ‘big picture’ stuff, or metanarrative, had created a structure of feeling (Williams, 1977) towards difference and others. This was felt most intensely at the local level so, while this ‘big picture’ knowledge was critical our responses had to be local, something we have learned from postmodern theory.

In this instance, we discussed with students in these schools the context in which the riot occurred and asked them to go out to other schools and investigate the opinions of their peers about the issues that were local. Some of it was racism, some about violenc and safety, and other things were about all those things adolescents worry about – competition over girlfriends and family reputation among others. To be able to do this the students were taught ethics, learned how to conduct focus groups, construct questions and to analyse the materials they collected. They interviewed their teachers, parents and students in their own schools and other schools. Here they utilised a range of skills in meaningful ways. The result? They concluded that harmony or continual peace was a naive concept – an impossible destination given all their differences; that all you could do was work towards it and that this was about respect, avoiding assumptions, questioning the media analysis and speaking across difference. The students were entrusted with the capacity to know and to understand. They were given and produced really useful knowledge (Gramsci, 1971) with which to work, and turned them into narratives that were performed for their schools and local communities. The production of knowledge in this case was situated geographically in the local but very much connected to global forces.

The schools that participated in this project work with marginalised communities, in socio-economically less well off areas and have ethnically diverse student bodies. Pluralism and localism are important in working in these contexts but so is attention to structures that shape and bear down on these local practices in many ways. Choice about what school to attend is one dynamic shaking up traditional processes of learning to get along with difference.  In these situated contexts really useful knowledge can make a difference to relationships among diverse young people and give youth a voice about what kind of education is meaningful.  Opportunities to have conversations across difference can also develop a cosmopolitan imagination (Delanty, 2006) and enable transformation of the self and others.

[1] Perry found the origins of postmodernism in Hispanic literary circles from the 1930s but it didn’t hit its straps until the latter part of the 20th century.

ReferencesAnderson, P. (1998) The origins of postmodernity, London: Verso.   Bourdieu, P. (1988) Homo academicus, Cambridge: Polity Press.   Delanty, G. (2006) The cosmopolitan imagination: critical cosmopolitanism and social theory, The British Journal of Sociology 57(1): 25-47.   Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence and Wishart.   NSW Department of Education and Communities (2011) School Funding Arrangements Discussion Paper,  https://www.det.nsw.edu.au/media/downloads/about-us/news-at-det/announcements/discussion-paper.pdf .    Parsons, T. (1961) Theories of society: foundations of modern sociological theory, New York : Free Press.   Webber, R. and Butler, T. (2007) Classifying Pupils by Where They Live: How Well Does This Predict Variations in Their GCSE Results? Journal of Urban Studies, 44 (7).   Williams, R. (1977) Structures of feeling in Marxism and literature, Oxford:Oxford University Press (Chapter 9).

Carol Reid is a member of the Centre for Educational Research within the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

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