Pedagogy and curriculum that engages students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and is deemed personally relevant to the lives they live, are seen as important factors towards equality of outcome by Wrench, Hammond, McCallum and Price (2012). Their research involved designing a curriculum and pedagogy that would be highly engaging to students of low-socioeconomic status. 'The interventions involved curriculum redesigns that set meaningful, challenging learning task(s) (culminating in high quality learning products); strong connection to student life-worlds; and a performative expectation for student learning.’ (Wrench et al 2012 p934) 'Themes included: identity and agency within a community context; models of communities of practice that focused on learning in social settings; and, a holistic approach to the constructions of well-being and engagement.’ (Wrench et al 2012 p935)
The inclusion of ‘place-based’ learning and experiences that created a sense of community were found to be important factors along with well-being aspects of a holistic programme that engaged learners with their learning and allowed students to better engage with their aspirations. 'Re-designing the curriculum with a well-being focus provided the opportunity for students to explore and imagine possible futures and aspirations beyond their current life-worlds.’ (Wrench et al 2012 p943)
In exploring a pedagogy of poverty Haberman (1991) found that the tendency is to align the students with a model pedagogy, one that is reactive to the perceived needs of a setting where economic disadvantage is the norm. ‘Simply stated, we act as if it is not the pedagogy that must be fitted to the students but the students who must accept an untouchable method.’ (Haberman 1991 p292) Haberman notes that in schools with a low-socioeconomic status teachers are not judged for their failure to educate their students but for a failure to elicit compliance. This results in a particular pedagogical style dominated by top-down control with limited student agency.
This ineffective pedagogy is absent from quality schools regardless of their student population replaced by the strategies of ‘good teaching’. Student involvement with issues they believe are important, discussion of human differences, student planning of activities, student application of ideals such as fairness and justice, inclusion of real-life experiences, heterogeneous groups, critical thinking, polishing and improving work and active reflection are the hallmarks of quality teaching according to Haberman (1991).
Programmes such as ‘School is for Me’ (DEET NSW, 2006) aim to alter the way that students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds perceive and engage with school. By focusing on presenting students with engaging messages around who possesses valued knowledge, who has ability, who is in control, who owns the place and who has a voice in the school the program aims to reveal to students that school is a place for them and not one that is owned and controlled by teachers or others external to their community. The success that such a programme has had in engaging students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, who had previously shown disengagement from school reveals that funding alone will not produce equitable outcomes. Changes to the messaging systems of pedagogy, curriculum and assessment need to occur so that all students see the personal relevance of school to their lives.
In a deficit discourse students of low-socioeconomic backgrounds are described as disengaged and having low-aspirations which schools need to raise but this view is contradicted by research undertaken by Reid and Faye (2014). This research indicates that indeed students in their study 'positively expressed a desire to be engaged in their learning and to succeed in their schooling.’ (Reid et al 2014 p205). What the students required was assistance in mapping a path towards their aspirations and dreams and help in expanding their capacity to aspire, something schools can and should play a part in.
Shifting how we view the purpose of education plays a part in discourses of educational disadvantage. When viewed as a screening measure differences in educational outcomes, even those that occur systemically and for reasons beyond the individuals control are excused. In a society where education is imagined as a process for screening candidates into future career pathways based on the identification of ability, the failure of this system to account for differences not related to ability is excused for the good of the result. 'It means that unequal incomes and unequal social standing in adulthood are seen as the outcomes of greater or less merit in an impartial process of selection'. (Connell & White 1991 p20) If education is about something more than screening students and if we are able to see that a multitude of factors play a part in allowing for academic success we will look to maximise the place that our educational systems can play in the future lives of every child and every community.
by Nigel Coutts
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