Student Engagement or just another way of maintaining the white, middle class status quo!

Those of you that follow me on twitter will have noticed that Brookes had its annual Learning and Teaching conference yesterday on the theme of Student Engagement.

This really got me thinking about the some of the early findings of my BME project. At this early stage, I am wondering how student engagement plays out against ethnicity (and from a personal level against class)? It appears that those who are most engaged on a visible level are more satisfied and have positive stories to tell. When I say ‘visible’ I mean the traditional forms of engagement that the university can see; student ambassadors, course representatives and so on.

But what about invisible engagement? Students who are passionate about their course or an aspect of their study. They might be known to individual lecturers, assuming the class size is small enough or they care enough to notice (yes feel free to flog me over the huge value judgement made there but hey we all know those staff who would rather not have to teach). I guess those of us that love teaching appreciate those students because of their passion for the subject but how does the institution view them? How do they fit the engagement agenda?

Finally, we come to the disengaged. Why are they disengaged? Here I am going to digress into a personal story. I was one of those students. I loved my sixth form studies and I did well. However, my undergraduate years were ones to forget. I was the first in my family to get a degree. My parents sacrificed a lot to get me to university. I made the mistake (unbeknownst to me at the time) to go to a classic middle class, white university. I loved learning, I had all sorts of ideas and my university made its best efforts to put me firmly in my place.

Let me be clear here, I did not arrive disengaged. The university disengaged me; in a myriad of subtle different ways (which I won’t bore you with the details here).

So I wonder, is the student engagement agenda just another subtle way of maintaining the status quo. Is it that those who are white from well educated families and the middle classes are once again privileged? We can promote student engagement because it sounds so wonderfully equitable and progressive. Yet, deep down, we know (if we really, truly reflect upon it) we are really helping those that can already help themselves.

I wonder…

Everyday Racism at Uni

I have been thinking about a little experiment and have been encouraged by students and peers to give it a go. I was very much inspired by the everyday sexism project. I think it is a great, simple idea. Having done a quick search I couldn’t find anything similar for racism. As the focus of my work is university, I thought that an everyday racism at uni link along the same lines would be an interesting idea.

At the moment it consists of a simple Google form at this address So please feel free to share this and contribute if you have any stories.

If you have any thoughts on what to do with it next or want to collaborate please let me know.

Assessment and race inequality

{Warning: for those colleagues who are teachers in schools or who teach teachers. My thoughts here are in no way a criticisms of individuals but rather a critique of the system that allows inequality to exist and seems incapable of changing these inequalities}

I had a very interesting lunch time debate about attainment with colleagues on my course. I think my argument was about how inequality (I was mainly talking about class / socioeconomic inequality) is maintained by selective schools (I am a fierce opponent of grammar schools and the 11+) because those most likely to get into the ‘best’ schools come from more privileged backgrounds, and are thus more likely to go to university and so on. The policy is maintained by arguments about how the system allows those talented children from poor backgrounds to escape from poor schooling and achieve their potential. It could also be argued that poor families that are willing to support their children’s education can get them into these selective schools and give them better life chances.

However, it seems to me like the justification for selective schooling is what Critical Race scholars would call a ‘contradiction-closing case’. As Delgado (1999 cited in Gillborn 2008:33) puts it, they ‘…allow business as usual to go on even more smoothly than before, because now we can point to the exceptional case and say, “See, our system is really fair and just. See what we just did for minorities or the poor.”

So after reflecting on the debate, I feel I am better able to understand my position. In the moment of discussion, I couldn’t articulate these thoughts as coherently. On further reading, I was even more disturbed to discover that selection within schools (or setting as we call it in UK secondary schooling) is just as divisive. Instead of setting reflecting the realities of student ability they actual help to create differences in ability. Those lucky enough to get in the top sets are pushed harder, get more attention. It is no wonder they do well. The higher the set, the higher the attainment. Although we must be clear here that being placed in a higher set does not necessarily reflect potential. Those at the bottom have lower expectations of them, they are not entered for the higher level exams and are trapped in terms of what they can actually achieve. It all becomes a teacher-fulfilling prophecy.

Even if you accept this analysis, you may still be wondering how does inequality come into the argument? Gillborn addresses this in relation to race. Sets are usually based on teacher assessment and tests. We like to think that test are objective but as we know from IQ testing, they can often be culturally biased. However, this is not the main point. Setting is still largely as a result of teacher decisions. Evidence suggests that teachers disproportionately rank Black students lower in terms of potential, attitude and motivation (Gillborn 2008) (not always deliberately but often unconsciously). The statistics back this up; black students are less likely than any other ethnic group to be placed in a top set.

And as I have already argued, being put into lower sets limits achievement. So we have the stark conclusion that unconscious bias on the part of teachers leads to Black students being placed in lower sets which leads to lower achievement and helps to create the attainment gap.

You might contest the logic of the argument or the strength of the evidence but it makes a convincing argument for me. However, it raises some interesting thoughts in the context of higher education. We don’t set. We usually get the more ‘able’ end of any cohort of students. Everyone on a course takes the same assessment tasks (no tiered exams). The whole argument seems unable to explain why the attainment gap exists in higher education. So what I need to find out is?

Are there other aspects of our assessment systems that create inequality?

Is it the teaching of the subject that leads to inequality?

Is there something about the university or the system that creates inequality?

I am at the very early stages but some possible answers are starting to emerge.

Some thoughts on Q1: It is common for students to have choice in what they research or write about in an assessment. Are students are put off ‘difficult’ topics by lecturers who prefer to stick to what they know? (remember here that lecturers are mainly white) So motivated students end up writing about topics they are not interested in.

Some thoughts on Q2 & 3: Are we unable in our teaching and our practices to confront racism and be open about it? Do White lecturers fear the consequences of opening that ‘can of worms’? The risk is that racism amongst some of our students get ignored and goes unchallenged.

As I said, early days, for me in thinking this through and finding the evidence.

Your thoughts welcome as this is a space for me to think through my emerging understanding and I feel this happens best when we engage in dialogue.

Gillborn, D. (2008) Racism and Education: Coincidence or Conspiracy? Routledge: Abingdon

Learning from student researchers

I have been working with two postgraduate students on my project on ethnic minority attainment. At the start, I felt the main benefit was that as students from minority ethnic backgrounds they would be closer to the student experience. This would reduce the power distance between the interviewers and the students being interviewed and hopefully produce some insightful and interesting stories.

What was also obvious, with hindsight, was the additional benefits they would bring to the project. We have only just started interviewing but for me so far they have:

  • Challenged my thinking
  • Generated useful ideas
  • Have different contacts

Challenged my thinking

They have challenged my thinking from both their student and their background perspective. They have help me clarify my ideas and message and what we want to do. They have helped in shaping the interview schedule.

Generated useful ideas

Two heads are better than one, as they say! I would not have come up with all the ideas that we have generated as a team. This has been particularly helpful in recruitment of participants.

Have different contacts

The students are very much connected to different networks than I am. This haas proven helpful in recruitment but going forward this could be extremely useful in driving the implementation and future phases of the project. Effectively, we have a ‘steering group’ of interested people who can guide how the project goes forward.

I am sure this is just the start of my learning on this project and the start of the great benefits that the student researchers can bring to the project. In the process, I hope the students are learning valuable skills. Note to self: must ask them what benefits they feel they are getting from the project so far.


Critical Race Theory

As a very belated follow-up to my last post, I have just acquired ‘Racism and Education’ by David Gillborn. I am looking forward to getting stuck into it. I think one of the appeals of this approach is the counter-story. I love the idea of using narratives for research and for exploring the world. Originally, I had wanted to research e-portfolios in this context but I think this approach to social inequality is also a fascinating and fruitful line of enquiry.