Beyond individual ‘troubles’: Recontextualising aspirations through heavy/light funds of knowledge

Year: 2019

Author: Patfield, Sally, Gore, Jenny, Fray, Leanne

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Widening participation in higher education remains a well-entrenched but elusive concept. Over the past few decades it has become embedded within institutional policies and strategic plans – even part of the ‘core business’ of universities. However, we are yet to see any substantial alleviation of historical exclusions. Instead, in many cases, there have been severe increases in educational inequality. Against this backdrop, the dominant narrative underpinning widening participation continues to centre on the ‘problems’ of individuals, thus misrecognising young people from disadvantaged backgrounds as deficit in skills, attitudes, and motivation. In this way, wider inequalities are ignored, aspiration-formation is decontextualised, and solutions tend to focus on bestowing knowledge and resources that are demarcated as ‘valuable’. In this paper, we seek to reconceptualise the widening participation agenda by disrupting this longstanding and pathologising emphasis on the individual. Borrowing from the scholarship of Archer (2018) and Zipin (2009) who theorise light(positive) and heavy (challenging) funds of knowledge, we turn our attention to (re)contextualising the formation of aspirations within the lifeworlds of young people, understanding ‘aspiration’ as both historically and culturally situated and produced. Drawing on data from a sustained (2012-present) program of research investigating the aspirations of young people in New South Wales, we narrow the focus to one community, Muellerina, analysing interviews conducted with students (n = 88), parents/carers, teachers, and community members (n = 53). While our analysis shows that family and community are key assets that young people draw on in constructing and nurturing their imagined futures, we also found that their everyday experiences of in/exclusion are characterised by poverty, unemployment, racism, and intergenerational trauma. We therefore argue that widening participation must shift beyond the construction of highly individualised ‘troubles’ to instead recognise how students from disadvantaged backgrounds draw on delegitimised strengths and navigate through deeply complex historical and structural inequalities. Such recognition may be critical to any genuine attempts to widen participation.


Archer, L. (2018). An intersectional approach to classed injustices in education: Gender, ethnicity, ‘heavy’ funds of knowledge and working-class students’ struggles for intelligibility in the classroom. In R. Simmons, & J. Smyth (Eds.), Education and working-class youth (pp. 155–179). Palgrave Macmillan.

Zipin, L. (2009). Dark funds of knowledge, deep funds of pedagogy: Exploring boundaries between lifeworlds and schools. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 30, 317–331. doi: 10.1080/01596300903037044