A question of form: challenging deficit constructions of different ways of knowing

Year: 2009

Author: Sellar, Sam, Gale, Trevor

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In neoliberal accounts, students themselves are often blamed for their disengagement from schooling. So when low student achievement and access to higher education is highly correlated with low socioeconomic status-as it is in most OECD nations-the problem is usually explained in terms of these students' lack of aspiration and/or capacity for educational success. In this article we offer a different explanation for the reproduction of social and economic privilege through education. At one level, it is a familiar refrain. Educational inequalities tend to be produced by education systems. Prevalent in this, universities-particularly the most prestigious-exert downward influence on the typically dominant knowledge content privileged in secondary school curricula. We add that universities also influence forms of thought valorised in schooling, and argue that the 'ways of knowing' legitimized by educational institutions are more indicative of privilege in schooling, and society more broadly, than are knowledge contents. Following Deleuze and Guattari (1987), and engaging with debates about the coloniality of knowledge, we suggest that the formal character of thought is generally assumed to be both natural and universal. As a result, difference is more readily acknowledged in terms of diverse applications of thought-the production of different knowledge content-than it is at the level of thought itself. We suggest that granting equal legitimacy to different ways of knowing is more challenging to the dominant 'common sense' and the logic of educational institutions. However, doing so is an important aspect of efforts to avoid deficit constructions of students from non-dominant cultural groups and to provide more inclusive forms of education.

To illustrate the complexity of these issues, and the tensions inherent in efforts to recognize the legitimacy of different ways of knowing, we examine a recent review of South Australia's Certificate of Education (SACE): the qualification received by students completing the final year of secondary schooling, which plays a significant role in determining their capacity to access tertiary education. The SACE review proposes policy reforms that may enable mediation between school and university in more inclusive and engaging ways for students from low socioeconomic status and subaltern cultural backgrounds, while acknowledging that such efforts are also constrained by the ways in which universities determine 'what counts' as legitimate knowing and knowledge in the final instance. We develop our argument through analysis of both the policy text and its context of production.