ERG SES E 11, Educational Curriculums
Some young people are excluded from school, while other young people exclude themselves from school. From Taiwan to Estonia, South Africa to Sweden, from the UK to other Anglophone countries, they are known variously as disengaged youth, dropouts or NEETS (not in education, employment or training) (Chen, 2011; Kraak, 2013; Larsson, 2013; Leino & Others, 2013; OECD, 2017). The notion of alternative education or open schooling as it is sometimes called, hosts a broad spectrum of non-school based learning programs to cater for such young people. Each program has its own inherent power structures that are influenced by nation-states’ corporatized education systems, government legislatures and differing jurisdictional pathways through which they are funded. They seek to provide pathways to inclusion in civil societies.
This paper presents initial findings from an ethnographic research project aimed to construct an understanding of the learning experiences of youth who participate in a particular alternative education program designed to service young people aged 15-18 years in regional Australia. This publicly funded service is known as the Alternative Learning Space (ALS) program. Its distinctive mode of education delivery uses an online e-learning curriculum supported with face-to-face support from volunteer tutors, youth workers and visiting teachers. Students and staff work in spaces negotiated via collaborations between a host school of distance education and community not-for-profit agencies. The project sought to identify the physical, socio-economic and cultural features of these ALS ecosystems that impact students learning and their transitions back into formal schooling or into further education, training, and/or work. At this stage in the project, initial findings are being interrogated to determine the ways in which these ALS features may be impacting the students’ pathways for social mobility.
Such an ALS program could be described as a “learning web” (Illich, 1973, p. 32), as a place where learning exchanges occur between students, teachers and volunteers as peers engaging in critical discourse on issues affecting their lives. This utopian imagining of ALS is somewhat disrupted by Chomsky’s (2011) notion of the systemic power structures that control how youth experience this type of alternative learning program, where dominant discourses and structures continue to constrain social justice and opportunities for changing social mobilities.
Concerns have been raised both internationally and domestically about whether the curriculum offered in alternative learning programs puts student at more risk due to their strong focus on vocational and basic skill attainment, with a lack of formal academic qualifications that can be attained (Caroleo, 2014; Connor, 2006; te Riele, 2007). This raises the question of whether the curriculum affordances are supporting sustainable social mobility for these students at a time when many industries in regional areas across the world are morphing from low to high skill frameworks with concomitant knowledge demands.
Given this context, the key issue of concern is whether these young people who could be categorised as not fitting within the standard model of education offered in Australian schools, have a right to the same opportunities as those who do have the social capital (Bourdieu, 1989) to negotiate the standard model. Current curriculum offerings for students who attend ALS is limited to literacy, numeracy, and some externally provided vocational training courses. Those excluded from mainstream schooling, yet included in alternative educational pathways, are set up with limited post-secondary school opportunities. Rather than supporting young people to achieve successful transitions to sustainable social mobility, ALS may in fact be contributing to class stratification through an instrumentalist curriculum approach.
Critical ethnography was chosen as the methodology because it allowed a synergy between ontological and epistemological perspectives that knowledge is a social construct influenced by power relations; and the possibility of participant involvement becoming an empowering experience (Fetterman, 2010; Wahyuni, 2012). Approval to conduct the research was obtained from the researchers’ university Human Research Ethics Committee, the School of Distance Education, and the relevant community agencies hosting the ALS on their premises. Over a six month period, the first-named author collected data through (1) field notes recording participant observations; (2) semi-structured individual and focus small group interviews with students and support staff (i.e. youth workers, teachers, program administrators, and volunteers); and (3) artefacts. This emerging researcher also maintained a reflexive journal during data collection and analysis phases (Brewer, 2000; Denscombe, 2010; Lichterman, 2015; Roth, 2012). Because of previous work with such youth, including in ALS environments, the actual time-in-field for this critical ethnography was three years altogether. Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) is being used to maintain alignment with the project’s aim of engaging the youth who attend the ALS program in critical thought relating to what they are learning at ALS and how it was affecting their school to work transitions and inherent social mobility (Fairclough, 2013). CDA fits within a constructivist paradigm and adds a historical dimension to reporting the interactions between social and discourse structures, while highlighting the way discourse can reproduce or resist socio-political inequity (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Fairclough, 2013). This paper presents preliminary findings from analysis of 10 digitally recorded and transcribed individual and small group semi-structured interviews (22 participants in total). These data were anonymised via the use of pseudonyms and entered into the NVivo software program for ease of manipulation during this analysis phase. Discourses were developed through a thematic analysis that utilised an emic perspective to initial coding, with ongoing pattern development and constant comparison processes as data were examined across and within code categories (Clarke & Braun, 2013). Interpretation of the discursive themes entailed reading and rereading the data categories and evidentiary excerpts, referencing relevant literature and working with supervising research colleagues who are co-authoring this paper.
Preliminary results represent participants’ conceptualisation of the ALS curriculum; its content and structure through which power is exercised differentially. First, the curriculum content affords impoverished opportunities compared to mainstream equivalents. Second, the curriculum structure affords flexibility and support provided to these vulnerable young people. For instance, the curriculum’s job-ready focus provides basic literacy and numeracy, which is identified as a positive attribute of the program by a majority of the participant group. However this dominant discourse is challenged by both students and staff who highlight the inadequacies of the curriculum for access to tertiary education and future career options, “It’s very basic and it’s not enough to get me up to the level that I want to be at to go into my career choice” (Val – Youth participant). The flexible structure of the curriculum is valued because, “it makes life easier with the flexible hours and the not so much stress as you’ve got in mainstream school” (Raine – Youth participant). However, the curriculum must now provide data-driven outcomes. Therefore “there’s been a lot more structure put in so it does feel very, very structured now compared to what it was” (Ann – Administrator). This education system is now requiring academic accountability, such that administrators “need to […] review all of their progress […] make sure that we’ve got those things in place, academically [for] our accountability to the system” (Margaret – Administrator). Paradoxically, while the curriculum’s flexible delivery structure is perceived to support learning opportunities for inclusion in society, its current curriculum content may be reducing potential social mobility affordances. The emergence of such accountability discourses is the next challenge to be explored.
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