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It’s only a game? Challenging wicked problems and folk pedagogies

Countdown to #ECU2017

ECU is now counting down to our 2017 annual conference, which is taking place in Birmingham on Tuesday 7 and Wednesday 8 November 2017.

As part of our countdown we will be publishing blog posts written by speakers, at our conference, between now and the conference itself.

The first post in this series is from Liz Austen and Stella Jones-Devitt (Sheffield Hallam University) who will be presenting on ‘Challenging wicked problems and folk pedagogies to address the BME attainment gap in higher education’ on day two. For more information about this workshop visit our online conference programme.

It’s only a game? Challenging wicked problems and folk pedagogies

We are currently experiencing a global political climate in which it some ‘alternative’ viewpoints – the zeitgeist of our time – are gaining traction and seeping from the fringes into the mainstream.  Whilst liberal higher education rejects this damaging osmosis, perhaps it’s pertinent to ask just how far we’ve really progressed with equality of experience and opportunity?

Within the context of higher education, the statistics for protected characteristics make grim reading.  In 2014/2015, 0.5 % of Professors were Black (compared to 92.2% White) and less than 1% of senior management positions were held by black and minority ethnic (BME) females (compared to 67.3% White males). Almost a quarter of UK domiciled students in England were BME in 2014/2015 (an increase of 44% since 2003/2004) yet the national attainment gap between UK White and Black students was reported as 26.3%.

Creation and Confidence: BME students as academic partners

Given this context, we explored strategies to address this imbalance within our own institution, equipped with resources, evidence informed good practice, and sector support (from the REACT initiative).

We were shocked by the resistance we encountered and the array of explanations offered by staff for the differential outcomes of their BME students and those who are minoritised.  We began to explore these revealing ‘folk pedagogies’ which denied the lived experience of the tellers, and made simplistic deficit assumptions about student engagement and ultimately attainment.

We have been encouraged to share our experiences both at conferences, and via publication, in order to develop a shared understanding of possible solutions.

Whose lens?

It could be that the BME attainment gap is a wicked issue; one which risks becoming ubiquitous and almost unsolvable? Further analysis by our research team concluded that scrutiny of Critical Whiteness, and therefore the lens through which the problem is viewed, might provide the solution.  Without such a focus the problem is simply ‘tamed’ by the homophilly of institutional cultures.

This is not a game

As advocates of social justice and equality of opportunity, we firmly believe that minoritised students should not be pawns in institutional game playing. However, to engage you in this discussion, we will play a game – snakes and ladders (with a difference).  Aside from appearing in childhood memories, the historical origins of this game are based on lessons of morality, vices and virtues: Quite apt for this context. In this workshop we construct ladders as ‘enablers’ and snakes as ‘barriers’ to challenge wicked problems and folk pedagogies which mythologise the BME attainment gap.

Why us?

We have recently published our reflections in the REACT Special Edition of Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change and we are exploring the development of a Critical Whiteness Toolkit with colleagues from across the sector. Join us on Day 2 of the ECU annual conference 2017 (8 November) to discuss ‘Challenging wicked problems and folk pedagogies to address the BME attainment gap in higher education’.

Liz Austen and Stella Jones-Devitt
Sheffield Hallam University

The views and opinions in this blog post reflect those of the authors and not Equality Challenge Unit.