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What counts as reality in teachers’ experiences?: Bringing materialism into pragmatism
Linnaeus University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Education. (Studies in Curriculum, Teaching and Evaluation (SITE))ORCID iD: 0000-0001-5554-6041
Örebro University.
2015 (English)In: ECER 2015, Education and Transition. Contributions from Educational Research, Network: 28. Sociologies of Education., 2015Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

In Europe today, the pace of change is so fast, “that every teacher needs to keep her practice under constant, critical review and adjust it in the light of students’ outcomes…”. Teachers should offer individualized teaching “so that all learners achieve specified outcomes”. (European Commission 2012, p. 5). The European policy rhetoric, as well as other transnational policy discourses (OECD 2005, Barber & Mourshed 2007), emphasize the teachers as having the most important impact on the performance of their students within educational institutions. It is reasonable to say that there is a strong transnational policy pressure in European countries to focus on the role of the teacher and on student performance. What we know less about is how this pressure on the results and grades affect teachers' social environment in today's society marked by digital communications.

 

The purpose of this paper is thus to examine how perspectives of transactional realism and materialism can contribute to a more complete understanding of factors within and outside the institutional environment of school that form different but overlapping networks for teachers, potentially affecting their room for action.  The research question we will explore in this paper is: What factors contribute to shape the relations constituting the social environment for the teacher in the task of grading, with the potential to affect her space of agency?

     

The theoretical framework of this paper is based on John Dewey’s view of transactional realism and on the more recent understanding of materialism and actor-network theory, represented by Bruno Latour.  Dewey (1925/1981, 1938/1991) was engaged in the reconstruction of realism (Sleeper 1986/2001, p. 7), but as Westbrook (2005, p. 40) notes, it was a “piecemeal realism” Dewey argued for. This means that there are things that are existentially real, but they are not real in any essentialist way, instead they are “contingently real objects”, not “permanently real” (Sleeper 1986/2001 p. 147). Dewey’s logic of theory and piecemeal realism means that the “world” is influenced through our actions and vice versa. The reality “is in the transactions among all those events that participate in the context including the participation of inquirer” (Garrison 1994, p. 13).

 

The sociologist Latour (2011, p. 11) writes that Dewey “invented reflexive modernization before the expression was coined”. The actor-network theory (ANT) examines how heterogeneous networks connects and manages to hold together, more or less temporarily, and enact economic, political and social phenomena or effects. As formulated within ANT, reality is enacted in practice: “ontologies are brought into being, sustained, or allowed to wither away in common, day to day, sociomaterial practices” (Mol, 2002, p. 6). Consequently, performances have to do with material processes taking place continuously, which draws attention to materiality and multiplicity, and posing questions about ‘conflicting realities’. This also means that different objects, including human subjects, will take different form in different places and practices. So instead of asking ‘How do teachers do when they make judgment on grades?’ a more pertinent question might be‘Where are grades?’, implying that entities of grading take different form in different places and therefore it is relevant to trace the socio-material processes where, in this case, grading occurs as performances in webs of relations (Mulcahy 2012).  In this sense, grades and grading do not function as a representation of a fixed reality, or as different perspectives of a fixed reality, but as different realities enacted in different spaces, with different functions and consequences.

 

Method

We build on a narrative from an authentic interview in a Swedish newspaper in April, 2014. We use a fictive name of the teacher and call her Susan. Following the logic of ANT, we do not take the social as a given stable entity, but in accordance with Latour (2007, p. 5) the social is regarded as connections between things assembled in contingent ways given a certain state of affairs. We therefore rather trace new associations, instead of looking for explanations by predetermined forces as social contexts or social factors. The teacher’s agency is an effect of different forces and connections the teacher encounter in various educational situations. In the paper we explore some of these forces experienced by the teacher Susan in her work with setting grades. Latour (2007) differentiate between two different means to produce the social: intermediary and mediators. Intermediary transports meanings without translating or changing them in any way; the output is the same as the input. Mediators, on the other hand, “transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry” (p. 39). The notions of translation, mediators and intermediaries help research trace how things come to be (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010, p. 12). The analysis is conducted in the following way. First the actors are identified in the interview with Susan. Once actors are identified we trace their various connections by asking questions about where the actors are placed, how connections are made possible or difficult, and of what is emphasized or obscured. What actors enact as mediators, as translators, and what actors enact intermediary, that is, enacts as truths and matters of facts? Then we trace how the mediators change events and phenomena according to the interests and rationalities they represent. In the case of Susan’s story we see that it is not only the content of e-mails communicated between teachers and parents that has an impact, but the e-mail-technology itself brings about an ontological change. Moreover we identify the various spaces of networks where grades and grading are enacted in multiple shapes. These spaces are for example the curriculum, students’ assignments, teachers’ considerations, conversations between teachers and students and between teachers and their colleagues, and e-mails. Considering these spaces, we pose questions about how the different spaces are linked together and how different actors change or move the limits of the spaces.

Expected Outcomes

By tracing the associations in Susan’s story of how she handles her professional situation of grading her students, it becomes obvious that her work at a secondary school is governed by the demands of a market-driven school system. In such a system, the means for the teachers to assess, evaluate, and grade students are directly affected by how well-rated and popular their schools are, as schools become dependent on the money each students bring to them with the voucher system. When looking at the actors involved in Susan’s story, we find that both human and non-human actors and activities fill the workplace that is hers: parents and students (enacted as customers), supporting principals, grades, computers, e-mail conversations, more or less concealed threats, parental engagement, and time. The computer places the parents almost literally in Susan’s living room in the evenings due to its role as a mediator, translating the assemblage of computer, e-mail-technology, influential parents, a prestigious school that is careful with its reputation; a gathering of items that most significantly intrudes into Susan's private life whether she decides to act upon it or not. Bringing material aspects into the consideration of Susan’s situation helps us to see that it is the technology itself that changes the spaces and moves grading into several spaces where Susan does not have her professional authority.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2015.
Keyword [en]
pragmatism, materialism, teachers' work, assessment
National Category
Pedagogy
Research subject
Pedagogics and Educational Sciences
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:lnu:diva-44919OAI: oai:DiVA.org:lnu-44919DiVA: diva2:824353
Conference
European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) 2015, Budapest, September 7-11, 2015
Available from: 2015-06-22 Created: 2015-06-22 Last updated: 2015-10-19Bibliographically approved

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