The arbitrariness of educational advantage and disadvantage

In the Australian educational system, there is the idea of gifted and talented students. According to the NSW Education Department, gifted students are those whose potential is distinctly above average in intellectual, creative, social and physical performance. Talented students are those whose skills are distinctly above average in one or more areas of human performance.

This type of classification stems from the idea that “gifted” is due to genetically natural resources whereas “talented” is the product of labour.

Basing human performance for assessment is problematic for education. This is because education performance is the result of the social environment that the person is in, as much as the effort of the person, least of all is the person’s inherent characteristics.

One of the characteristics that the NSW Education website lists as demonstrable by academically gifted students is “highly-motivated, particularly in self-selected tasks is one characteristic”. But motivation depends on what activities a person has been exposed to and their experiences in these activities. A positive experience could lead to motivation whereas a negative experience may not.

Another characteristic is “unusual or advanced interests”. Interest in what? Who ranks interests and preferences? What is unusual or advanced for some might be norm for others. This characteristic is not only value-laden in terms of assessing, but a narrow way in understanding interests and exposure to life.

“Exceptional critical thinking skills or problem-solving ability” are also listed. Again, these characteristics are seen as “good” but we have to wonder in what contexts are they good for and who should be doing this judgement? Moreover, critical thinking skills would be exhibited differently in different domains because of different knowledge systems. For example, critical thinking in literature is different to critical thinking in religion, but both domains are life aspects as much as academic subjects.

Behavioural traits like “frequent asking in-depth and probing questions” seem to give currency to certain communication style which would be different across cultures. In Vietnamese and Chinese societies, the hierarchical structure informs the communication culture where people speak in accordance with the hierarchy of old vs young, senior vs junior, teacher vs students, master vs servant. When students from these cultural backgrounds come into Australian schools, they may not ask questions directly or in probing ways because they obey their own cultural rules and norms of communication. But they will be viewed as not “gifted”. In thsi way, viewing certain traits to be good assume homogenous culture – Western culture to be precise. It imposes such values onto people, and assess them in an arbitrary way that actually marginalise them.

The Department of Education considers these “gifted and talented” typologies as entry points to selective high schools or opportunity classes in primary schools. Yet, the tests which students undertake to gain access to these schools are not reflective of any of these characteristics. In fact, they are based on standardised tests that can be studied for usually through years of private tutoring.  

If the classification of “academically elite” seems arbitrary, the notion of “academic disadvantage” is equally arbitrary in its construct.

There is much evidence, for example, from PISA, TIMMS or ATAR that indicate low socioeconomic backgrounds are associated with lower test performances. In other words, economic capital provides material resources that give students the means to achieve educational outcomes.

However, effects of educational disadvantages that appear through economic status are shaped by broader cultural, political and educational contexts in which students, families and schools operate.

Associated with economic capital is embodied resources due to family upbringing, which may align parents’ interest and expectations with those of the schools’. In turn, these aligned values and expectations could lead to parental involvement with the schools and position students with advantage.

Linguistic diversity is a resource that students from ethnic background own, but whether they can mobilise it in schools depends on the linguistic capital of teachers, other students, and school curriculum and teaching and learning practices. If they cannot, then they are disadvantaged particularly if their teachers and peers do not value their linguistic skills or linguistic diversity.

Some teaching practices, for example collaborative learning or group work, are viewed to be positive for learning but not all students are equally inclined to these practices. If they are familiar with these teaching styles, then they are disadvantaged because they may not respond to these practices as well as those that are familiar. They then may be seen as lacking requisite to learning.

The school culture influences students’ dispositions toward the values that are expected of them. Those that find their school climate to be an extension of home life experience a match between their norms and school norms. Those that are not may encounter barriers that impact their learning.

So, disadvantage or advantage are really the effects of the social contexts which are often carried into schooling contexts. In a neoliberal educational system, where economic resources provide students with advantage and outcomes that emphasise economic values, they also create the conditions for educational disadvantage more profoundly.

Disadvantage and advantage are two sides of the same coin. They are both associated with social structures and relations that the students happen to be surrounded with, rather than something that is inherently theirs.

Disadvantage or advantage are also contingent on the values that schools and society place on certain skills, attributes and forms of knowledge, typically those of Western culture. If students have and are able to mobilise these skills, attributes and tacit knowledge, they are in a position of advantage. Conversely, those that are without or ability to mobilise such “capitals”, they are in a position of disadvantage.

Educational inequality is a societal problem which carries into the educational system, schools and classrooms. Improving inequality is thus a social responsibility.

This blog is a short version of an article “Capital and capabilities in
education: Re-examining Australia’s 2015 PISA performance and context assessment framework

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