Discourses of Ability We Live By

In some of my work I’ve argued that unless we engage more with progressive conceptualisations of academic ability overall, the concept will, by default, continue to be overly-determined by a narrowly-conceived measure of particular cognitive skills (https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/a-new-direction-for-gifted-education-studies). To this end, I presented a paper recently at the European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA) Annual Life History and Biography Network Conference, entitled ‘Differing Discourses of Ability We Live By’. This drew on life history narratives to better understand the long-term impact, over the lifecourse, of having failed the 11+ examination taken by some adults in the last year of their primary schooling in England.

Part of my paper, utilising Foucault, focused on how psychological measures such as this and related discourses carry huge authority. The power invested in these discourses then leads to the shaping of academic identities in ways that are surely not warranted by the measures themselves (not to mention issues of socio-cultural bias, unfair access to preparation for tests and yearly variants in cut-off levels for grammar schools determined by fluctuations in the birth cohort). I was interested both in the impact of these dominant discourses of high ability, but also in what might be the potential counter-discourses that individuals draw on. In some of the life histories the 11+ was indeed a momentous event, for some both an ending – of a hoped for education and family aspirations – as much as a beginning of what was then to follow. For all it was a significant turning point in life, but a further interpretation of the life histories is that such failure can set up an ongoing present – one participant speaking about how they were ‘still failing the 11+’ much later in life when something did not work out.

An apparent counter-discourse was that of ‘emotional intelligence’. Recourse to discourses of affect to counter discourses based on cognitive aspects of ability alone were welcome, especially in the form of ‘EQ’, which so closely resembles the altogether more troubling, if largely discredited, ‘IQ’. Life history work itself enabled participants to explore multiple understandings of ability beyond the one dominant discourse and in this sense gave voice to frustrations. However, not withstanding this, there was much evidence of the onerous lifelong impact that resulted from having failed this one examination at such a young age. By not focusing attention on those that fail, and instead talking up the opportunities afforded to the few disadvantaged pupils who pass, we refuse to adequately acknowledge and reflect on such debilitating lifelong ramifications.

The Life History and Biography Network (LHBN) of ESREA is a space and community of researchers that I have for some years now drawn much from – in terms of both the affective and the cognitive dimensions. It is a celebration of European research in this field, with scholars hailing from all parts of the continent and beyond. My paper was presented in a session with colleagues from Italy, who (having presented both in English and French) commented that in Italy such testing and sorting of children so young would be unthinkable and simply not countenanced. It is always sobering to reflect on our own educational values and practices in a cross-cultural light and be reminded that what may at times appear inevitable is in fact highly contingent on a host of specific historical and cultural conditions.

I have argued elsewhere that we need an enriched, varied set of discourses about ability and perhaps even a more nuanced language. In this paper however, it was not necessary to follow this logic as what was being argued – and what appeared so obvious to my European colleagues – was simply that in seeking and hearing the life histories of those failed by this national test at the age of 11, we ourselves cannot fail but to apprehend the ongoing danger inherent in using narrow measures of ability to do far more work than they should ever have been called on to do. Our collective failure to provide challenging, engaging, relevant schooling for all, is turned into the personal failing of a proportion of eleven year old children. Given what we now know about the lack of impact on social mobility, the bias towards those who are coached and the harsh justice of any arbitrary cut-off score, the fact that a new round of grammar schools is once more on the horizon is testament to what happens in education when we divorce affect from cognition, and facts from values.

Dr Laura Mazzoli Smith is Research Excellence Academy Fellow in the Research Centre for Learning and Teaching, School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University. She was previously Senior Research Fellow at the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, University of Warwick. Her research is mainly situated within the sociology of education and she works in a social justice and education cluster.  She is author of a book entitled Families, Education and Giftedness: Case Studies in the Construction of High Achievement (with Professor Jim Campbell). Previous conference presentations at ESREA have resulted in book chapters for Constructing Narratives of Continuity and Change (Eds. Reid, H. and West, L., Routledge) and Stories that Make a Difference (Eds. Formenti, L. and West, L., Pensa Multimedia), available at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Laura_Mazzoli_Smith/publications

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