What we can learn from James Scott and Albert Hirschman about schooling

With the publication of the Engaging Students report, the Grattan Institute hit upon a widely-felt but under-reported phenomenon in classrooms – disengagement. According to authors Peter Goss and Julie Sonnemann, disengagement and minor disruptions are more widespread than anti-social and aggressive behaviours, and about 40 per cent of students are disengaged. These students are 1-2 years behind their peers, and affect the the whole class’s learning.

I’m going to look outside of classroom research to think about this issue. One of the transformational moments in my education was reading James C Scott’s Weapons of the Weak. [This paragraph outlines the book, but you can skip to the next paragraph as its non-essential.] Written in the 1980s, it examines the impact in rural Malaysia of the Green Revolution – the introduction of new production techniques into agriculture, which  increased productivity and changed relationships in the village. The gap grew between wealthy and poor, which shattered their  existing arrangements (the poor ascribed the wealthy villagers with status, who in return provided feasts and some assistance to the poor). Once the wealthy had new production techniques and huge production surpluses, and less need for labour with their substitution of more productive technologies, their attention shifted away from the poor towards the faraway markets they began to serve.  What was once a highly interdependent village with the social and economic intertwined was now more explicitly transactional, and traditional roles and bonds were weakened.

The book details the ‘everyday forms of resistance’ carried out by the losers of the Green Revolution, in the form of behaviours such as gossip, shirking, theft, etc. According to Wikipedia, Scott’s follow up, Domination and the Arts of Resistance describes the hidden and public transcripts that occur in a situation of domination. Public transcripts relate to what is outwardly displayed, which is often done to avoid the attention of the oppressors, while hidden transcripts relate to the behind-the-scenes actions of the oppressed. In order to understand the oppressed, one must look to these hidden transcripts.

There is something to be learned from James C Scott about the classroom. Students show the teacher one face and their friends another. They use minor forms of resistance everyday. Much like shirking workers, they disengage from school work. They disrupt to a low level, enough to disrupt the class and show their resistance. It is this low level disruption, and disengagement, that should be the main focus of school teachers with respect to discipline and engagement.

Consider disengagement and minor disruption as preventing shirking under a labour contract, with the teacher as the employer and the student as the employee. Disengagement effectively increases the ‘transaction costs’ involved in the classroom, through greater monitoring and enforcement costs.

Another way to look at it is Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty. If students are unhappy and disengaged, they can either voice their concerns or leave the school. Except they can’t – most students will not be able to leave the school as they compulsorily attend the local state school. And if they do move to an independent school, they are still subject to the NSW curriculum. In this instance, the best prospects for change would be to use voice to influence the school in your favour. But with little hope of exit, and the domination of the teachers, backed up by legislation, students are often left with no option but to quell voice and exercise everyday forms of resistance.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. By removing the curriculum monopoly currently in place, and offering students choice in schooling, students could vote with their feet. With voice currently not a great option, exit would be useful. The presence of exit would enhance voice and bring hidden transcripts into the light of day (rendering them ‘public transcripts’). Schools should be trying to understand these hidden transcripts anyway, but with the threat of exit, and the enhanced voice that will follow, it will be difficult to ignore student sentiment.


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