Kate T. Anderson is an Assistant Professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. After receiving her PhD in Sociolinguistics at The University of Georgia, Dr. Anderson worked at the Learning Sciences Lab at Singapore’s National Institute of Education where she was PI on a 3-year study designing and facilitating digital storytelling workshops for youth in- and out-of-school who were marginalized by the educational system. Her research draws from discourse analysis, ethnography, and other qualitative methods to examine the role of ideologies in constructing everyday notions of social difference with regard to ability, race, language learning, and other social categories and labels.
Ideologies–the taken-for-granted beliefs about how things supposedly are (e.g., Woolard & Schieffelin, 1984)–often form the basis of judgments about others. Consider what counts as ability and how we measure it, or who is seen to speak “good” English and what we imagine them to look and sound like. From ways of talking to behavior in the classroom, value-laden assumptions come to bear on how we see and label others. In fact, these cultural assumptions and beliefs can seem more real than what people actually do or say. In my research I’ve looked at how ideologies about language and learning shape notions of what counts in specific educational contexts and to consider how it got to be that way. One way to understand how we label types of learners or speakers and what those labels mean in a given sociocultural context is to focus on particulars, or stories, in our research. To help ground this point, I’ll first share a bit about my own research and then discuss the role of stories-as-evidence in educational research concerned with equity.
My work in Applied Linguistics (e.g., Anderson, 2007) concentrates on language ideologies and how our perceptions about accents or dialects can influence what we actually hear (see also John Baugh’s work on linguistic profiling, e.g. Baugh, 2000). Language ideologies critically shape equity and opportunities to succeed in school, from which languages are sanctioned to how language proficiency is measured. While linguists contend that no form of language is inherently good or bad, individuals, groups, and sometimes societies think otherwise. In fact, most of us grow up feeling that there are good ways of speaking and not-so-good ways, and that’s just the way it is. Educational institutions often serve as standard bearers, shaping what counts as “good” English, for better or for worse. It is hard to deny that commanding some ways of speaking carry more privilege, can lead to better scores on tests, or can keep gatekeepers at bay. However, it doesn’t have to be that way; it just happens to have become the way it is through many processes over time.
Another prevalent ideology affecting equity in schools surrounds the notion of ability. I tried to show how in one 5th grade classroom (Anderson, 2009) perceptions of ability or competence were tied to who is looking and how. A test measures ability in a different way than a teacher observing a student in the moment–tests capture discrete and isolated bits of knowing, while teachers see students in lived contexts across time interacting with others. Additionally, certain measures carry more weight and tend to follow us around, while others are more fleeting (e.g., being labeled as having a learning disability vs. getting the wrong answer to an in-class question). As Ray McDermott (1993) and many others in educational anthropology have pointed out, ability labels are social constructions, not inherent qualities of individuals. In the same way, ideas of “good” English become more believable and real as they crop up across multiple venues (e.g., media outlets, policies). Despite the fact that most of us have first-hand experience of how a context can make us feel (or seem to others) more or less able, we still tend to attribute a good deal of importance to grades, scores, and the like, because the ideology of individual ability and measurement are ingrained in many of the most reproductive aspects of our educational system (e.g., policy, assessment), as well as the moral fabric of our society.
So, how do these ideologies of “good” English and ability work to shape how we as individuals and collectives see learners and evidence of learning? What counts, to whom, how do we create types of people through the ways we talk and interact over time and in the moment, and what are the consequences of this cultural work for different groups of students? And what can we do about it, if anything? In order to interrogate labels and the ideologies underpinning many of them, and what they mean both for those who are labeled and those doing the labeling, researchers have some options. Large-scale studies examining aggregated data and their associations along different variables related to demographics, institutional conditions, performance on assessments, trends, and so forth, is an obvious choice. Funding is readily available for such work, and much highly touted research is done in this manner. Another approach to research entails looking at the particularities instead of the aggregate–the potentials and their actualizations, what labels mean to actual people, how they get applied, when they stick, when they don’t, what opportunities are availed. This kind of work is messy, takes a long time, and funding for it is trickier to obtain. In part this “particularities” brand of research doesn’t have as loud a voice because it doesn’t generalize or lend itself to traditional conceptions of replication, two dominant ideologies of evidence currently shaping the research climate. For this particularized type of research to count as evidence in more arenas, an ideology of “story-as-evidence” needs to start making the rounds.
Many past contributors to this blog have shared moving stories about how individuals’ beliefs about students’ ability or potential can be instrumental in shaping lives. Educational research that tells us stories, just like these blogs, is important. Some traditions in research hold stories in high regard–for example, critical race theory’s counter narratives, ethnography’s “thick, rich description”, narrative inquiry’s, well, narratives. Stories-as-evidence can take many forms. They can be anecdotal, or they can be multi-year ethnographies. They can be fragmented in order to shed light on contradictions inherent to human life. They can also be told in painstaking, line-by-line detail and mapped onto broader social structures. For example, Griffiths and MacLeod (2008) discuss stories they group together as “auto/biography” (e.g., life history narrative analysis) as evidence of different ways of knowing. They lay out how stories can be used to inform policy, not only to explore possible solutions but also why those solutions work in particular contexts as well as challenging taken-for-granted assumptions about the status quo based on evidence from individuals’ stories understood in social contexts. Another example of stories-as-evidence, Gallas (1994) interweaves her own teacher/researcher stories with those of her first and second graders’ learning and language use over time to construct a narrative of children’s ways of knowing to show how these can challenge staid notions of teaching practice. No matter their form, stories are an important part of the evidence that we should be drawing on to inform practice and policy. What counts as evidence can productively broaden to complement the push to rely on the kinds of labels that increasingly shapes practice in our “era of accountability”, which dangerously flirt with supporting ideologies about what and who counts in increasingly narrowed ways instead of questioning them.
Anderson, K. (2007). Constructing “otherness”: Ideologies and differentiating speech style. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 17, 178-197.
Anderson, K. (2009). Applying positioning theory to analysis of classroom interactions: Mediating micro-identities, macro-kinds, and ideologies of knowing. Linguistics and Education, 20, 291-310.
Baugh, J. (2000). Racial identification by speech. American Speech, 75, 362-364.
Gallas, K. (1994). The Languages of learning: How children talk, write, dance, draw, and sing their understanding of the world. New York: Teachers College Press.
Griffiths, M., & MacLeod, G. (2008). Personal narratives and policy: Never the twain? Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42, 121-143.
McDermott, R. (1993). The acquisition of a child by a learning disability. In S. Chaiklin & J. Lave (Eds.), Understanding practice (pp. 269-305). London: Cambridge University Press.
Woolard, K., & Schieffelin, B. (1994). Language Ideology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 23, 55–82.