Intellectual wellbeing in international schools

Follow the links below to explore a series of articles that I wrote for the International Schools Network on how intellectual wellbeing can positively impact teaching and learning in international contexts. The key is to link practice and practice architectures in a critical way that leads to transformation. Start by becoming attentive to practice and your place in practice. Then progress to analysis and critique before identifying a locus of change and a route to transformation. These ideas a deeply influenced by Stephen Kemmis’ work in this field and his excellent new book, which can be found (free!) here.

Hope you enjoy!

Part 1:  

Part 2:

Part 3:

​Part 4:

Part 5:  


Intellectual Wellbeing: The Pursuit of Freedom in the Professional Learning of Teachers

Patrick Alexander

Jacques-Olivier Perche

What does it mean to teach well? What does it feel like to be a good teacher? In this short article, we wish to pose these questions as a way of exploring the concept of intellectual wellbeing, which we define as the positive sense of self derived from an authentic engagement with the ethical, theoretical, and practical challenges of one’s professional domain. Drawing on concepts from philosophy and social theory, and particularly on the work of Simone de Beauvoir, we argue that there is much to be gained in rescuing the concept of intellectual wellbeing from its cruder psychological framing as a checklist of self-help activities or mental aptitudes to nurture. Applied to the teaching profession, we suggest that prioritising intellectual wellbeing is nothing short of a challenge for schools to reconnect with the essence of what an ethical approach to education should be, and to move away from outdated practices and policies that promote a simplistic idea of personal ‘growth’ measured through assessment, audit, and foregone educational outcomes. Against the late-covid, early-recession backdrop of December 2022, schools are faced with teacher burnout, attrition, retention and recruitment crises, and above all by the mental ill health of teachers and students. Current approaches to physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing, while obviously important, are not attending fully to the intellectual sphere. We argue that refocusing on intellectual wellbeing may just bring the teaching profession back from the brink and bring warmth and light, or Henri Bergson’s notion of élan vital, back into the classroom. We begin by setting the scene for research into teacher professional identity before describing the concept of intellectual wellbeing in detail. We then offer an example of how intellectual wellbeing may be nurtured through simple, practical steps at the school level.

Teacher Professional Identity: a tension between theory and practice

In the well established field of scholarship on the professional learning of teachers, there is a rich and flourishing vein of literature that explores the relationship between theory and practice in how teachers frame a sense of professional identity. In the UK context, the debate about how teachers theorise their practice is closely linked to the work of Laurence Stenhouse, first president of the British Educational Research Association, and to the work of Donald McIntyre on practical theorising. Most recently, Trevor Mutton and colleagues at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, have published a 2022 edited volume that reinvigorates debate about the relationship between theory and practice in the professional lives of teachers. Continuing in this long tradition, the latest research in this field remains focused on how teachers can engage in the deeper philosophical, sociological, and psychological questions of education while doing so in a way that attends to the practical realities and demands of the job. In a sector where evermore teachers are training in situ, and where the training period is rarely more than the vanishingly short period of 12 months, there remains and enduring tension between being trained in the techne of teaching — in the practical and technical skills that allow teachers to administer an existing curriculum or behaviour management system — and phronesis, or the practical wisdom that is derived both from experience in the classroom and from thoughtful, intellectual engagement in the underpinning theoretical and ethical propositions of education. From Stenhouse to Mutton and colleagues, there is a consistent scholarly argument that teachers who hold both theory and practice together are capable of far deeper engagement with the essence of their professional lives, and may endure in the profession much longer as a result. Acting as public intellectuals in this way — as visible, audible voices willing to celebrate innovation and critique ill-informed policy or practice — teachers may find a deeper, more profound connection with a sense of professional identity that is both practically and ethically grounded. It is perhaps the framing of teachers as intellectuals that gives them greater social status in contexts such as Finland where, incidentally, education is seen as world-leading in terms of outcomes for children and young people.

Given the focus in the scholarly literature on the tension between theory and practice in the teaching profession, and given the strong claims for the benefits merging these two essential qualities of what it means to be an authentic teacher, it is surprising that this literature gives scant attention to the potential impact on wellbeing of an approach to teaching that is both practical or technical, and intellectual, ethical and theoretical. Wellbeing is, of course, an extremely well-travelled landscape in the world of professional development and learning. Research into wellbeing is extensive and extraordinarily broad in terms of scope, including everything from the more obvious domains of physical, emotional, relational, and psychological wellbeing through to more specific fields such as, for example, human-animal relations or seeking wellbeing through interactions with AI. As much as there is an extensive literature defining the ‘what’ of wellbeing, there is an equally if not larger trove of information available about how to do wellbeing well. One need only search the pages of Medium to find a host of helpful how-to lists of activities that will help to create sustainable habits for greater wellbeing. These are often task- and time-oriented, in terms of helping individuals to find more peace through building a world around them that is ordered and organised around achievable goals. Reflection is another core aspect of the kinds of wellbeing practices promoted in the public discussion about how we might create better, calmer, more centred versions of ourselves. Reflection on failure as well as success, for example, helps to focus on the immediate activities of one’s life rather than creating anxiety around future goals or a fear of missing out on opportunities already passed. This suggests that many guides for how to effectively achieve wellbeing are often focused on individuals, and often focus on one’s actions in the present (it is worth noting here that humanistic psychology, particularly the work of Kaufman and colleagues reflects a more nuanced position on the relationship between individuals through what they might describe as an existential-humanistic approach to psychotherapy).

It is interesting, disturbing even, that among more popular framings of wellbeing the specific field of intellectual wellbeing has received far less attention as a means of finding, if not balance, then greater fulfilment in one’s life. This is not to say that intellectual wellbeing or wellness is not on the wellbeing radar — on the contrary, there are many public scholars who are beginning to expand this field by exploring how ‘feeding your mind’ is an important part of feeling better about yourself and the world around you. Whether labelled as intellectual ‘wellbeing’, ‘wellness’ or otherwise, the concept of remaining intellectually active is also a mainstay of psychological research into physical and mental good health in older age. As such, the current public discussion around intellectual wellbeing or wellness seems to frame intellectual activity as the pursuit of enjoyable activities and hobbies that are intellectually engaging, and which as a result produce feelings of happiness and wellbeing.

In the world of education, Carol Dweck’s concept of growth mindset is perhaps most frequently deployed to engage in questions of what it means to be intellectually well. As opposed to a ‘fixed’ mindset (or as Sartre might put it, facticity in an existential framework) , the lay interpretation of a ‘growth’ mindset is one that encourages individuals to feel confident and optimistic about about their capacity to grow and develop, especially in the face of challenge or adversity. The temporal framing of this mindset is always oriented to some future point of achievement that is not yet quite here, but that will come one day. Initial or continued failure is framed as a positive experience in this sense because it is not seen as the end of the process (as may envisioned, one imagines, with a ‘fixed’ mindset) but rather as a bump in a much longer road towards future success and fulfilment. While Dweck does not employ the concept of intellectual wellbeing, it is clear how being intellectually well is essential to the ‘growth’ disposition that she and may others are championing.

While there are elements of this concept that appear intrinsically positive for thinking about intellectual wellbeing (for example, the idea of perseverance against adversity), it is also possible to see how growth mindset and similar concepts (for example, character education promoting ‘grit’ or ‘resilience’ or ‘good struggle’) may be misused in educational contexts in a way that detriments the intellectual wellbeing of school communities. Specifically, the individual focus of growth mindset and related concepts makes it very possible for individual students or teachers to lay blame solely on their own shoulders when they feel unable to achieve a given skill or master the teaching of a particular class. An individual, and predominantly psychological framing of intellectual wellbeing in this sense can merge with broader discursive qualities of late neoliberal capitalism, within which the goals and achievements that build towards the ‘good life’ are also individually acquired, often in sharp competition with one’s counterparts or colleagues over the scarce resources of success. Trapped in the cage of the individual human mind, a psychological framing of the concept of intellectual wellbeing fails to attend to the world outside, including its discursive and structural influences, to say nothing of its cultural and historical variation. Engaging individuals as collectives in this wider world of thought may help to move the discussion about intellectual wellbeing beyond metaphors of individual growth and resilience, and into a new and exciting realm where the nurturing of authentic selves can only be achieved in concert with others, and with the ideas of others. In diametric opposition to self-help, intellectual wellbeing may in fact be a matter of helping selves, joined together by an ethical pursuit of making a better world beyond the limits one’s own narrow personal telos, or trajectory through the life course.

Intellectual Wellbeing

This brings us on to the components of the concept of intellectual wellbeing. In order to approximate a state of intellectual wellbeing, we propose that it is first necessary to engage in an authentic consideration of self. By this, we do not mean that individuals (in this case teachers) should stare into the dark pool of consciousness in search of essential version of themselves which, once discovered, should serve as the image in which they will work. Doing so is at best spurious, and at worst narcissistic and symbolically violent in the arrogant assumption that within us all rests dormant an ideal version of the human condition, waiting to be animated. Rather, echoing the recent work of Skye Cleary and following Simone de Beauvoir, authenticity may be considered more productively as an intention towards deep reflexivity and self-making, through which one recognises the characteristics of one’s condition and context, one recognises what one can and cannot change about one’s condition, one recognises what one should change or act on to alter this condition, and then one goes about putting these ethical, philosophical, and sociological considerations into practice. Only through action, as Beauvoir might suggest, is it possible to transform an inert portension towards authenticity (one’s inclination towards or vocalisation of the qualities that one believes to reflect authenticity) into authenticity itself. It is not enough to think about a better world: one must, to paraphrase a cliche, become changed action in order to make a better world. In the context of teaching, this would mean that one’s professional essence is not a set of ethical qualities — what it means to be a ‘good’ teacher — but rather an ongoing flow of ethical dispositions articulated through action. To complicate the picture slightly further, we might also suggest that authenticity is derived not only from recognising what one can change about oneself and one’s context, but also recognising what structural forces are in place to inhibit change or constrain action. Clearly, the adaptation of the self is far less simple for those in minoritised or marginal positions from whose vantage point it is clear that the structure of society itself is predicated and reproduced not through facilitating change but through the brutal imposition of stasis. Recognising how sharp and unflinching are the rusted cogs in this machine offers a means not only to be authentic in one’s reflections on the self, but to be active and authentic in one’s reflections on the self-in-the-world. Doing so might be framed as a shift from thinking about individual resilience to productive, collective resistance. Such a shift is particularly important for those in positions of privilege, from whose vantage point the rusted cogs of the wider system are purposefully obscured, or are less regularly in the line of sight, or are simply easier to put out of focus. As Angela Davis put it, one must refuse to accept what one cannot change, and change the things that one cannot accept. We might add here that one might always need to see change as a process in concert with others, where the privileged can only experience an authentic sense of self if they are also willing to admit complicity in making others smaller, and then do something about it — what the French social theorist Michel Foucault might call parrhesia — the act of speaking openly to confront the reality of power. The Indian philosopher Kaustuv Roy articulates this as a change in the angle of vision: if we are able to tear ourselves away from our current view of the world, to refuse to be trapped like a deer in the headlights, then a new reality can be perceived. But we must look into the darkness in order to achieve this new angle of vision — and that is where intellectual wellbeing dwells.

What does all of this have to do with teachers? The feminist thinker bell hooks might argue that this framing of intellectual wellbeing is essential to what is feels like to be a good teacher, because ‘good’ teaching should be about transgression. Counter to the proposition that intellectual wellbeing is derived from feelings of sanctuary, or calm, or order, we suggest that true or authentic intellectual wellbeing must provide shock and uncertainty instead of consensus and the warm feeling of being on time or on task. The philosopher of education Gert Biesta has described this essential quality of intellectual wellbeing as an experience of transcendental violence — a rupture in one’s view of the world that allows one to glimpse beyond the horizon of one’s established knowledge, even if one must bloody one’s knees to scramble to a new vantage point. Authentic intellectual wellbeing is achieved through the challenge of remaining awake and alert to new ideas, even or especially when they do not leave you with a greater sense of calm, order, or tranquillity. Thinking through uncomfortable ideas, grappling with difficult truths, and uncovering new intellectual landscapes is hard work; but, we contest, it is hard work that has a deep and lasting impact on overall wellbeing.


In the final part of this article, we would like to offer some suggestions of how intellectual wellbeing can be nourished in school settings and specifically in professional learning provision for teachers. We conceptualise of these spaces as clearings, because they are intended to evoke thinking through ecological metaphor and to link this particular shift in practice with the wider ecologies of learning in which teachers work. Again invoking the work of Kaustuv Roy, clearings can be seen as a connection between the self and one’s position in an ecology that is historical and discursive, or made up of ideas from the past swirling together in the shifting meteorological patterns of human society in the present. Finding clearings from which one can view these messy, broiling systems of ideas can be helpful in order to make sense of one’s own context, beliefs, ideas, and practices. It can also offer the space for using educational theory to interpret one’s condition, and to reflect on what one can or should do to emancipate oneself and/or others from the rain and the cold outside. In short, we have intended to devise clearings within which teachers can experience professional learning which facilitates intellectual wellbeing through a deep consideration of professional authenticity.

For teachers working in school contexts that increasingly demand adherence to very specific means or techniques of instruction, or prescriptive approaches to what is learned and how, intellectual wellbeing can be difficult indeed to seek out. Through our work with teachers in international schools, since 2020 we have endeavoured to create spaces where intellectual wellbeing can flourish. Our challenge has been to find ways of engaging with teachers who are overworked and battling to keep up with the new and emerging demands of their jobs. The reactive mode of teaching to increasing stress makes finding time for professional learning extremely difficult. In devising professional learning activities for teachers during this time, we were acutely aware of these pressures, and expected low turn-out and unengaged participation. However, what happened was different. While sessions focusing on technical skills or problem-oriented workshops (how to develop more effective strategies for assessment, or dealing with behaviour, for example) remained less well attended and were evaluated as less impactful for teachers, we saw an upturn in the interest of teachers in sessions that were aimed to be more philosophical, critical and intellectually challenging. We offered regular seminar sessions with leading figures from the world of educational research, including Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner, Gert Biesta, Stephen Ball, and others including the anthropologist Tim Ingold and the developmental psychologist John Coleman. Connecting teachers directly with these scholars was a means of breaking the artificial wall between the professional learning landscape of teachers (so often associated primarily with ‘fixing’ practice through changes of technique) with the world of educational theory and research. We also offered a series of professional learning programmes where teachers were given the time and space to read research and theoretical academic scholarship, and to engage in thoughtful discussions about this literature as it relates to their own professional practice and sense of self. Professional learning sessions where we confronted more abstract, ‘big’ questions were far better attended and received than sessions that, on paper, were more directly relevant to the problems emerging each day in the classroom. What, we wondered, could explain this seemingly incongruous engagement with the least practically applicable sessions, in a moment when teacher’s time was at a particular premium?

The feedback from teachers was revealing: what they were getting from the sessions was an increased sense of intellectual wellbeing — a sense of brain ‘space’ or brain ‘food’ that reconnected them with the original reasons for their engagement with the teaching profession. Another way to frame this would be a reconnection with telos, or one’s sense and pursuit of an authentic version of one’s narrative arc through life. We may add to this the notion of aidos, or a sense of failing to live up to one’s ideal path through existence. Aidos — a fear of missing out on what one should really be doing to live authentically — may be the wake-up call to readjust one’s relationship to telos. Choosing to engage with deep thinking about professional life in the context of ‘clearings’ may be one way to start this process. While open discussions of theoretical or philosophical questions may in the short term seem like an inefficient use of time, particularly when daily stresses are mounting, we found that teachers instead found more intellectually challenging sessions to be a necessary pause and reset that was also an affirmation of professional identity. If teachers are not intellectuals, then they are merely technicians in the classroom. Reconnecting with a sense of intellectual identity was for these teachers an empowering and enlivening experience. This realisation prompted a reconsideration of what intellectual wellbeing can be in contexts of professional learning.


Developing an authentic sense of professional identity requires an active rather than a passive approach to discovering who we are as professionals. Rather than discovering professional identity as innate or essential, it is more valuable to think of how we actively shape the boundaries of our professional lives. Thinking in these terms offers us the opportunity to think clearly and carefully about what we can and can’t choose about our professional selves, and what we can and can’t change about our wider context. In becoming attentive to these conditions, it is possible to intentionally choose how our professional selves are shaped, and to make active decisions about our professional lives. In doing this, it is possible to develop a more authentic sense of professional identity, and this intellectual process yields a deep sense of wellbeing and empowerment. Linked to authenticity is the understanding that intellectual wellbeing comes not from being a ‘consumer’ of professional learning activities, but rather from participating in the production of professional learning and with an awareness of one’s responsibility to participate actively in this process. Encouraging a productive approach to professional learning means championing the existing experience and expertise of teachers, but it also involves the challenge of developing new skills and knowledge that allow teachers to engage in collaboration and co-production. The sense of ownership over professional learning that comes with this process is another important part of intellectual wellbeing.

While wellbeing is often thought about as something that relates to individuals, intellectual wellbeing is created through dialogue between individuals. Linked in this way to relational wellbeing, intellectual wellbeing is about fostering relationships and community that encourage engagement and critical thinking about teaching, learning, knowledge, theory, and practice. Becoming an active participant in a professional learning community also encourages a greater sense of visibility in this community. Intellectual wellbeing can come from being recognised and seen by others as an important voice in a professional learning community. In this sense, teachers can be encouraged to become ‘public intellectuals’, or individuals who are respected and regarded for their intellectual expertise in the public domain of a school organisation. Intellectual wellbeing is closely aligned with a sense of stability in terms of professional expectations, trajectories, and outcomes. Intellectual wellbeing can be derived therefore from creating safe, sustainable spaces where teachers can refocus on the central challenges of the profession in terms of subject or disciplinary knowledge, questions of pedagogy, and broader ethical concerns about the purpose and future of education. Stability can be difficult to establish in times defined by volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (or VUCA) conditions. Where stability is elusive, it is equally vital to develop strategies for dealing with uncertainty. Moving beyond resilience, the practice of intellectual wellbeing through professional learning fosters productive resistance, because it provides teachers with the knowledge and confidence to respond critically, actively, and constructively to change.

Acting with authenticity means being attentive to who you want to be as a professional, and what actions will reflect this more ideal version of professional self. This is not a process of perfecting one’s actions or completing the process of authentic self-making. Attempting to reach the end of the process is in fact a distraction from the fact that the process itself is the means to nurture and habituate “professional elegance”. By this, we mean a disposition towards actions that are not premeditated or strategic in kind but rather reflect one’s professional essence or the ethics of one’s professional practice.

This leads us to consider how it is possible to establish a new way of thinking more profoundly about professional learning in a time of uncertainty and change. Authenticity is achieved by first reflecting on one’s relationship to the ecology of one’s professional life. Where do you dwell in your professional landscape? How do you travel through it? What is your purpose in it? Ethically, how do you feel about what you add, or take away, from your professional environment? Secondly, one might consider the nature of one’s professional context, and what one wishes to change about one’s context in order for it to better resemble a more ideal world for professional action. Finally, authenticity can only be experienced in acting on one’s reflections about professional identity. In the carrying out of actions that reflect personal and professional ideals, we may see the representation of professional elegance, or a combination of ideals, beliefs, dispositions and habits that form a way of being that becomes instinctive, unthinking, and more than the sum of its parts. Contrary to the current tendency towards focusing only on reflexivity in professional practice, this dispositional articulation of what it means to be an authentic professional necessarily requires that we do not think before we act. Our actions should themselves already show our deep engagement with what it means to be a professional in any given field, and this should be reflected in the elegance or refinement of our practice. It is important to note here that we are not using elegance and refinement as terms that give value to a particular aesthetic of practice — or, put differently, that professional elegance can only be seen in what at any given time is considered to be tasteful or even fashionable in practice. This speaks to a more superficial understanding of elegance that places form over function. Rather, professional elegance speaks to an aesthetic of beauty-in-motion — of the refinement of a craftsman or an artist at work, comfortable and confident in the messiness of the process. In this sense we can see elegance as articulated in the project of crafting one’s professional essence as an artform, or as poetry, rather than as a more simple matter an end product defined by skills acquisition or by painting by the numbers of today’s educational, technical, or professional fashions. The truly authentic professional self is an artform never quite completed. Recognising this about professional learning can nurture a deep sense of intellectual wellbeing because it reminds us that it is the human process of professional learning that should drive our practice.

If it is in the process of authentic professional self-making that the art of professional learning is revealed, then we may also think about how this process is made visible to others, rather than existing as a backstage or a footnote to the more refined public performance of professional identity we may be accustomed to. This is where it is important to consider again the role of teachers as public intellectuals — that is, as inspiring, critical, intellectuals in their respective fields who have something important to say to the public of their classroom, their school, or their community. Engaging with others in intellectual dialogue can be a force for hope and positive change because it highlights that teaching is never either a solitary act or an action solely directed towards its outcomes. In dialogue and discussion, in disagreement and in dissonance, in deep engagement with the philosophical drivers of our actions, it may be possible to move closer to an authentic professional sense of self, articulated through professional practice, and always in visible, public dialogue with others.

School’s Out Forever

Here’s a recent talk I gave for the Oxford Brookes ‘Brave New World’ seminar series. In the talk I explore what new possibilities there may be to re-imagine schooling after the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, I argue that it’s time to move away from age- and phase-based schooling limited to assessed curricula and the physical space of the school. This model of schooling is out of step with the reality that young people experience in their everyday lives. I also suggest that we can get rid of the traditional boundaries between phases of education and think instead about learning for life. Finally, I argue that we can radically rethink the transmission model of learning (and of culture) that pervades mass education. In short, to quote Alice Cooper: School’s Out Forever. Have a look!

Schooling and Social Identity: new podcast

I had a great time recently chatting with Mark Taylor of Education on Fire about Schooling and Social Identity. It’s an important time to be asking critical questions about schooling and socialisation.

Is the current age-based system of organising learning in schools in need of radical change?

Dr. Patrick Alexander from Oxford Brookes University shares his thoughts based on his new book – Schooling and Social Identity: Learning to Act Your Age in Contemporary Britain.

Patrick Alexander is a social anthropologist specialising in education, childhood and youth studies. Patrick’s research and teaching interests include the sociology of schooling, youth and youth subcultures, gender, ethnography, and social theory.


Schooling and Social Identity: Learning to Act Your Age in Contemporary Britain

My new book with the above title is now out (Feb 2020) with Palgrave Macmillan. You can access the book here: – get your librarian to buy a copy!

Here’s an outline of what the book is about:

School’s Out, Forever

My new book Schooling and Social Identitysuggests that the current age-based system of organising learning in schools is in need of radical change. If the so-called ‘Youthquake’ led by Greta Thunberg and others is challenging adult authority, then schools are next.


Why are schools organised according to age?

This question raises important issues about generational relations in contemporary society and about the nature of schooling. While society continues to change dramatically, schools are still organised much as in the 19th century. Drawing on a year of in-depth research in an English secondary school, I argue that age remains the last ‘grand narrative’ of modern society: we still hold on to outdated ideas about how the life course works, imagining it as a straight line from development in childhood and youth to stability in adulthood. While most people’s experiences of growing up and growing old are more complicated than this, schools socialise us into steady progression, year-by-year, into the future. Young people reconcile this message about future certainty with their experiences of life in the era of post-truth, fake news, and ecological crisis, where the future appears more complicated, unpredictable and uncertain now than ever. From lesson to lesson and day to day, as well as in their imagining of what the future holds, young people have to navigate a minefield of different expectations of how they should act their age. I use the entirely new concept of ‘age imaginaries’ in order to make sense of the complicated experiences of young people becoming adults in today’s world.


The tension between a linear picture of growing up and the complex, blurred lines between age categories in the present raises significant questions about mental health and wellbeing, and suggests that more can be done to effectively prepare young people for the future. There is a ‘cruel optimism’ to a school system that promises future stability (in work, family, ecology, politics, etc), while the world becomes less and less likely to deliver on these certain prospects. Instead, schools could be radically reorganised to become more dynamic and inclusive and to better reflect the complex world in which young people live. An important part of this reorganisation would be to move away from grouping according to age. While some schools in the ‘democratic education’ tradition have been experimenting with this idea for decades, it remains to be seen how a move away from age in schooling might be achieved through steady change to the mainstream system of state schooling. Individuals like Greta and youth movements like that in Hong Kong suggest that if schools don’t change, young people will lead the change themselves.


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Imagining the Future on A-Level Results Day


(originally posted here)

In the moment when current school-leavers open their A-Level results letters today, new imagined futures will be conjured into existence, illuminating in new and sometimes unexpected ways the path that leads beyond the present. In this moment, young people may confirm imaginings of the future already well-forged through years of careful preparation for trajectories through university and beyond into careers. Others may experience the jarring uncertainty of plans unmade and undone, if their results do not offer safe passage into the future that they had anticipated inhabiting in September. For many, the new regime of so-called ‘linear A-Levels’, with their ‘harder’ content and traditional format, offer yet further uncertainty because on one hand they may generate lower levels of attainment while also pushing universities to be more flexible in their negotiation of conditional offers for places.  Data out today suggests that male students have out-performed female students for the highest grades  – another shift and change that will, in some cases, have led to new reckonings of what the future may hold for young men and women.

All of this change is exacerbated by the brave new world of Clearing for universities, where evermore immediate imaginings of the future can be forged in the space of a single phone call to a university administrator. While in the past clearing was about jostling to find a place at university if your results weren’t quite what you were hoping for, removing the limit on student recruitment numbers for UK universities means that that clearing now represents an opportunity for students to make a deal that will work for them. Universities are chasing student numbers and fees, and in their role as potential future customers for Higher Education, students are flexing financial as well as academic muscle to cast for brighter university futures than they might have previously imagined.

This takes us back to our ethnographic fieldwork on A-Level results Day a year ago, when we observed the reactions, decisions, and occasional desperation of a results day at a local Oxfordshire school. On that day, imagined futures were changed literally minute to minute, as students called through to prospective universities and secured verbal agreements about changing a course or gaining a place. In these moments, futures are profoundly altered, and individuals must navigate the difficult process of re-orienting themselves to new visions of what their lives will be like post-school.

These issues speak to the broader themes that have emerged in this research project, notable among which is the increasingly rapacious uncertainty that characterises imagined futures of school-leavers, both in urban and rural settings across the UK. Whether positive or negative, or somewhere in between, the results delivered to hopeful young people today will be even less certain in their meaning and implications than was the case in previous years. The future-orientation of everyday life at school and the promise of certain rational-choice outcomes from employment and Higher Education suggest a range of futures that are relatively easy to anticipate (in the latter, the clue is in the term ‘prospectus’). In the present, however, the future is irregular. The freshest crop of A-level holders will today need to find productive ways to reckon with this irregularity as they make their way towards the heat-haze horizon of a future as yet unset.



Teaching Anthropology in Uncertain Times 

This post reaches you from a suitably changeable July afternoon in Oxford, with dark clouds hurrying across the sky, promising rain but giving over to occasional patches of good old-fashioned, elusive English Summer sunshine. I‘m reminded today of a similar summer afternoon last year, when I sat down with David Mills, the out-going editor of Teaching Anthropology, to discuss future issues of the journal. My immediate inclination was to look to the future of teaching anthropology itself as a subject for discussion in the first 2017 special issue. In the immediate aftermath of the UK referendum on membership of the EU (it’s important to remind ourselves it wasn’t always called ‘Brexit’), and with the impending election of Donald Trump as president of the United States (it will be important to remind ourselves down the line that this was not always a truth stranger than fiction), it seemed logical that we as a community of educators and anthropologists should be thinking about what new pedagogic strategies might be needed to account for the rapacious and occasionally ominous nature of contemporary social and political change. As our discussion of the topic developed, the focus shifted away from a prophetic look at ‘what’s next’ for teaching anthropology to one that encouraged discussion of the discipline’s long-standing engagement with uncertainty and the future, both as substantive themes and as concepts that inform the nature of anthropologically-informed pedagogy. Engaging thoughtfully with questions of uncertainty, we argue, is crucial not just for engaged practice in teaching anthropology, but also for challenging the particular future-orientations of educative practices at large. Kyle Harp-Rushing and our colleagues at Cultural Anthropology have described this kind of engagement with uncertainty as reclamation – as a way of embracing uncertainty not as something to be anticipated as part of an inescapable, impending future, but rather as a concept that can enrich and deepen the learning process in a way that in turn helps to positively shape the future we will eventually inhabit.

In strange but familiarly uncertain times, the editorial collective at Teaching Anthropology hoped that this would spark discussion about how we teach and prepare students for futures defined by uncertainty, dislocation and rupture. Keri Facer, among others, has pointed to the increasing use of the military term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) to describe the current state of social, political and economic systems. Baumann, Beck, and Giddens in particular have helped to shape a more complex sociological understanding of how risk and uncertainty frame our experiences of social life such that future risks and opportunities are presented in an increasingly individualized form, and yet also become increasingly difficult for individuals to know, control, or pre-empt. And yet amidst this increasingly volatile uncertainty, education continues to be represented as a locus for certain future outcomes, whether economic, intellectual, cultural, or in terms of social mobility. In the everyday life of teaching anthropology, this raises tensions because it demands a reassertion of the critical tenets of anthropology as a discipline primed to make strange the familiar certainties of education, but at a time when the teaching of anthropology is embattled and beleaguered because it does not explicitly promise (even if it regularly delivers) a clear return on investment or pathway to employment.

The well-worn tension between creativity and constraint in teaching anthropology was the main focus of discussion at a recent Teaching Anthropology workshop with secondary school teachers and academics, focusing on the theme of teaching about culture and difference in uncertain times. The workshop, held at Oxford Brookes University and funded in collaboration with Oxford University and the ESRC, revealed a range of personal anecdotes, pedagogic strategies, and individual initiatives all of which articulated different elements of how uncertainty emerges in the mundane every-day of the classroom. Some shared affirming stories about successfully encouraging young people to engage with uncertainty in order to unsettle preconceptions and challenge the taken-for-granted. Others described circumstances where critical approaches to teaching anthropologically led to intense anxiety on the part of both students and senior management because the learning was not designed explicitly to aid in examination preparation. In the latter case, this led to a disciplinary hearing and job instability, highlighting another facet of uncertainty for teachers of a subject already at the curricular margins both in secondary education and in universities.

This tension leads also to the question of stewardship, focusing on the disciplinary legacies that teachers nurture and protect, and why they think it’s important to do so.  In exploring the kinds of futures we are teaching anthropology for, we are prompted to consider the pedagogic moments of rupture when teachers decide to challenge disciplinary pedagogies and carve out new directions in response to new challenges. Advocating radically new ways of teaching and learning may offer ways of reimagining what the discipline has to offer students in helping them to find a way in uncertain times. The articles and reflections featured in the forthcoming special issue of Teaching Anthropology reveal how a combination of innovative practice and time-honoured, ethnographically-informed pedagogy can help to frame the teaching of anthropology in a way that makes uncertainty a powerful analytic tool for learning and living in uncertain times.

Growing Up to Be ‘Kinds of Men’

What do you want to be when you finally grow up? In 2014, on a humid September morning, I boarded a crowded subway train to arrive at the New York City public high school where I would spend a whole year exploring this question. I wanted to find out how high school kids make sense of their futures, and to better understand how schooling socialises us to imagine the future in particular ways. I also wanted to know more about the barriers that get in the way of achieving these futures, and how young people manage to overcome these challenges (if they do). I didn’t know then that masculinity would also become one of the more important and evocative themes in the ethnography. Understanding experiences and articulations of masculinity became a way for me to consider how neoliberal framings of aspiration are used to make sense of the future for young people in school. This is what I write about in my recent chapter in the edited volume Masculinity and Aspiration in the Era of Neoliberal Education: International Perspectives.

Continue reading “Growing Up to Be ‘Kinds of Men’”

Life Course as Method: Age Imaginaries in School Ethnography



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Like most social scientists, my approach to methodology is in important ways entangled with personal narrative. 
My interest in age as a field of social analysis emerged from my early experiences as a secondary school teacher. 

As a twenty-three year-old trainee, I was barely older than the more senior teenage students in my charge. At the same time, I was easily recognizable to my senior colleagues as member of the same generation as their own children. Training to be a teacher involved my immersion in the uncertain performance of several different identities: professional adult, grown-up in a classroom full of kids, youthful teacher. It was jarring to me to experience simultaneously what seemed like mutually exclusive categories of age. Out on the playground, students (and, sometimes, teachers) engaged in their own complex and ever-shifting negotiation of the age-based rules of engagement in everything from friendship to bullying, dating to disgust, dominance to deference. This led me, several years later and newly formed as an anthropologist of education, to focus explicitly on age in its multiple imaginings as aspect of social life in schooling in the UK.
Approaching age as the primary focus of anthropological analysis presents methodological challenges. Expanding one’s methodological approach to capture multiple, overlapping reckonings of age is perhaps particularly tricky in schools, where order is predicated on the neat portioning of the life course into categories like age groups, year groups, grades, or stages of the life course linked to educational achievement. The difficulty lies in analysing age as an aspect of social experience, while also recognising that age is both an essentialised and an essentially dynamic aspect of social identity. This makes it something of a moving target for the beleaguered anthropologist in the field.
Ironically, researchers have tried all kinds of approaches aimed at mitigating the impact of age, and its concomitant asymmetrical power relations, as a barrier to robust data gathering. Many of these, I would argue, serve to further reify the discreteness of the age-based positionality that a researcher holds relative to younger (or older) informants. Attempts to adopt a “least adult” role in ethnographic research (put crudely, adults acting out childhood with children) may lead children to experience rather peculiar imaginings of childlike adulthood. The sociologist Ronald King (1978) famously hid in a Wendy House (or play house) in order to conduct non-participant observation with children in a classroom, uninterrupted by the presence of adults; and not surprisingly, this method also raised its own problems. Hammersely and Atkinson have pointed out the tension between knowledge, power and age in the role of the school ethnographer, arguing that, in the eyes of participants, chronologically younger researchers may fit more neatly with the role of ignorant but curious observer than do older, and therefore seemingly wiser, greying professors (2007:77). More recently, the “new” sociology of childhood has championed participatory methods as a way to foreground the voice of children and young people in school-based research. While there are significant gains to be made in better representing the self-efficacy of young people as actors in the research process, there are also issues here: it is debatable as to whether “child-centred” research (research that privileges and makes paramount the voices of children) can always be equated with what might be termed “childhood-centred” research (research that questions the terms by which the children and young people in child-centred research are defined). Research about children’s and young people’s lives in this sense must be seen as an important part of the process by which discourses of age are shaped and reproduced, rather than as a practice that exists alongside and apart from it.
In my own research, I have pursued, failed, and persevered with a range of methods for capturing the social complexity of age. Ultimately, I have found some success in a traditional approach to ethnography that embraces the messy, mercurial, dynamic nature of age as a “unit of analysis” and in so doing also attempts to capture the rich and complex ways in which age is given meaning in everyday life. Rather than limiting my analysis to the known taxonomies of age that shape life in school, my challenge was to capture the complex, concurrent, multiple notions of age that served to structure the lives of both teachers and students. As with my own experience as a teacher – of performing at once a version of grown-up, of growing up, and of being little more than a big kid with a beard – these imaginings of age were constructed relationally, idiosyncratically, and in dialogue with dominant discourses of how age “ought to be” experienced. Age, I found, was imagined in a moment-to-moment way that moved beyond existing taxonomies of age, but was also obliged to render itself sensible to them. The methodological hurdle was the capture this complexity. I have attempted to do so through applying the concept of age imaginaries– a “warts and al” approach to recognising how age shapes the ethnographic process as much as it shapes experiences of schooling for children, young people, adults – and everyone in between.