In the work of Tony Sewell in

In this essay I will argue that school as a formal education system has
an insufficient awareness of learning, which significantly contributes to the
academic failure of young students. It is also important to note that academic
failure within these institutions does serve as an accurate indicator of a
child’s overall ability to learn.  There
are several reasons for arriving at this viewpoint which are highlighted
through the work of Tony Sewell in Generating
Genius: Black boys in search of love, ritual and schooling (2006) and Gillian
Evans in Educational Failure and working
class White Children in Britain (2006). By providing the opportunity for
black boys schooling in the UK to attend a summer education scheme in Jamaica,
Sewell (2006) demonstrates how practical learning styles, and the
reorganisation of an individual’s social and material environment has the
potential to awaken the academic ‘genius’ within. In a similar manner, Evans
(2015) emphasises social class as a key factor in addressing underachievement
within schools in which “white working class boys are
doing worst of all compared to any other group of young people in the country”
(Evans 2015:9). This finding is surprising to many because it disrupts
the dominant narrative that race, and namely institutional racism, is the
greatest hindrance to academic achievement for young schoolboys in formal
education systems. Nonetheless
Evans’ classroom participation in Pokemon affairs draws attention to a
particular kind of intelligence among white middle class boys despite poor academic
performance. This leads us to question the ways in which formal education
systems might reap better results once taken-for-granted assumptions about
learning are dismantled and revised in order to meet the potential of its


Notably, categories of race and
social class have played a large role in contributing to debates surrounding
academic success among children. However, by drawing greater attention to
social class,  it becomes evident that it
is the most significant factor in understanding educational failure, largely
because it challenges our emphasis on race. Evans highlights that only 16% of
white working class boys were achieving 5 GCSEs in which “white working class
boys are the worst performing ethnic group in the country” (Telegraph 2016).
This disturbs the notion that the current education system only disadvantages
race in which a large proportion of the debate only focussed on institutional
racism and the underachievement of African-Caribbean boys. It also displays the
fact that African-Caribbean boys who are failing also happen to be from working
class backgrounds. It suddenly becomes very clear that white, black and Asian
boys from working class backgrounds have a lot in common, and more in common
than focussing on race allows for. To only focus on race is to focus on
difference however, by focusing on class, greater similarities can be drawn. In
this way, we can better challenge the formal education systems and the
taken-for-granted assumptions about learning. This is not to argue that
institutional racism does not matter but rather that there are also broader
issues relating to social class that also significantly contribute to how well students
pass through formal education. 

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Lave’s (1982) focus on learning
emphasises that there is a rich variety of learning processes in which formal
and informal learning are integral to every form of education. Formal learning can
be understood as teaching that takes place through systematic, formalised and
explicit verbal and written communication.  This is often presented through school
education systems which function in a highly specific and institutionalised
social environment. Notably, any form of learning that does not align with the
latter is often deemed informal. However as humans have an advanced capacity
for learning, it is important that we do not restrict the ability to learn to
one particular social sphere, but instead observe and review many different
types e.g. at home and at school. In addition, we should be mindful not to fall
into the assumption that the learning process is natural lest we take it for
granted. There are deep structures that humans are involved in, and it is the
content of the interaction and environment that influences the outcome of the
learning process. Institutions must therefore recognise the value of informal
learning, review the form of participation required in classrooms, and examine
the possible reasons why the current formal education system is not prosperous
for all students.




In the process of childhood
learning, anthropologists have been guilty of over-estimating the role of
adults and under-estimating the role of children. However, to understand how
things become cultural knowledge, we must be attentive to how children process
information, because it is these cognitive processes that help us to understand
adult life. For example, Hisrchfeld (2002) highlights how well known
games such as ‘Cooties (US) have become children’s unselfconscious culture, and
are reproduced without adult intervention. Cooties can be defined as “a social
contaminant that pass from one child to another, a form of interpersonal
pollution” (Hirschfield 2002: 617), and while cooties are invisible, cootie
childhood practices are not.  As
cooties are used as an offensive weapon and aim to exclude and stigmatise
particular children, it shows that children have the ability to engage in a
system where individuals are strategically regulated through space.  This game is solely enacted by and
experienced by children, and it is important that we credit them with the sort
of intelligence, talent and agency required to practice such games.




Similarly, Toren (1990)
demonstrates that children are not passive recipients of the socialisation
process but actively make sense of hierarchy. 
In Fiji, a child’s first experience of the classification of social
hierarchy is through materiality. They are able to co-operate and participate
effectively by bowing to the adult seated in the highest chair whilst adults
bow because he is the highest ranking in society.  Despite their being a difference in
understanding between adults and children, it highlights that children have the
capacity to successfully and effectively make sense of their social settings,
and respond accordingly. Possessing the proficiency to act in an acceptable
manner, as a child, is indicative of how well children are able to process and
learn information.  It would be
unfortunate to overlook this ability and underestimate the potential of
children to employ advanced intersubjective skills.




In order to better organise formal
education systems, school based-learning tasks must therefore incorporate a
similar form of participation required of children outside of school.

It is not that all working class
children do not have the capacity to learn or participate appropriately in
classroom settings, but that rather, there is a select number of those who do
struggle, who must be accounted for and considered. Evans argues that the
working class child is often at great disadvantage in comparison to their
middle class counterparts as a result of the parent-child interaction displayed
in the home. She explains that working class parents “focus on other kinds of
core values which tend not to hinge on the development at home of success in
formal-learning-type tasks” (Evans 2005:7). Whereas, intensive parenting by
middle class parents often includes investing time and resources into ensuring
their child is deemed ‘clever’, and so results in “the precocious development
in children of proficiencies in formal learning type skills” (Evans 2005:8). Both
approaches to parenting can neither be judged as good nor bad but are made evident
when education systems reward children for excellent class participation and
contribution. This highlights the fact that, often, the ability to meet the form
of participation required in formal learning settings is the standard at which an
individuals learning capabilities are measured.


By viewing the classroom as
particular situation, Lave and Wenger’s (1991) situated learning theory
highlights what forms of participation take place within it. The theory emphasises
that humans actively learn how to participate appropriately. For example, Evans’
ethnographic account in “Pokemon and Peers” demonstrates how her ability to
draw Pokemon characters enthused the class and caused many to request drawings
for themselves.  Noting that Evans was previously
disregarded and ignored by several ‘disruptive’ class members prior to
displaying her skill, it soon became apparent that her drawings paved access to
class peer relations and granted a legitimate way to participate. As Pokemon
was valued among students Evans could participate in a socially meaningful way
and engage in a highly specific form of participation as a result of her
competence. While disruptive class members failed to participate constructively
in the formal learning style taking place in the classroom, their willingness
to participate in Pokemon affairs highlights that learning is not subject to
the formality of the classroom but also presents itself in informal matters. It
also shows that institutions must learn what forms of participation are
meaningful to schoolboys in order to stimulate participation.


As children enthusiastically trade
Pokemon cards, we witness how a highly specialised sphere of exchange creates a
form of competitive economy between children. Evans describes how children
place the most value on rare Pokemon shinies in which the acquisition of such
grants social prestige and influence.  Reputation is also gained by skilful trading
and maintaining a buff collection. This is reinforced as Evans’ daughter pleads
to buy another pack of Pokemon cards from the store, noting that hers does not
contain any shinies. This illustrates that as children develop competence, they
begin to embody a particular set of cultural values expressive of what people
in this community of practice are striving for and are oriented towards. Evans’
daughter was dissatisfied with her cards because she identified that the
absence of a Pokemon shiny would reflect poorly on her social presence within
this particular community. This is a result of the fact that she has embodied an
ethical disposition as the emergent outcome of participation, which in turn helps
her to define what is good to do in order to become, and what is not. This
example teaches us that children actively learn what is required of them in
particular social situations and can successfully meet the demands of their
environment when required. Similar to the example in Fiji by Toren (1990) and
playing Cooties, we see that children are capable of engaging in complex
systems that mandate the capacity to learn actively.


Arguably, it is not that
disruptive children are un-teachable or unwilling to learn, it is the form of
participation and the learning style that is presented within classrooms that
is unappealing, and so this generates resistance. Evans (2005) shows that while
schoolboys resist the dominant form of participation, they actively participate
in trading Pokemon cards on the basis that this form of participation is
seemingly more valuable to them. Whereby, the sulky behaviour displayed by
disruptive members of the classroom is an oppositional stance and a form of
resistance to the participation otherwise expected. In order for ‘disruptive
schoolboys to enjoy and be receptive to classroom assignments, the classroom task
must be meaningful to them.




Sewell (2009) also identified that
underachievement among black boys was not a sincere reflection of their
potential. While others labelled them “the lost tribe” (Sewell 2009:3), Sewell
was persuaded that they were the next generation of scientists and
doctors.  With such, he initiated “The
Generating Genius” programme alongside his charity, in order to raise
aspirations among young black students, and demonstrate that they are able to
achieve academic success in a new material and social environment. The
programme consisted of an intensive three-week course at Imperial College
London and provided boys (aged 12 onwards), from failing schools, practical
experience of science, engineering and medicine. The success of the programme showed
that by investing in the academic potential of young ‘failing’ black schoolboys,
they are able to attain the same academic achievements as their racial


The launch of Generating Genius as
a summer programme at the University of the West Indies enabled participants to
recreate the self.  As the sense of self
is emergent and is predicated on the material properties of an individuals
environment, as well as the inter-subjective elements they are engaged with,
the programme was able to challenge the social history of young black
schoolboys. Noting that the individual and the world are mutually specified, it
proves difficult to separate the person from their social relations and
reoccurring habitual acts, unless they are given the opportunity to rewrite the
conditions of their existence. By travelling from the UK to Jamaica, the young
schoolboys were able to dispose of the temptations to engage with gang culture
and could instead participate in a new social learning environment that highlighted
“the fun and responsibility of campus life” (Sewell 2009: 2). In doing so, the
young schoolboys also