Excellent Me! Investigating Scholastic Identities and Learning within Discourses of Excellence

Group identity Secondary education School curriculum Academic performance Pacific Area
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Many schools define their educational vision in terms of excellence in achievement for all. This research presents a picture of how one school engages with the discourse of 'excellence for all' to produce localised interpretations and discursive constructs of successful learners and successful learning. Embedded in the New Zealand Curriculum (2007), excellence operates as an explicit value to be taught and learnt, a value contingent upon practices of recognition deployed in schools to incentivise and reward students.This thesis demonstrates how the discourses of excellence for all impacted upon the scholastic identities of a group of high-achieving children in one New Zealand intermediate school. I apply a poststructural lens to understand the identity work that the students engage in as they strive for excellence at school. Recognising the potential influence of structural factors in crafting a sense of self, I also employ Bourdieu's (2010) concept of cultural capital to analyse factors contributing to the valorisation of particular scholastic identities and accomplishments.I employ a qualitative methodology in this thesis, maintaining ethical reflexivity to enable greater ethical symmetry between researcher and participant. For this study, three research activities constituted the inquiry process. The first activity involved a visual presentation created by each of the four participants to illustrate how they saw themselves and their learning. These presentations served as elicitation tools for the second research activity, individual semi-structured interviews. The third research activity asked the students to collaborate on a guide to achieving excellence at their school. Combining a general inductive approach with discourse analysis, I report my findings in two chapters. The first focuses on the role of the school as a 'producer' and 'effect' of discourses of excellence, and how that shapes students' identity work. The second considers the emotional labour of students' engagement with excellence.The students in this study were selected by their school as best placed to demonstrate excellence, yet engaging with discourses of excellence still presented complex negotiations of identity. The students' perceptions reveal that diverse and contradictory constructs of excellence inform what counts as achievement and who can achieve. When recognition of academic worth is unevenly distributed however, the rhetorical certainty of excellence for all begins to untangle.

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