International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 18 - 20 July 2016
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‘Powerful Knowledge’: situated enactments of policy on the ‘student voice’

Steve Dempster and Murray Saunders Educational Research, Lancaster University


This short paper extends the notion of powerful knowledge mentioned in the think piece by Monica Maclean. In her think piece she outlines Michael Young’s note on the characteristics of powerful knowledge and the way it provides explanations, suggests alternatives, enables a lens beyond everyday experience and is conceptual as well as empirical. This is only a partial description but will serve as a platform to explore the theme identified in the title of this paper. We argue that understanding the dissonance between what policy statements might intend in terms of descriptions of desired practice and the day to day situated experience of the recipients of policy (in this case students) might be understood powerfully in terms of close up research and the range of methodological and method based implications this might imply. To foreground this type of conceptual position (policy effects should be understood in terms of situated adaptation and interpretation) means we challenge received forms policy impact research associated with ‘take-up’ studies. However, to deny access to such studies may indeed be a form of epistemic injustice which can occlude renditions of policy in practice. So, to the focus of this paper. The authors and other colleagues have been engaged in the evaluative research of Scottish policy on teaching and learning for some 12 years (the Quality Enhancement Framework). This has enabled a longitudinal appreciation of the way in which the policy has evolved both a text and its enactment as practices. We have used the metaphor of the implementation staircase to capture the epistemic approach associated with policy enactment research. In this paper we intend to focus on the experience and descriptors of the notion of ‘voice’ from the students’ perspective. Drawing on the evaluative research of the QEF, a central plank of which is to support active and engaged pedagogy, we assess the power of the approach in terms of its theory of change i.e. what assumptions underscored the range of mechanisms to improve and enhance the position of students both in terms of their representative power and in terms of the quality of the engagement they have with their own learning. Consistent with the broad approach we outline above, we find that the students’ narrative of their experience of learning both challenges and is in alignment with the expectations and hopes embedded in the policy. To seek for attribution however is conceptually at odds with our position. This means we do not seek to explore the extent to which students attribute their present experience with a particular policy but seek to establish alignment between their narratives of experience and the expectations embedded in policy texts. The presentation will contextualise the idea of student voice within the policy texts, position students in terms of their experience of learning within a policy implementation staircase (and both extend and offer a critique of its use as a framework) and analyse the use of the various elements of the QEF as a theory of change. It will conclude that policy enactment that focuses on the student voice is best understood as situated, partial, adaptive and rhetorical.


Link to Full Paper (If submitted)


Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

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