The impact of a game-based approach to Bourdieu on learners training to teach in post

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Reynolds, Cheryl
The impact of a game-based approach to Bourdieu on learners training to teach in post-compulsory
education at an English University
Original Citation
Reynolds, Cheryl (2015) The impact of a game-based approach to Bourdieu on learners training to
teach in post-compulsory education at an English University. In: Inspire Conference, 14 January
2015, University of Huddersfield. (Submitted)
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Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
The impact of a game-based approach to Bourdieu on
learners training to teach in post-compulsory education at
an English University
The delivery of theory alongside practice in teacher education is inherently
challenging and prone to failure, leaving trainees ill-prepared to problematise the
social and cultural realities that shape their classrooms. Finding new and productive
ways for trainees to engage with theoretical concepts is, therefore, an important
educational and social outcome. This paper explores the use of a game-based
approach to the teaching of Bourdieu's notions of field and habitus to two small
groups, training with a University in the North of England to become teachers in postcompulsory education. Critical and learning theories are used to explain and justify
the design decisions and strategies employed and critical participatory action
research is used to evaluate the impact of the game. The paper reports encouraging
findings and recommends extension and wider use of such strategies in the teaching
of theory to resistant groups.
The context for this study was two small groups training with a University in the North
of England to become teachers in post-compulsory education. Their qualification
requires them to 'develop judgement of what works and does not work in teaching'
and ' to ensure the best outcomes for learners,' (ETF, 2013). As such, it is a
Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
practical programme focussing strongly on competence and skills. However, it also
requires, 'deep and critically informed knowledge and understanding of theory' (ETF,
2013). Such theory often constitutes a 'threshold concept ... akin to a portal, opening
up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something;' often
experienced by trainees as 'troublesome knowledge — knowledge that is ‘alien’, or
counter-intuitive or even intellectually absurd at face value' (Meyer & Land, 2003, pp.
1–2). Whilst engagement with theory is an important outcome for trainee teachers
that enables them to recognise and challenge the reproduction of inequality in
education, its delivery is inherently challenging and prone to failure, leaving trainees
less able to problematise the social and cultural realities that shape their classrooms.
All the trainees in this study were working as in-service teachers in post-compulsory
settings alongside their studies. As is typical of this sector, there was a
preponderance of vocational teachers, with only three of the twenty-three
participants engaged in traditional academic teaching. In England, class-based
attitudes to vocational qualifications and the institutions in which they are delivered
persist. Often seen as 'second-chance' institutions and places for 'other people's
children' (Richardson, 2007; Thompson, 2009), they lack parity of esteem with
schools and universities. Teachers who work within them tend to have lower levels
of general education and are less well remunerated than their counterparts in UK
academic settings or in some vocational settings abroad. The qualifications which
they deliver have also been undermined by successive failures to create parity of
esteem between academic and vocational qualifications in England (Hodgson &
Spours, 2010; Pring et al., 2009; Simmons, 2009) and this in turn, 'relates to the
long-established status distinctions between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ knowledge ...
related to the social division of labour by sociologists such as Émile Durkheim and
Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
Basil Bernstein ' (Thompson, 2014, pp. 10–11).Theoretical constructs are arguably
vital to trainees working within so loaded a system, so that they can develop a critical
consciousness; an ability to 'analyze, problematize .. and affect the socio-political,
economic, and cultural realities that shape lives' (Leistyna, 2004, p. 17).
Bourdieu's notion of field and habitus provides one route to such consciousness;
'field' being the social arena in which relationships are formed and 'habitus' being an
essential asset of the individual upon which that field operates (Grenfell, 2012). The
theory enables an evaluative perspective on how educational fields might favour or
militate against particular individuals. It rests, however, on a set of subtle ideas
about the ephemeral and contingent nature of social reality. The trainee teachers in
these two groups had previously shown reluctance to engage with such theory which
they saw as esoteric and inaccessible, preferring instead to rely on what they knew
of their own practice.
Basil Bernstein's notion of knowledge as either vertical or horizontal is useful in
highlighting the systematic importance of this issue to teacher education. Vertical
knowledge is based on abstraction and generality, whereas horizontal knowledge;
is often tacit or otherwise informally transmitted, and lacks generality; as
Bernstein puts it, horizontal knowledge is segmented, in the sense that it is
associated closely with particular contexts and sites of practice, and can be
contradictory between different segments. (Thompson, 2014, p. 39)
This means that horizontal knowledge is often vital in particular working contexts but
if this is the only type of knowledge an individual possesses, it limits the ability to
transfer across contexts or to question and cope with change. Vertical knowledge
enables individuals to be evaluative of change and is also higher-status, conferring
greater rewards, both monetary and in terms of esteem.
Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
The fundamental pedagogic problem for teacher educators [is] how to bring
together the horizontal knowledge associated with practical pedagogy in the
workplace with the vertical knowledge embodied in many subject areas and in
the formal theories of learning encountered in ITE. (Thompson, 2014, p. 40)
For this study, gamification was identified as a potential strategy that would address
this challenge. My approach was informed by the ideas of Vygotsky (1978) and of
Wertsch (1985) on the social formation of mind as well as recent research on
gamification (Deterding, Dixon, Khaled, & Nacke, 2011; Kambouri, Thomas, &
Mellar, 2006; Sharpe, Beetham, & Freitas, 2010; Walsh, 2014; Whitton & Moseley,
2012). Whilst the gamification literature presents a series of persuasive, small-scale
case studies, there is a lack of robust empirical evidence in support of its efficacy.
Moreover, there are important caveats. The very notion of a game as a trivial pursuit
may be irredeemably compromised by attaching to it a serious, learning purpose
and vice versa and this can lead to tensions in classroom environments (Deterding,
Björk, Nacke, Dixon, & Lawley, 2013).
A further caveat is that any game is ultimately only a metaphor, requiring the players
to be complicit in the illusion. The metaphor inevitably breaks down at some point,
failing to fully and accurately represent the concept to which it refers. This can,
however, form the stimulus for more advanced discussion. In the game, learners
master a rudimentary ability to play the academic 'language games' required to
discuss theory (Wittgenstein in Shotter, 2012), thus opening the portal to a new
'threshold concept' (Meyer & Land, 2003).
Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
The importance of attaining mastery of specialised language through social
interaction, with learners actively engaged in constructing their own, internal
representations of an external reality has a significant pedigree in the history of
learning theory. For Vygotsky, the means by which these internal representations
are constructed are always, in the first instance, social: 'Every function in the child’s
cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the
individual level; first, between people ... and then inside the child.' (Vygotsky, 1978,
p.57). Inspired by these ideas, the game-based approach employed here is
dialogic, providing scope for interactions that are more tolerant of misconceptions
than a formal, didactic atmosphere. Frequent, informal, low stakes opportunities to
use specialised language are afforded within the game so that the social interaction
that Vygotsky conceives of as vital at the outset of the learning process is more
successfully negotiated. This is significant given trainees' insecurities around
academic language that frequently arise out of the class-based and entrenched
attitudes to professional identity outlined earlier in this paper.
To succeed, however, the prospective learning must lie within Vygotsky's Zone of
Proximal Development (ZPD). This is a golden zone between what the learner can
do unaided and what they are completely unable to do, even with help. Within it, the
learner is able to break new ground through exchange with a more knowledgeable
other (MKO). Wertsch (1985), explored more closely how speech acts mediate the
inward migration of learning from the social to the internal world within this zone:
initially, the learner is unable to understand the MKO in the context of the task. In
this case, the terms 'field,' 'habitus,' 'doxa,' etc fall into this category. The game
provides opportunities to continually employ these terms whilst demonstrating their
meaning through the situations thrown up within the game. The learner is thereby
Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
enabled to progress through subsequent stages of internalisation, at first responding
with limited understanding but with a growing capacity for complex and accurate
exchanges. In the most successful cases, this culminates in an autonomous and
sophisticated commentary, applied to situations beyond the confines of the game.
The ultimate aim is mastery of a new way of thinking about and discussing practice
and a consequent shift in the learner's identity.
The Game
Gamification of this kind emphasises ‘playing to learn’ (Sharpe, Beetham, & Freitas,
2010, p. 75) through ‘high level immersion’(Kambouri et al., 2006, p. 5). In addition
to the ideas of Vygotsky and Wertsch, the design of the game was informed by
criteria drawn from the gamification literature; the need for storytelling, clear
progression, freedom to fail and rapid feedback (Stott & Neustaedter, 2013), as well
as avatars, evocative environments, narrative context, ranking, marketplaces and
competition (Deterding et al., 2011; Walsh, 2014; Whitton & Moseley, 2012).
To begin the players are each randomly issued one economic, two social and two
cultural capital cards. In Bourdieu's terms, economic capital is money or other
financial assets; social capital arises out of social connections and cultural capital
arises out of behaviour, manners, demeanour, mode of speech, deportment, habits,
preferences etc. For Bourdieu, all these forms of capital act as a currency for
exchange. This is Bourdieu's fundamental insight; 'It is in fact impossible to account
for the structure and functioning of the social world unless one reintroduces capital in
all [emphasis added] its forms and not solely in the one form recognized by
economic theory' (Bourdieu, 1986). Our failure to account for alternative forms of
Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
capital blinds us, it is argued, to the consequences of cultural and social capital in
our own lives and in the lives of our learners. This misrecognition is at the root of
persistent social injustice and inequality because it allows it to continue
For Bourdieu, cultural capital is manifested as habitus. This is a complex notion.
For the purposes of this game and to initiate trainees' journey towards an
understanding of it, they were told that their hand of five cards determined their
'habitus' and was akin to 'who they were.' They were encouraged to choose a name
that they felt reflected this habitus and to introduce themselves to the group in this
guise, explaining the cards they held and embellishing with a life history if so desired.
As an example, one player dealt the hand of heir to a dukedom, with knowledge of
how to obtain controlled substances, on an income of £29,719 per year and with
links to the DJ of a top nightclub called himself Jasper and adopted a 'posh' accent
and a rebellious demeanour. This became his habitus, which along with the others
in the game, was metaphorically carried into a series of four widely divergent social
fields: a nightclub, a prison, an interview for a University place and an election
campaign. Each of these fields had its own 'doxa' or set of rules which enabled the
players to calculate their 'symbolic capital' based on the cards held. For Bourdieu,
this symbolic capital is automatically generated from the habitus whenever an
individual enters a field and is used to assign them their legitimate status there. In
this way, it was demonstrated that habitus acts as a kind of 'credit card' for social
status but one which changes in exchange value according to the particular field in
which it is being used. Monetary prizes for high symbolic capital were issued. Any
who accumulated enough wealth during the game had the opportunity to purchase
Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
additional social and cultural capital as play unfolded. The doxa was deliberately
weighted to favour wealthy, well connected individuals of a higher social class.
Methodology and findings
The methodology employed was critical participatory action research. This entails
'collaborative commitment to engaging in iterative cycles of planning, acting,
observing, and reflecting to address untoward consequences of social practices.'
(Kemmis, McTaggart, & Nixon, 2013, p. 313) This is congruent with the game
because both call for a focus on social justice. I framed the game session as both a
learning opportunity and a research activity and introduced it as 'an open
communicative space,' in which the trainees' views about the game were sincerely
sought in order to improve current and future iterations. I explained my hopes and
expectations but also my eagerness to pursue findings that contradicted or
complicated them.
The first group in this study was made up of ten women and six men, ranging from
twenty-nine to fifty-five years of age and the second, six women and one man, aged
between twenty-eight and forty-two. I articulated this to each group as an example
of an 'opportunity sample' (Colman, 2008, loc. 853); not necessarily representative of
the whole population of in-service, post-compulsory trainee teachers in England and
therefore of arguable validity. Whilst more objectivist approaches to research would
reject this method of sampling as not presenting generalisable findings, I explained
that critical participatory action research rejects the notion of an external expert who
enters a setting to record and represent what is happening. Instead it entails, 'the
recognition of the capacity of people living and working in particular settings to
Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
participate actively in all aspects of the research process thereby, 'owning the
discourse: seizing the power!' (Herbert, 2005 in Kemmis et al., 2013, p. 419).
The sessions were an hour long and took place, one in the summer term and one in
the autumn term of 2014. I issued a set of cards, a scorecard, a doxa for each field,
some fake money and a printed set of rules to teams of three or four players. The
cards carried QR codes with links to purpose-built websites, hosting support and
extension materials (see example in Figure 1).
Figure 1
I also created a two minute video introduction to Bourdieu to be played at the start of the game (Figure 2).
Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
Figure 2
This was followed by a quick demonstration of the rules of play, also issued on a
handout. Trainees then played the game for half an hour. I took note of the use of
any novel terminology whilst they played. At close of play, a winner in each group
was 'rewarded' with applause, allowed to join a 'club' of winners on a 'special' table
and to purchase biscuits with their fake money. This was used as an opportunity to
discuss 'symbolic violence:' exclusion, less favourable treatment or vilification of
those with low symbolic capital.
To consolidate learning, students were given five minutes in silence to write down
what was uppermost in their minds as a consequence of playing the game. Written
impressions were shared with the group and included a sense of injustice and
Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
applicability to their own life histories and those of their learners. The link between
monetary reward and social/ cultural capital was recognised and decried. Also
commented upon were ways in which the game differed from reality and further
questions about the definitions of specialist terms. Two trainees commented on the
effects of overlapping doxas when friendship groups are performed in classrooms or
work-placements. These were impressive insights that showed a sophisticated
engagement with theory and an application beyond the confines of the game. I then
issued a piece of my own reflective writing that made use of Bourdieu to analyse a
failed teaching experience in order to model theoretically informed writing.
We finished with a return to the idea of our 'open communicative space' of critical
participatory action research, reviewing the experience and impact of the game to
make it better and fairer in future. In each session, trainees felt that the gamified
approach to teaching Bourdieu was successful. The first session was the larger of
the two, with sixteen trainees in five teams of three or four participants. Whilst some
teams made more progress than others, all were able to use at least some of the
novel terminology by the end of the session. However, there remained some
misconceptions for some participants at close of play. Some teams said they felt 'a
bit at sea' and needed more explanation from the tutor. In light of this it was decided
during the plenary of the first session that smaller groups with more tutor input would
be fairer and more productive for all participants. A further suggestion was to play
again in reconfigured groups to enable dissemination of insights. Acknowledgment
of these immediate findings and the prospective impact on future work further
illustrated the tenets of critical participatory action research and sought to model the
role of 'teacher as researcher' to trainees.
Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
The second iteration of the session was with a smaller group of seven learners,
playing in two teams. This resulted in more consistently secure understanding of the
theory for all participants by the end of the session. Across the two iterations of the
game, there were forty-seven recorded instances of the use of novel terminology.
Though not a complete record, the frequency and nature of exchanges is indicative
of the looked-for social interactions outlined earlier in this paper. They clearly
represented learning within the ZPD. Prime examples of utterances that revealed a
growing confidence in using and questioning specialist terminology included;
'Why does my accent give me less cultural capital than yours?' (Anna)
'You're in a prison now, buddy. Here, my habitus is king!' (Richard) [laughter]
'How come she gets to buy an appreciation of opera? Lisa's going to win it now. I'm
not playing anymore, this is a stupid game.' (Anna) 'Well that's the doxa, isn't it?'
(Lisa) [laughter]
What characterised these exchanges was a kind of mock indignation or triumph that
is only really facilitated within this specialised atmosphere of game-play. A semi-self
conscious use of novel terms showed trainees playfully rehearsing their new
vocabulary. Other exchanges were rather more serious and reflective:
'Is my habitus just the sum of my economic, social and cultural capital or is it
something else? What is it, exactly?' (Richard)
'What forms does symbolic violence normally take then? What I'm thinking is... what
I mean is... I'm thinking about my classroom and wondering if I'm guilty of symbolic
violence on my students. That's scary.' (Nicola)
'Can we challenge the doxa if we think it is unfair? Is that in the rules? Can we
change the doxa?' (Catherine)
These more serious exchanges revealed fulfilment of the more ambitious aspiration
of the game of enabling trainees to look differently at the social mores of their
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classrooms. There were also instances of Bourdieu appearing in subsequent written
work from trainees, including:
This next lesson is one where I was beginning to think about the context of my
learners. Who is this individual who comes into the classroom? What
knowledge do they have? What is their context? In thinking about this, I found
the work of Bourdieu ... really helped me think about how our social groups
are distinguished and the types of groups my learners could belong
to (Bourdieu, 1984). (Jane)
Sociologists have, for decades, referred to the social inequalities of the
education system suggesting that it is those whose backgrounds provide them
with the highest level of cultural capital that will receive the greatest rewards
(Bourdieu, 1977, Sullivan, 2001, and Dunne and Gazeley, 2008.) A number
of my learners feel they do not belong in FE/HE almost to the point of feeling
like imposters. They are often the first in their generation to attend college or
university and lack the social and cultural capital required to understand the
systems in which they now find themselves. (Alix)
This paper explored the use of a game-based approach to the delivery of theory in
teacher education, recognising that, whilst vital, this is inherently challenging and
prone to failure. It identifies gamification of theory as a productive strategy whereby
trainees can engage with theoretical concepts in productive ways. Critical and
learning theories were found to be extremely useful in informing the pedagogical
approach, the game design, the strategy for its implementation and the methodology
for its evaluation. The paper reports some encouraging preliminary findings around
shifts both in trainees' understanding of the theory and in their response to the notion
of theory in general. Ironically, this in itself may represent an increase in their own
cultural capital within the academic field. The main conclusion of this study is to
Cheryl Reynolds u9601135
recommend wider use of such strategies in the teaching of theory to resistant
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