Cultures of counting: Metrics through a critical lens — The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation

Tuesday 24th May sees the Academics’ Writing project’s fourth and final workshop on the role of metrics in academic life. This time, we have invited two expert speakers to talk about what responsible metrics might look like in the context of both REF and TEF. The speakers are Professor Paul Ashwin of Lancaster University and Professor […]

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via Cultures of counting: Metrics through a critical lens — The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation


Contested space: The representations of literac(ies) on primary classroom walls

Wendy A. Crocker, PhD,

University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada

What is the role of the materials displayed on classroom walls? In my recent presentation to the Literacies Discussion Group at Lancaster, I shared the evolution of a project that grew from a niggling question that I have had as a teacher, an elementary principal, and now as a researcher: What is the relationship between what is displayed on the walls of primary (age 4-8) classrooms and the literacies of those students? In this post, I present an overview of that talk, and highlight some of the discussion from the assembled scholars.

The role of environment

There is general acknowledgement in the literature that the environment is important for learning. Indeed Loris Malaguzzi contends that the environment is the “third teacher” in Reggio-inspired pedagogy, placing the furniture arrangement, materials, and décor on par with the teaching/learning that takes place in a space.  Further, programmatic curriculum documents remind teachers of primary grades in Ontario, Canada that their classrooms should reflect “the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of those who use the space” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 20)

Beliefs about literacies

In this work, I look through the theoretical and analytical lenses of local literacies (Barton & Hamilton, 1998), multiliteracies (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000), and geosemiotics (Scollon & Scollon, 2003) to consider the tensions between authentic expressions of children’s learning of literac(ies) and evidence of the prescribed literacy mandates of an accountability culture.



Project overview and themes in the data

The project was conceived of as a photo case study, and grew to include 31 classes across five schools in the same rural southwestern Ontario area. The data set comprises over 3000 still shots which have been analyzed by class, across grades in a school, and across grades and schools to identify commonalities in what is seen on the walls of a classroom or in the classrooms of a particular grade.

In setting photos side by side and making comparisons grade by grade, I identified themes related to: teacher created and teacher purchased materials; the height placement of particular materials; behaviour charts/motivational materials; the privileging of English print materials in light of a student population that possessed several non-English literacies; and the surprising amount of what I term “institutional literacy” – the documents that are important for the safe running of a school but that have little impact on student learning.

Literacy Group Discussion

I shared 150 photos in grade by grade amalagams (all five schools represented) with the scholars at the discussion group. We spent 20 minutes examining the photos and discussing our observations, raising many of the points that I had uncovered in my analysis of the larger data sets. What surfaced in the conversation was the privilgeing of print and demonstrations of “correctness” in evidence as the grades grew closer to the grade three year (age 8) the grade at which the provincial standardized test in reading, writing, and math is administered in Ontario.There was discussion about inheriting décor (i.e. an alphabet train above the display board) and the related cost of creating an environment that is visually appealing.

Findings and next steps

From this study, it appears that the walls of primary classrooms are contested spaces where the literacies of the students vie for display space.  Mulitliteracies, as expressions of multiple languages and meaning-making, were rare. Demonstrations of school and print literacy rival the institutional literacy expressed as maps, charts, and directions mandated by the Ministry of Education and the central office of the Board for the safety and regulation of those in the school building. Further, the washback effect of large scale literacy and numeracy assessment measures places materials suggested as “best practice” by the Ministry (e.g., anchor charts, success criteria) in competition for limited display space in classrooms.

Building on this rich foundation of photo data, the next phase of this study involves conversations with the teachers to determine how they determine what is displayed on the walls, and their perceptions of whose literacies dominate the contests spaces of primary classroom walls.



Barton, D., & Hamilton, M. (1998). Local literac(ies). New York: Routledge.

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. (2009). “Multiliteracies”: New Literacies, New Learning. Pedagogies, An International Journal  4 (3), 164-195

Ontario Ministry of Education (2014). The third teacher. Capacity building series. Student Achievement Division. Retrieved from

Scollon, R. & Scollon-Wong, S. (2003). Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World. London: Routledge.



Comic Explorations: Comic strips in qualitative research

Chris Bailey, Sheffield Hallam University 

During my recent LRDG talk I shared data from my ethnography of an after-school Minecraft Club in comic strip form. Here I will briefly elaborate on how comic strips came to form an integral part of this project. My adoption of the comic form was not a case of me bringing an existing skill to my project; rather it arose as a need that emerged from the project itself. I use comic strips in two main ways: as a form of transcription, and as a means of exploring theory.

Comic Strips as Transcription

My first use of comic strips followed the funeral of a virtual horse. During their Minecraft play, children role-played a funeral for a horse that had ‘drowned’. This was captured using video (in the room) and a screencast of my screen (in the game). When I attempted to produce a multimodal transcription of this episode, using text alone, I felt that my written output did not represent the nature of the events I had observed; it felt like a reduction of what I had seen. As I gradually added visuals to my written account I realised that I was creating a form of comic strip. Rethinking my approach to transcription led me to produce around 25 more such comic strips, based on episodes from the club, identified by me and the participants.

horse funeral comic

Comic strip transcripts have been used by others (Plowman and Stephen, 2008). My particular take on these combine visual data relating to the on- and off-screen action seen in the club, alongside the children’s speech and additional scene-setting comments. The ‘Horse Funeral’ comic uses mainly on-screen visuals, whereas some of the other comics draw more heavily on action in the room; an additional example of this technique can be found in Bailey (2015).

Comic Strips as Methodology

My use of comic strips spread beyond transcription to the development of my methodology. The pages below begin a longer exploration of Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980) image of thought, ‘the rhizome’, using my own staged screenshots from the game itself. The rhizome was fundamental to my methodological approach, which I called ‘Rhizomic Ethnography’.


Where Minecraft screenshots felt insufficient, I turned, nervously, to pen and paper. Drawing did not come naturally, however the process helped me both to exemplify and expand my thinking. This chimes with Sousanis’ (2015) assertion that such techniques can lead to an ‘unflattening’ of ideas. The act of drawing pushed me well beyond my own comfort zone, also giving me an unexpected emotional attachment to the ideas I was seeking to explore.



These comic strips were produced with the help of the application Comic Life:

Bailey, C.(2015) ‘Free the Sheep’. Literacy, Early View[online]:

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F.(1988) A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Plowman, L. and Stephen, C.(2008) ‘The Big Picture? Video and the representation of interaction’. British Educational Research Journal, 34 (4)541 – 565.

Sousanis, N.(2015) ‘Unflattening’. Cambridge. Harvard University Press.

Escaping a ‘study skills’ approach to academic writing

As a part time doctoral student living in South Wales, I really appreciated the chance to share my on-going research into student writing in teacher education at a Literacy Research Discussion Group meeting last month.
Part of my research involves exploring the attitudes and practices of teacher educators and mature adult teachers-in-training regarding academic writing for university qualifications (PGCEs etc). I am using focus group and interview discussions, and the analysis of my own practice in writing tutorials with student teachers, to do this (see slides).
I have, however, noticed a kind of ‘slipperiness’ in some of my teacher educator focus group data. Discussions about student writing that start off as broader considerations of language practices can easily slip into an exchange about Standard English or referencing conventions. In the data from my writing tutorials too, my students and I talk about these surface technicalities far more than I had hoped or planned for. Even at the LRDG meeting (that bastion of literacy as social practice!) we occasionally started to slide in that direction (this was probably my fault…) Such ‘slippage’ demonstrates the powerful pull of a prescriptivist, ‘study skills’ approach to academic writing. Standard English and referencing style are relatively easy for any tutor to describe and therefore assess, and perhaps that is the allure!
However, focussing on these elements of academic writing means a skills-based hierarchy is set up where the tutor owns the ‘rule book’ that the student has to follow. When trying to develop student writing in teacher education, such positions do not facilitate a supportive, dialogic discussion where the teacher-in-training is able to bring their life experiences (inside and outside the classroom) into their developing writing identity.
So, in order to escape the gravitational pull of ‘study skills’, I want to investigate the writing practices and writing identities of teachers-in-training outside their university courses. The idea is that if I can better understand and value the wider writing lives of our teachers-in-training, I can better develop the constructivist and dialogic writing pedagogy I aspire to (following Lillis 2001). A further inspiration for such an investigation is the Teaching and Learning Research Project which informed Ivanic et al (2009) (see This involved work with FE college tutors and students to explore students’ literacy worlds, engaging with everyday literacy practices to support and inform writing in college.
The LRDG audience were perhaps most interested in this aspect of my research, where teachers-in-training talk about their writing lives outside of university. Prompts for these discussions are simple laminated cards on which I have written various domains (friendships/relationships; leisure interests/hobbies etc). Student teachers are invited to select two or three cards which have interest or meaning for them, and to talk about the writing they do in those domains. The LRDG interest in this area of my research is very encouraging, as I’ve only recently realised that I want this to be at the heart of my doctoral project. I feel it’s only by looking outside the university that I can properly support student teachers within it.
IVANIC I., EDWARDS R., BARTON D., MARTIN-JONES M., FOWLER Z., HUGHES B., MANNION G., MILLER K., SATCHWELL C. & SMITH J. (2009) Improving learning in college: rethinking literacies across the curriculum London: Routledge
LILLIS T. (2001) Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire London: Routledge

By Rachel Stubley, University of South Wales and Lancaster University


New literacy studies at the end of the world: a ground-controlled approach from Chile.

When I first arrived to Lancaster I felt as a practitioner that needed more tools to improve the communities I was working with as an educational assessor that assessed children’s reading and writing skills. Through my path in the research, I was able to read and meet people that chanSociocultural context

Roberto's drawing

Roberto’s drawing

ged completely my views about assessment and literacy, I thought I had something great to support students and teachers. NLS became a tool to provide solutions around the educational problems that have been haunting the Chilean classrooms for decades.

However, when I landed in Chile, I had a quick encounter with the Chilean reality. I started working in an academic environment where all the discussion should be always contextualized and grounded on teachers’ and schools’ resources and classrooms. This shocked me at the beginning, I was not aware of talking about the concepts and theory in plain language, furthermore, I was not able to talk about it in Spanish.

All the theoretical problems I faced when working on the PhD were now part of a distant past. Here the problem has to be translated into a solution. There is no time to lose, we are creating tools that teachers and students need to use ASAP. It is amazing to know that our work will reach the classroom but in order to produce this transfer from academia to classroom I had to think again about some of the dilemmas that I addressed in the thesis. Although I tried to keep my practitioner’s heart, I was caught in academia and the practical implications I had developed in the thesis needed to be grounded again into practice.

In Chile I was faced with the question of practice instead of implication and I quickly realized that there was such a difference between the two terms. One of the main issues that my thesis addressed is that school literacy practices have to emerge in partnership between families, schools and communities. This slogan challenged my own understanding when I was invited to represent the Research Center for Advanced Research in Education in a stakeholders meeting that aimed at establishing a reviewed public policy on parents’ involvement into the school system. At that meeting I had to transfer the findings of my thesis to support the argument towards certain ways of community participation. It was until this invaluable opportunity that I came to realize that I needed to translate this knowledge that I have acquired, otherwise my PhD and the tools I identified would become irrelevant.

In this ‘ground-controlled approach’ the solution has to land safely at schools and the teachers or students cannot crash with obscure dilemmas that they cannot understand. Transparency is key to achieve impact. I am at that process now, trying to translate this academic piece of writing into practices that I can teach to teachers and transfer to students.

Margarita Calderón

Lecturer in childhood literacy at Universidad de Chile

Research Assistant at Centro de Investigación Avanzada en Educación, Universidad de Chile (Center for Advanced Research in Education).