Rural Education: Pasts, Presents & Futures

NWNU July 2018

I had the great pleasure of being an invited Keynote at Northwest Normal University (NWNU), Lanzhou, Gansu, for the International Conference on Rural Education Development in the New Era in July 2018. 

At this event I talked on the topic of ‘Rural Education: Pasts, Presents & Futures’.  This was a general overview to the rural education field, but with a particular focus as well to China and comparative education.  The China links were made with reference to some of the points made about rural education research in an introduction to rural education in China as part of special edition on the same topic I published with Emily Hannum from the University of Pennsylvania. 

What I find fascinating about rural China is that we can observe the processes, and implications of, modernity happening before our eyes. That China is a nation with a distinct history and culture that is longer than Europe’s where most contemporary powerful academic knowledge and theory emanates from means we can examine the process of modernity removed from the social and cultural construction of rurality within Eurocentric cultures.  I should note, how Europe came to be dominant in knowledge production, and what was taken from other nations (Inc. China), and the implications of this and its eventual change is a topic for another day. 

Half the globes population lives in cities

Half of the Earth’s population now live in cities! indeed modernity can be defined as the move from the rural to the urban.  This occurred in 1948 in Europe and the USA, 2012 in China and was pretty much the state of affairs since the British turned up on our little isle in the pacific.  Modernity, the dominance of urban populations, and resultant metro-normativity in knowledge and theory raises profound questions about how we understand and interact with the world? the knowledges we value in education (curriculum), what we assume as normal or standard (benchmarks/averages), issues pertaining to the potential loss of cultures, values & knowledges and the very research methodologies and epistemologies we engage. 

Globally the ‘non-urban’ and issues of ‘equity’ and spatial self-determination have become a wicked problem that no nation or community seems to have adequately engaged. Wherever you look we tend to see, on average, in non-metropolitan spaces ageing populations, overall population decline, increased proportions of Indigenous and minority group populations (both natural increase and non-indigenous exodus), less health care access, higher suicide rates, less, and often declining, economic activity, comparatively lowereducation outcomes and difficultly in attracting professional staff (e.g. doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers).  Focusing specifically on education, we tend to see in non-metropolitan spaces  less access to early childhood education, decreasing literacy & numeracy scores, decreasing retention rates, decreasing senior secondary completion, decreasing subject access, lower rates of matriculation and higher proportions of students studying vocational pathways (not necessarily a bad thing, but if pre-determined by location a problematic assumption). In Australia the recent 2018 Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education (the pirate review ‘IRRRRE…’) highlighted many of these issues. 

The Rural Education Field. 

I’ve become a little critical of late of the rural education research field. Specifically, this criticism has been around the scope of research, its limited impact and the propensity to rake over old ground. I think this reflection began back in 2015, was spurred further by the responses I read to the ‘rural backlash’ in global politicsreading about the rural in comparative education, examining staffing work that’s seems to do the same old thing and the limited engagement of rural education research in the pirate review in Australia. Consequently, I’ve been critically re-reading my field and reading deeply and widely in rural studies.  

What I see is a field that has a persistent, and somewhat narrow, focus upon the different educational outcomes and achievement levels of rural, regional and remote students. Typically, this revolves around issues of access to a full curriculum, access to further education and training, the attraction and retention of staff, the socio-economic composition of rural populations and regions, and higher, and increasing, Indigenous and Minority Group populations.  Consequently, arguments in these areas are usually predicated upon notions of equity for rural regions and rural people, economic development of regions and the human capital development of rural populations. 

In this context arguments about the levels of rural achievement and development are usually framed in comparison to a metro-centric norm.  In this situation the ‘rural’ has been defined by major centres of power in this research and not in its own terms.  While rural education research has begun to problematize this construction, it seems to me that these arguments are often couched in romantic or nostalgic notions of the rural and the nation’s (and maybe the researchers’) past. 

Perhaps more intriguingly these positions have tended to emanate from within education studies and often only draw on the broader fields of the humanities and the social sciences in a limited sense. They also tend to be within nation studies – with one key exception.  What we seem to have are separate spheres that don’t often overlap.  

To explain figure 1.  The separation of education studies sub-disciplines and parent disciplines I put down to the history of education studies as university disciplines (I recommended reading Furlong 2013 and Furlong and Lawn 2010 whom I paraphrase poorly here).  As the university study of education grew in the 1980’s-90’s the sub-disciplines emerged from their parent disciplines, and in order to obtain credibility in the academy developed distinct research cultures and journals.  Slowly they, and their scholars, became more removed from the parent disciplines such that they are often no longer recognisable to each other. The only place I see a trend towards a sustained link is in the sociology of knowledge pertaining to recent debates about knowledge and the curriculum as part of the curriculum studies field. Furthermore, we can see that rural sociology has experiences somewhat of a similar history, itself becoming a separate sub-field within sociology (perhaps the same can be said re geography and rural geography).

What I find fascinating is the peculiar case of comparative and international education. There is a distinct group of ‘rural educators’, often sitting in sociology departments internationally, who study rural schools in other countries – particularly China. Note all the other international guests at NWNU in 2018 were in this category. They call themselves ‘rural education’ people but don’t look at their own countries. Interestingly, they really don’t know the other folk who call themselves ‘rural education’ researchers in their countries exist – and visa versa. Nor do the within nation studies folk look at their work or other nations. I suspect this may be a national academic cultures issue pertaining to the power of policy and the economics of education sub-fields. Though, I would add the comparative education folk are the closest linked to sociology, probably as they usually are sociologists in the traditional sense in sociology departments in the USA and Europe. The only limitation is they are then often not educators and thus the nuances of education are not familiar. The situation seems somewhat different here in Australia where the remnants of comparative education are generally in education faculties – remnants as the dominance of practice-based program standards is slowly killing the disciplines. 

This is of course my initial reading and thinking on these matters. There seems like such wasted opportunities for cross fertilisation of theory and ideas. Our ‘Mapping Rural Fields’ project and symposium at the World Congress of Rural Sociology (in Cairns, Australia, July 2020) will present initial findings of a more academic study of these relationships that is currently underway.  

I’d really like to see a field that looks a bit more like figure 2 below – though I’m ambiguous if I mean sociology or rural studies. Rural studies are essentially rural geography and rural sociology. Either way greater links here will help all as, in general rural studies does not engage with education other than through limited human capital notions

There is such a great opportunity to build the field, and rural studies, through greater cross field integration.  For mine the opportunities lie in engaging with the spatial turn in social theory and education research as a matter of the representation and production of the rural in modernity.  Productive notions from Lefebvre (and Soja) such as space as produced and space as ‘real-and-imaginary’ are fantastic tools to look at the production of rurality in modernity.  Similarly, the notion of Spatial Justice provides powerful new ways to look at equity and justice in, and for, rural spaces.

Why Rural?

I’ve argued in papers, and previous talks, that defining the rural is important aspect of research that claims to be ‘rural’. I won’t reiterate those here. Though I will step sideways for a quick comment.  I think the position I hear reported that there is a school of thought that it’s the ‘guys’ who do this sociology thing (oddly so many people now call themselves rural sociologists on twitter nowadays, a search for legitimacy perhaps?) who argue about defining the rural, and the line that ‘we all know the rural is hard to define so we should just move on knowing that’, are both limiting and potentially dangerous.   Complexity is where new insights and theoretical advances lies, and clearly what we’ve been doing so far hasn’t worked, other than keeping us employed and published, so…

Anyway, for the issue of researching modernity and rural China my position here is a little more nuanced. The complexity of understanding the rural is indeed the opportunity.  The multiplicity of defining rural places, and perceptions of the rural, remind us of the forces that have become otherwise invisible in modernity and that, inevitably, place matters. Furthermore, increasingly rural research in education uses the theoretical tools of place and situated practice to justify a difference in rural schools. Repurposing these orientations to the social system that positions rural schools, and their communities, are marginal and deficit provides avenues to critically examine the influence of established, and powerful, methods on the construction of the rural (Gruenewald, 2003) and the relationship between centres and their peripheries (Nespor, 2006).   It gets a tad more complex in rural China where the pragmatics of economic development and lifting people out of poverty are key drivers. Furthermore, the very social and cultural position of the rural is distinct, hierarchical and classed in China – but again, this is the opportunity born of challenge and the foundation for comparative research on rurality and cultures. 

Defining rurality

The rural is generally defined in some combination of demographic, geographicand cultural terms. The definitions, and its composition, are important as they then relate to how the rural is researched and represented. Consequently, rurality is represented methodologically as statistical, geographic (spatial mapping or distances) or cultural (qualitative accounts of difference (to?)). In Australia, for instance, we really only use a limited version of demographically and geographically defined notions of rurality that is expressed solely in a statistical frame of analysis and considered as a policy variable. 

Internationally there was a period in the early to mid 2000’s when discussion per definitions were topical in rural studies. This resulted in three influential constructions. Firstly, Halfacree’s (2006) Three-Fold Model of (rural) spaceas rural locality (geographic), formal representations of the rural and everyday lives of the rural. Next Balfour, Mitchell & Molestone’s (2008) Generative Theory of Rurality which was rurality as context, forces (Space, place & time), agencies (Movement, systems, will) and resources (Situated, material & psychosocial). Finally, Cloke’s (2006) Three Theoretical Frames of functional (land use & life linked to land),political-economic (social production) and social (culture & values).  

What’s important here is not necessarily some definitional conclusion, as that’s probably unachievable, but the act of understanding how the rural is constructed in relation to the research task at hand. Moreso, this act helps us reflect on the limitations and affordances of our research approaches, consider the forces constructing the rural and the phenomena we are exploring, and temper our conclusions. Returning to my sidestep above, rural studies authors don’t go out of their way to define the rural in contemporary publications. However, the influence of this definitional work in the background is clearly evident in the way the rural is prefaced, phenomena constructed, research approached and written – it is foundational and understood by the field. I’m not convinced that is the case in rural education. 

In education Donehower, Hogg, & Schell’s (2007, p.9) construction of a working principle that ‘It is important to define rural not only demographically and geographically but culturally as well’ has become popular in some circles, myself included. Adding to this Howley & Howley (2010) provide a useful typology of three rural community types (in the USA), durable-agrarian, resource extraction and suburbanizing, with each having particular equity challenges and opportunities. I lean towards this being a good construction for Australian rural community types as well. Finally, Reid and colleagues (2010) Rural Social Space model is increasingly being seen as a productive model to explore education, and related social policy practices, in non-metropolitan contexts. 

Engaging such definitions open up exciting new research possibilities. For instance, Donehower, Hogg, & Schell’s (2007) construction helps set up the frame of reference for exploring rural literacies. This work has convincingly illustrated the different literacy practices in rural places, which are typically marginalized in contemporary standardized education. The burgeoning field of rural literacies, as explored by Green & Corbett (2013) is the result. Similarly, in mathematics research on spatial reasoning has illustrated the different spatial practices of rural communities (e.g. Lowrie and the STEM education research centre), again something marginalised in contemporary education.  These examples rely upon thinking about the rural as constituted distinctly, and not only in (deficit) comparison to the metropolitan where its difference is erased in the pursuit of comparable (statistical) measures. The possibilities of uncovering new insights, and generating new theory, through reconsidering what constitutes the rural (considering the rural in its own terms) is immense – and even more so when we throw different cultural contexts into the mix.

Opportunities for rural studies & education re China

There are comparatively limited studies of rural education in China in the English language, with these studies predominantly emanating from comparative education or fields such as sociology or policy studies.  Notably this work does not tend to draw upon rural studies. furthermore, rural education in China is relatively unexamined within the rural education field.  

This is not to work against comparative education, sociology of policy studies. It is merely to point out that their limited familiarity with the nuances of education as a process, with cultural assumptions re knowledge, cultures and practices leads these studies to implicit comparisons and input-output assumptions of the education endeavor.  As such they can reinforce metro-normative, and harmful, assumptions about education and equity.  Instead it is important to see education as a product, and process, of modernity par excellence – with modernity referring to the metro-normative world view outlined above. 

Comparative education is predicated on producing insights for policy transfer, being context sensitive (in terms of nations & cultures, not the rural as far as I can see) and providing insights for professional development of policy actors (Crossley & Watson 2011).  As such comparative education provides insights into what does, and doesn’t, work in relation to educational issues. There are however no magic bullets as such insights are bounded by context. Included in my thinking here is both the potential for rural educators to engage in comparative education research and broaden the understanding of education in that field, and visa-versa. 

We have an opportunity in engaging in comparative rural education studies, informed by rural studies, to foster new understandings of ruralities in the globalised world.  through such studies we can explore the social and cultural constructions of rurality and its impact on policy and practice. In a context such as China undergoing mass urbanization we can engage these in action, and have real world practical impact. 

A rural education research program drawing from rural studies could expand the field of study, and generate new insights.  I wonder what would happen if we engaged ideas such as:

Rural Studies + Curriculum Inquiry = valuing new knowledges (& examination measures)

Rural Studies + Human Capital education research (staffing) = 

Rural Studies + Policy Studies = 

In the end what we all share, and are implicated in producing, is the place of the rural in modernity…

Institute for Education Research in Western China

SNNU July 2019

I’ve had the pleasure of spending the last two and a half weeks at Shaanxi Normal University* (SNNU), Xi’an, Shaanxi, China. Xi’an* is the largest city in Northwest China and one of the oldest cities in China.  It was the capital for 13 Dynasties and often regarded as part of the cradle of modern China. Xi’an is perhaps most renowned for its role as the capital of the influential Qin dynasty and the Terracotta Army.  It’s location in northwest China, excellent infrastructure and institutions make Xi’an an excellent base for research in rural China.

This was my second research trip western China. Last year I was fortunate to be an invited Keynote at Northwest Normal University, Lanzhou, Gansu, for the International Conference on Rural Education Development in the New Era. Here I outlined ‘Rural Education: Pasts, Presents and Futures’.

A well ranked university in China focusing on teacher training, especially for rural regions, SNNU is stepping up their rural related educational research.  They have recently established the Institute for Education Research in Western China, charged with enhancing education in western (rural) China, and have an exciting research plan for the coming years. I’m honored to be appointed an Adjunct Professor to this institute and help develop the research plan.  In order to help achieve its vision the Faculty of Education has recently recruited a number of exciting ‘new’ and ‘young’ staff members to collaborate on this broad work.  Rural education is indeed the focus, and more exciting the team here are on the same page as me regarding issues regarding the representation of the rural, rural knowledge, place sensitive methodologies and curriculum issues. Furthermore, the institute will also engage with rural teacher education research in neighboring countries.

Rural China is an exciting research site due to the range of issues unfolding right now. Indeed, we can look at modernity and its implications for rurality in real time unfolding, and consequently better understand these processes.  Geographically China has a similar scale and population distribution to Australia (with the obvious exception of population 1.3bn v 26 Million) making it an interesting comparison. Given the cultural and historical differences between our nations we have the opportunity to start to better understand the process of rurality both within, and distinct from, the cultural contexts in which we typically observe it.  An exciting opportunity.  I won’t go into the range of issues and challenges facing education, and communities, in rural China here. Instead I’ll merely reference an introduction to rural education in China as part of special edition on the same topic I published last year with Emily Hannum from the University of Pennsylvania.  All I’ll say here is this is an exciting and fascinating research site, with a big dose of real significance added – millions of people’s lives are impacted in this work. 

Finally, It’s such a pleasure to spend quality time in a nation with such a long and rich history. I’m constantly amased at how little ‘we’ generally know about China and its history (in Australia).  This is a bit bemusing given the history between our nations for centuries, itself pre-dating ‘modern’ Australia. While we know northern China was one of the cradles of civilization, as I wandered the Shaanxi History Museum* I was struck by the pottery, Craft work, Frescos and so forth of comparable date and quality to those studied more typically here in Australia. Then visiting the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda* and the Terracotta Warriors* I was further struck by just how old and powerful a civilization this is – these sites are truly awe inspiring.  Consequently, it’s terribly sad to read the perspectives put forward in some contemporary political, and ‘news’, commentary: I have nothing but positive things to say about the people I’ve met on my travels, including the passersby, shopkeepers and so forth. 

I’m looking forward to long term collaborative relationship and the comparative projects we have developed, and started to roll out, both at SNNU and with other colleagues in China.  I look forward to reporting them here in the near future… 

*I’ve used Wikipedia links for simplicity, as some of the original websites default to Chinese, I encourage readers to link through to the relevant sites in China and choose the English function.