This article discusses the learning practices of five learners in an impoverished rural settlement in the Western Cape province of South Africa. It responds to the following question: How do rural working class learners construct their learning practices in their neighbourhood context? This article does not focus on school learning. Instead, the focus is on the learners’ navigations in the “lived” environs of their neighbourhood and the ways in which they use their neighbourhood’s resources to establish a productive aspirant educational route. We discuss their dynamic interaction with their everyday networks, literacies, and other discursive materials in the neighbourhood as a means of exercising and establishing their learning agency.
This article challenges popular perceptions about the educational paths of learners in impoverished contexts which portray them as victims of the impoverished circumstances and as lacking in the necessary cultural capital for educational success. On the contrary, this article illustrates how such learners are able to maximise their family and community resources in their quest for an education and, as in the case of the young people in this article, how they mediate and utilise the neighbourhood’s resources to establish learning practices in support of their education.
The article is based on ethnographic research over a two-year period (2013–2014) in a small rural town in the Western Cape. We explored how five learners went about building their learning practices in this town. We followed them into their family homes and across the neighbourhood, paying special attention to their peer relations, media-related literacies and various interactions with community members, sport and recreational programmes. We utilised semi- and unstructured individual interviews as well as focus group discussions to obtain data about their individual life stories in relation to their learning practices. These interview strategies were augmented by participant observation of their involvement in a multiplicity of informal literacy and learning encounters in their families and neighbourhood. Our research enabled us to develop insight into the learners’ socio-cultural contexts (emic perspective), in order for us to build a novel interpretation of their learning practices (the etic perspective).
The analysis of the data was informed by sociological concepts provided by Pierre Bourdieu, a French social theorist. His concepts of habitus, field, practices and capital enabled us to construct a rich and detailed account of the selected participants’ learning practices. Habitus was central to this account, which, according to Bourdieu (1993:86) refers to “the way people internalize social structures and perceive the world. … (explaining) how social agents operate in ways that are compatible with their social situations”. Habitus functions as a regulator between individuals and their external world, and it frames how individuals behave in certain situations. Bourdieu’s view of practices is important in understanding how the learners are able to behave in response to changes in their situations. “Practices”, according to Bourdieu (1977:123), are “the improvisational and pragmatic action of everyday life faced with constant problem solving”. While an individual’s social history is important in shaping his or her practices, his/her habitus is penetrable and responds to external circumstances. In other words, the habitus is continually shaped via the people’s daily practices.
This theoretical perspective allowed us to understand the learners’ attempts to build their learning practices as the outcome of dynamic practices out which their habitus evolved. We specifically focused on how they built their practices over time through the strategic use of their neighbourhood’s resources and sources of cultural and social capital, which allowed them to build a platform to support and inform their school learning. We argue that it is this out-of-school learning platform that played a decisive role in their educational progress at school, without which they might have become school drop-outs. And, what is central for understanding how they accomplish their learning platform, is their ability to navigate the various spaces of their community which constantly presented them with challenges associated with peer cultures, criminality, and drugs. They could easily have fallen victim to the negative effects of these ubiquitous challenges. The article is an explanation of their ability to build practices that mitigate the worst consequences of these negative challenges as well as the strategies they adopt to stay on course in their quest to succeed at their school learning.
The article provides an insight into the learners’ desperate and limiting life circumstances and how these impact their learning commitments. We provide an understanding of the manner in which their circumstances contributed to the ways in which they build their learning practices. These learners did not succumb to the negative influences in their communities, nor did their impoverishment prevent them from staying committed to their education. Their persistence and commitment to cultivating appropriate learning practices for school success impacted their identity formation. It can thus be said that they succeeded in developing a productive habitus via their ongoing learning practices amidst constrained circumstances.
The article also discusses the emergence of particular types of identities among the five learners, which we argue are pivotal to the manner in which they form their learning practices. Their learning identities emerged over time and were constituted out of their constant evaluation, formulation and ongoing construction of themselves as successful learners. Our observations showed that they were able to internalise the rules of what it means to be a good learner and that they take responsibility for their learning as well as developing support strategies via, for example, the use of Facebook and Mxit or peer support and encouragement. Cultivating productive learning identities played a crucial role in the formation of their learning practices.
The article finally turns to a discussion of the impact of learning ‘positioning’ on their learning practices. Here the focus is on their creative adaptation strategies in positioning themselves as productive learners. We pay particular attention to the manner in which theirlearning practices and strategies are interwoven with how they position themselves as learners. Such positioning is central to their learning practices. We argue that these learners were able to acquire a habitus in respect of their learning that enabled them to position themselves as productive learners in their impoverished neighbourhood.
In sum, the article highlights the processes involved in these learners’ attempts to build their learning practices in an impoverished rural neighbourhood. It shows that an understanding of their social lives in context is important for gaining insight into their learning aspirations and practices. Despite deeply trying circumstances they managed to stay on course in leading productive lives by keeping their education success in sight. It is the way they built their commitments to their learning, via developing strategic identities and practices, in terms of which they were able to position themselves as productive learners in their community context.
Keywords: educational practices; ethnography; impoverished environment; learning practice formation; learning practices; rural working class town; working class learners