Reproducing the urban or reappraising the local? Extracurricular activities developed by fellows in an alternative teacher preparation programme in China

February, 2022

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, 48:1, 21-34

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In recent decades, alternative teacher preparation programmes have been developed to intervene in rural education.
One such programme is the Exceptional Graduates as Rural Teachers (EGRT) with the vision to come to grips with educational disadvantage.
The EGRT official website claims that a large proportion of EGRT fellows have developed and deployed extracurricular programmes.
Nevertheless, the forms of, and the reasons for, these developments have received little, if any, research treatment.
To contribute to knowledge about the localised dynamics of alternative teacher preparation programmes, the authors look at the case of EGRT and explore two questions:
(1) What extracurricular activities were developed by EGRT fellows?
(2) Why did they develop these extracurricular activities?
To address the questions, they first review extant debates around extracurricular activities.
They then develop a theoretical framework through Bourdieu’s sociology.
This is followed by an analysis of social dynamics behind the forms of, and the reasons for developing extracurricular activities.
They then conclude the paper with implications for EGRT and its sibling programmes.

Research context and design
Up to 2020, the EGRT programme has recruited more than 2000 fellows.
Back to 2016 when the lead author collected the reported data, there were about 400 fellows at service.
The lead author was allowed to distribute flyers with a brief demographic survey at an EGRT event in Y Province – the initial and the most influential site of the EGRT of demographic diversity (e.g. gender, age, educational degree, educational experience, and family backgrounds).
Considering the geographic constraints in mountainous areas, the lead author eventually selected 16 participants working in six disadvantaged schools.
Of the 16 participants, eight were of an urban origin.
Despite the authors’ intention to select participants from different family backgrounds, there was an overrepresentation of participants from well-off families (14 out of 16). Such overrepresentation occurred not by design but ‘by default’ because the anecdotal evidence showed that most EGRT fellows came from a favourable family background.
Each participant attended a face-to-face interview that took approximately 1 hour.
The interview process lasted for about 8 weeks.
Immersion in the settings where fellows worked was regarded as an effective way to increase the depth of understanding of the analysis.
Interview data analysis pivoted around participants’ responses to interview questions about whether and why they have developed and deployed any extracurricular activities.
The authors adopted a hybrid method of inductive coding (emerging from raw data) and deductive coding (derived from the theoretical framework) (Thomas 2006).
In terms of the former research question, data-driven codes were mainly responsible to capture forms (‘themes’) of extracurricular activities.
As for the latter research question, both data-driven and theory-driven codes were generated to thematically analyse reasons for, and dynamics behind, developing extracurricular activities.


What extracurricular activities did participants develop?
Participants reportedly developed diverse forms of extracurricular activities.
These activities were classified as mainly two categories: academic-oriented and nonacademic-oriented.
The former, with a purpose to build students’ academic capacity, generally included those activities associated with school curriculum.
In contrast, the latter had a common focus on social and emotional learning.
Of all the academic-oriented extracurricular activities, those that supported reading appeared most popular.
Half the interview participants developed programmes in this regard.
Some participants helped to create a print-rich environment if few books were stocked in their placement school.
The collection of books became a form of valued materiality that Bourdieu (1986) would refer to as objectified cultural capital.
Some participants developed an electronic catalogue system for their school library to provide better loan services.
For example, Min, Ren and Zhao manually digitalised bibliographic details with the help of voluntary students.
Similar to hard copy of the books, the electronic library catalogue can be understood as objectified cultural capital in a digital form.
Accumulating objectified cultural capital is a material project; but to consume it requires embodied cultural capital.
In this vein, some participants organised book-reading groups for their students to take advantage of existing educational resources and engage in reading.
Xiu developed a book-writing project.
She trained her students in essay writing, and then word-processed, printed, and bound the essays into a book.
A batch of 100 copies of the book quickly sold out online.
Parallel to the academic-oriented extracurricular activities were the non-academic oriented counterparts in various forms.
Some fellows established a broadcasting station, a classic EGRT extracurricular activity that has benefited all participating students through opportunities to work as contributors, announcers, and audience members.
Exposed to technologies that local students seldom encountered, they were expected to enhance organisational skills, improve oral expression, and strengthen peer collaborations.
More importantly, students were also expected to become more confident and braver about putting themselves in the public eye and sharing ideas with others.
To sum up the ‘what’ question, interview participants reportedly developed and deployed academic and non-academic oriented extracurricular activities to promote students’ holistic development, rather than mainly improving test scores – the focus of similar programmes in other countries (e.g. Teach for America and Teach First).
According to fellows’ report, they had not heard any similar activities held by local teachers.
Hence, fellows believed that they enabled rural students’ access to educational activities rare in rural schools.
It needs to be acknowledged that academic and non-academic oriented extracurricular activities were not exclusive to each other.
The former ones were not merely designed for improving test performance; instead, they triggered curiosity for knowledge and respected personal interest.
The latter ones mainly aimed to provide opportunities for social and emotional learning appreciated in the real world.
In the next section, we unveil reasons behind fellows’ development of extracurricular activities for their students.

Why did participants develop these extracurricular activities?
Analysis of the accounts of interview participants revealed the following three main considerations (themes) when they developed extracurricular activities:
(1) using available resources through capital conversion;
(2) expanding students’ horizon through contemptuous habitus; and
(3) taking into account local needs in field.

Using available resources through capital conversion
EGRT fellows, as winners in the education system, realised that they could take advantage of their accrued cultural and social capital to create extracurricular activities
According to one fellow’s account, he chose this extracurricular activity because he believed that it could work out.
Four years of study at a prestigious university has enabled his social capital to network with resourceful others (e.g. his supervisor and friend) who were willing to support him.
Furthermore, as a graduate of telecommunication engineering, he took advantage of his IT knowledge and skills, a form of embodied cultural capital, to promote the university visit on the Internet and raise funds to cover students’ expenses.
The visibility of the university visit programme in the virtual space obtained symbolic value, which was in turn converted to economic capital that enabled students’ entry to the programme.
In sum, capital conversion is evident in the data.
Participants commonly drew on their social and cultural capital to develop extracurricular activities, which would benefit, on the one hand, their students learning, and on the other hand, their own employability after EGRT service.
The latter is a dynamic that has been identified in research on the Teach for All Network (Labaree 2010; Maier 2012; Olmedo, Bailey, and Ball 2013).
When EGRT fellows developed extracurricular activities, their favourable capital portfolio was often translated into a positional advantage – a sense of contempt often in an unconscious manner.
It is this unconscious contempt to which the authors now turn.

Expanding the horizon of local students though contemptuous habitus
Many interview participants attributed students’ low motivation of learning to the lack of knowledge of the outside world beyond the small village, and regarded themselves as the bridge for local students to the outside world.
Owing to the drastic social divide between rural and urban areas after the Reform and Opening-up policy, the whole rural community, the spiritual sanctuary for ancient Chinese, has effectively been devalued in contemporary China.
Urbanites have normally associated rural people with low suzhi (embodied human qualities).
Rural poverty is often attributed to the low suzhi of a population with little education and seen as an impediment to the rise of the Chinese nation on the global stage (Li 2013).
These social structures had been inscribed into the contemptuous habitus of many interview participants, which worked as the compass to orient their urbanised design of extracurricular activities and to urge their students to accumulate urban-valued capitals.
Here interview participants’ contemptuous habitus engineers their ostensive fundamentalist assumption that all rural children lack and therefore require a ‘universal’ version of fundamentals – the embodied cultural capital – sourced in the ruling not the rural culture.
Investment in extracurricular activities is therefore assumed convertible into skills and qualities with subsequent value structurally and arbitrarily defined by superior culture, taste, and distinction.
These skills and qualities are therefore demanded of, not necessarily desired by, rural students.

Taking into account the local needs in field
Interestingly, not all extracurricular activities developed by the fellows were urban-oriented.
Some were initiated to respond to the local needs.
It should be noted, however, that examples in this regard are rare among our participants. Only Ren, Xiang, and Lu reportedly developed localised activities.
The analysis has shown that the interview participants developed academic and non-academic extracurricular activities based on
(1) their practical evaluation of capital at disposal,
(2) their good intention driven by contemptuous habitus to expand rural student’s horizon beyond rural communities, and
(3) their intention to address the local needs in field.
Enlightened by Bourdieu’s capital-habitus-field triad, the author’s discussion therefore revolves around three different but interrelated themes, namely pragmatism of the possible, contempt of the rural, and reappraisal of the local.

Bourdieu, P. 1986. “The Forms of Capital.” In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by J. G. Richardson, 241–258. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.
Labaree, D. 2010. “Teach for America and Teacher Ed: Heads They Win, Tails We Lose.” Journal of Teacher Education 61 (1–2): 48–55.
Li, H. 2013. “Rural Students’ Experiences in a Chinese Elite University: Capital, Habitus and Practices.” British Journal of Sociology of Education 34 (5–6): 829–847.
Maier, A. 2012. “Doing Good and Doing Well: Credentialism and Teach for America.” Journal of Teacher Education 63 (1): 10–22.
Olmedo, A., P. L. Bailey, and S. J. Ball. 2013. “To Infinity and beyond . . . : Heterarchical Governance, the Teach for All Network in Europe and the Making of Profits and Minds.” European Educational Research Journal 12 (4): 492–512.
Thomas, D. R. 2006. “A General Inductive Approach for Analyzing Qualitative Evaluation Data.” American Journal of Evaluation 27 (2): 237–246.

Updated: Aug. 09, 2022