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Framing Narratives: Youth and Schooling, Silencing and Dissent



Abstrakt As completing upper secondary school has become increasingly important for young people to take their place in society, the problem of school dropout has prompted extensive research to identify the decisive underlying individual and school-based risk factors. However, less attention has been paid to interactions between individual students and institutions (Bunting & Moshuus, 2017). Such a shift redirects our attention from seeing dropout as an accumulation of risk factors (Rumberger, 2011) towards a focus on the processes leading some students to drop out (Brown & Rodriguez, 2009). From this perspective, this paper explores how interaction frames and silences those young people that drop out (Fine, 1991). Based on ethnographic narrative interviews, this qualitative longitudinal study explores schooling experiences through young people’s own accounts. The interpretation of the data reveals issues of young people having a voice or being silenced, staying and completing school or being excluded from school as silenced individuals or (less frequently) as outspoken dissidents. The study explores how these young people frame their narratives, as this factor seems to contribute to diametrically opposed outcomes (dropping out or completion). The findings indicate that young people who employ similar negative frames to describe their interactions both at home and at school are the most vulnerable to dropping out.
As completing upper secondary school has become increasingly important for young people to take their place
in society, the problem of school dropout has prompted extensive research to identify the decisive underlying
individual and school-based risk factors. However, less attention has been paid to interactions between
individual students and institutions (Bunting
Moshuus, 2017). Such a shift redirects our attention from
seeing dropout as an accumulation of risk factors (Rumberger, 2011) towards a focus on the processes leading
some students to drop out ( Brown
Rodriguez, 2009). From this perspective, this paper explores how
interaction frames and silences those young people that drop out (Fine, 1991). Based on ethnographic narrative
interviews, this qualitative longitudinal study explores schooling experiences through young people’s own
accounts. The interpretation of the data reveals issues of young people having a voice or being silenced, staying,
and completing school or being excluded from school as silenced individuals or (less frequently) as outspoken
dissidents. The study explores how these young people frame their narratives, as this factor seems to contribute
to diametrically opposed outcomes (dropping out or completion). The ndings indicate that young people who
employ similar negative frames to describe their interactions both at home and at school are the most vulnerable
to dropping out.
Youth, dropout, school, narratives, silencing
Studia paedagogica
vol. 21, n. 4, 2016
DOI: 10.5817/SP2016-4-2
When I went to primary school, I was beaten up several times a week.” Erik told us
this as he explained that he struggled at home as well as at school. Erik is one
of the young people our research project will follow for 10 years as he
progresses through education to take his place in adult society.1 We rst spoke
with Erik because he fit the social category of being at the margins
of upper secondary school in Norway. While we cannot be sure of Erik’s
future trajectory, we fear he will end up in another social category – one that
is sometimes labelled ‘dropout.’
A recently published special report in The Economist on youth (Guest, 2016)
illuminates Erik’s predicament. The report was global in scope and concluded
that while young people do better than their parents in almost all respects,
they face one major challenge: an increasing scarcity of jobs. To nd a job, they
need an education, and youth who struggle at school risk failing to complete
upper secondary school and so ending up outside the labor market. We argue
here that while some of our informants will eventually nd paid work, Erik
and others are at risk of a jobless future. Our general question, then, is: What
leads young people to such different outcomes? To explore this issue, we look
to Michelle Fine’s classic study of the processes behind school attendance –
and, in particular, dropping out of school among students from poor minority
families attending a comprehensive high school in New York (Fine, 1991).
Following Fine, we can conceive of youth attending school within
particular cultural contextualizations (Geertz, 1973), or, in Fine’s terminology,
within particular frames, as in the title “Framing Dropouts.” In a nutshell,
her argument is that while school provides some students with the necessary
context—that is, the required frame—for learning, others (usually poor
students) experience school as a rigged game, framed to their disadvantage.
Adopting this frame/framed distinction for the purposes of the present
argument, we rst present partial narratives from a number of encounters.
We then try to envisage the contextualizations (frames) in which these young
people nd themselves in order to understand how these sometimes appear
rigged (framed) against them. Our contribution emphasizes the importance
of also including young peoples’ interactions outside of school as crucial in
understanding why some end up completely disengaged from school.
1 Youth, Completion and Dropout in Telemark is nanced by Telemark University College
(2013–2015) and the University College of Southeast Norway (2016–) and is receiving
funding over three years (2015-19) from the Norwegian Labour and Welfare
Administration (
Background and research
Young people’s future lives as adults are linked to their school career, which
will determine whether they nd work, where they can live, and their ability
to participate in society (Baker, 2014). For that reason, reducing the high
dropout rate in upper secondary school has become a challenge to be addressed
in many countries (Woodman & Wyn, 2015, Arnesen & Sørlie, 2010; Frønes,
2010; Falch & Nyhus, 2011).
In Norway, upper secondary schooling is not compulsory, but youths are
entitled to attend school from 16 to 21 and compete for a place in the study
program of their choice on the basis of their academic achievements in lower
secondary school. There are 15 study programs in two streams: three general
programs leading to higher education and 12 vocational study programs.
The latter stream is known as the “2+2 model,” comprising two years in
school and two years of apprenticeship (Markussen, Frøseth, & Sandberg,
According to national statistics, 73% of young people in Norway complete
upper secondary school, but this includes only 59% of those in the vocational
strand (55% of male students) (Statistisk Sentralbyrå, 2016). Of those in the
vocational stream who drop out, most are more likely tonish bet ween rather
than during school years (Markussen & Seland, 2012, Markussen, Lødding,
& Holen, 2012). Dropping out occurs mainly after the second year, prior
to the apprenticeship. This can be accounted for by a structural blockage
in the system (Markussen, Frøseth, Lødding, & Sandberg, 2008; Markussen,
2014); while the county council owns the two rst years, employers own the
apprenticeship placements and choose who they wish to employ, leaving a
signicant number of young people behind.
Young people who are successful at school are more likely to be the children
of parents with higher education and a good income (Falch & Nyhus,
2011; Markussen, 2014; Sletten & Hyggen, 2013). A child’s socioeconomic
background inuences their success at school in terms of engagement and
grades, which again inuences how they cope with upper secondary school
(Rumberger, 2011; Markussen, Frøseth, & Sandberg, 2011, Alexander,
Entvistle, & Kabbani, 2003). Gender also inuences completion; girls are
substantially more likely than boys to complete their schooling (Markussen,
2014). To date, researchers have typically adopted one of two perspectives in
attempting to understand the causes of dropout (Bunting & Moshuus, 2017).
The rst of these perspectives views dropping out primarily as a function of
individual or structural problems that force young people toward the margins
and so this perspective seeks to identify precisely the various factors involved
in dropout (Rumberger, 2011). The second perspective focuses on the
interaction between individuals, the structures, and processes that precede
dropping out. Here, the general nding is that dropout ensues when a young
person is unable to understand the embedded language or dominant culture
at their school (Fine, 1991; Brown & Rodriguez, 2009). The rst perspective
depicts those who drop out as part of a social group of marginalized losers
dened by “an array of factors.” The second approach more often describes
those who drop out as opposing or even rebelling against their situation.
Brown and Rodriguez (2009) have argued for a need to shift the focus of
research from risk factors to “the everyday experiences of schooling from
which [youth] deduced that going to school was not in their best interest”
(p. 221). They argued that it is too easy to end up debating the importance
of various risk factors while some of our young people withdraw from school
and nd themselves outside the labor market. Instead, we need to understand
how institutional factors and individual experiences play out in the everyday
processes of schooling.
This was indeed the focus of Willis’ (1978) seminal study Learning to labour:
How working class kids get working class jobs. Willis’ ethnographic eldwork showed
how informal communities develop among young people (“the lads”),
creating a sense of belonging and friendship that leads to a shared resistance
to life and activities at an upper secondary school in an industrial town
(Hammerstown) in the UK in the 1970s. In Fine’s study, more than 80% of
students entering Comprehensive High School in New York in the late 1970s
had not graduated by 1985 (Fine, 1991, p. 35). However, while Fine (like
Willis) also adopted an ethnographic approach, she focused on the system
rather than on informal communities of resistance among students.
The school was negatively characterized as a system that produced school-
leavers by “silencing” students (p. 31) and “exporting dissent” (p. 50).
With strict adherence to the principle of equal opportunity, the school’s
generous admission practices were intended to make higher education more
accessible for all. However, in practising this equality, the school culture
failed to connect with the home culture of most of its students and so produced
unequal outcomes. To illustrate this point, Fine quotes one of the students:
“When my Momma comes and they show her no respect” (p. 24). Willis’
study has been criticized for paying insufcient attention to students (the
so-called ear’oles) who managed through their schooling to break away
from their working class backgrounds to nd middle class jobs (Grifn, 2011).
In contrast, Fine’s study can be criticized for its excessive focus on systemic
determinism (Page, 1994). Nevertheless, both studies are valuable in
highlighting how young people move through education within particular
cultural contextualizations (frames) that are advantageous to some but not
to others.
The shift in research on understanding dropout from focusing on identifying
risk factors towards the interactions that make up young people’s daily lives
has had an impact on the methods used. Dorn (1993) argues that in order to
study dropout as a socially mediated phenomenon, one must understand
how dropout is related to and formed by social norms and regulations.
In order to record youths’ own stories about dropping out of school, both
Jonker (2006) and Tanggaard (2013) interviewed young people. What they
found was that young people will tell different stories to different audiences.
Jonker contends that interviews are like photos of the conversations we
have, at most capturing moments in the interviewees’ lives, and labelled
them photographic snapshots (Jonker, 2006, p. 123).The present research is
a longitudinal qualitative study that follows a number of young people over
a 10-year period, based on data from individual ethnographic interviews
and eld notes. The indirectness of ethnographic interviews (Spradley, 1979;
Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007) engages informants in conversations in which
both questions and answers develop out of the informants’ context. Using
this indirect approach (Moshuus, 2005, 2012; Moshuus & Eide, 2016), every
interview starts with small talk, using the interactions that precede the
interview to initiate a dialogue focusing on the unique personal experiences
of each informant. To this end, the interviewer makes follow-up responses
to enable the informant to tell their own story in the words of their choosing
(Kvale & Brinkmann, 2015).
The study is now in its third year; this paper is based on the two previously
completed rounds of interviews and eld notes. All interviews were transcribed
and then coded in Nvivo. In the rst round, 71 youths were interviewed who
were either at school or in the welfare system. All were aged between 16
and 21 and most were male. They were recruited because they were at risk of
dropping out and abandoning education (Markussen, 2014). Some participants
were not interviewed in the second year of the study. Of these, only a few
wanted to leave the study permanently; others were either unavailable at the
time or difcult to contact for such reasons as being in the process of moving
or having changed their address.
The interviewees referred to herein were among those interviewed twice.
Participants who did not grow up in Norway have been omitted, as they could
not talk about relevant primary school experiences. We also omitted those
whose childhoods had been exceptionally difcult, involving for instance
foster homes or schools or institutions outside the Norwegian educational
system. Their stories are important, but here we want to understand the
marginal schooling experience of young people with backgrounds shared by
the larger community. As the indirect research approach allowed informants
to choose the stories they wanted to tell, some did not include descriptions
of their childhood or school, and these have also been omitted, along with
those used extensively in other articles.
To ensure equal representation of participants from school and the welfare
system, we selected four young men: Erik, Asgeir, Anton, and Trond. Two
were still at school and two were on welfare. This yielded eight interviews
and eight sets of eld notes; some were quite detailed, talking about school
and home, while others gave only glimpses of what their experiences were
In the following section, we present partial narratives from the interviews,
interspersed with summaries of longer sequences in order to reproduce
some of the complexities of the dialogues in the interviews. In terms of any
measure of interview validity, we have no way of ensuring that the interviews
represent the only story of each informant’s relationship to their schooling
(Kvale & Brinkmann, 2015). But by presenting the produced narratives in
this fashion, we are endeavouring to introduce a level of interpretative
complexity that will allow us in the following section to enrich our guesswork
of the possible meanings and perceptions of our informants’ schooling and,
perhaps more importantly, their ways of framing their lack of schooling
(Geertz, 1983). We do so in the hope of demonstrating that a relational
perspective needs to be complemented with a perspective focused also on
their interactions outside of school. Or as Fine (1991) would argue, most
young people go through their schooling within certain meaningful frames,
but some are also framed by these contextualizations. We will argue that the
silencing does not stop at school. The really troublesome framing happens
when the silencing at school extends also to other areas. The following
narratives shed some light on how that happens.
The Narratives
These four young men, Erik, Asgeir, Anton, and Trond, are all very different.
What they have in common is that they have all experienced difculties at
school. We cannot explore all of their stories in depth here, so we will start
with presenting more in detail part of Erik’s account of his life at school and
at home. The other youth’s stories will follow, supporting and emphasizing
experiences similar to or different from Erik’s.
Erik’s story
We met Erik for the rst time while he was attending a course at his local
welfare ofce. In the interview, Erik moved quite quickly to describe his
experiences of school and especially the bullying he had endured.
I was bullied at primary school and lower secondary school, for 10 years at
school. When I went to primary school, I was beaten up several times a week.
So if, for example, I was going to read aloud in class, I struggled a lot with
that before starting lower secondary school, reading and things like that,
I stuttered a lot and didn’t quite manage to read the words. It was all jumbled.
So, then I often read incorrectly and slowly, and people often laughed at me.
What is worse, the teacher I had for that lesson didn’t do much to stop them
when they laughed at me.
Apparently, the bullying started around fth grade and continued until
Eric nished lower secondary school at 16. In addition to being bullied by
his peers, he also described being ridiculed in front of the class by his teachers,
who made him read aloud in spite of his stammering. The teachers also knew
about the bullying, which made it worse for him. Later in the interview, he
said that the teachers would interfere only if the bullying became physical;
when others in classed yelled at him with disrespectful labels, the teachers
ignored it.
I think that it is almost the school’s fault that I have dyslexia – I think that,
to a large extent, the reason I have dyslexia today is because I was bullied. …
School should be a safe and good place to be, but perhaps it isn’t? You are
supposed to learn there, but you face a different challenge in your daily life
there, where perhaps you start thinking about other things and become
demotivated because you are being bullied. And distracted because of it, and
lost sort of—how can I put it—the glow or the energ y to actually bother,
in a way. If the school or the teachers had been better at forcefully stopping the
bullying at primary school, I don’t think I would be struggling so much with
the dyslexia today.
Erik described how the bullying affected his school life. Looking back, he
could see how this affected his ability to concentrate as well as his motivation.
When we asked him if any of his teachers had supported him, he mentioned
a female teacher he had had for six months in eighth grade who had tried to
help him as much as she could, but who left in the middle of the year on
maternity leave.
Throughout the interviews, Erik talked a lot about his family, telling us
that he lived with his mother, who is on welfare. He made few references to
either his father’s or stepfather’s profession or work. He said that there was
a lot of quarrelling, especially when the family did things together. But he
also told us that he loved being with his family:
My family is important to me in the way that we have grown up [together] – my
sisters and my mother, who are very concerned that we show love, that we care
about each other, support each other and things like that.
Erik excluded from this equation his father and the stepfather he grew up
with. His sisters and mother were the ones who supported and cared for each
other. His parents had split up when he was a couple of years old, and his
relationship with his father was complicated:
My dad—my real dad—he is probably well on his way to becoming an alcoholic.
… My stepfather, who has been my stepfather for 16, 17 years, he has probably
been more of a father to me than my real dad has been.
In this way, Erik introduced the men into his narrative, but he made it clear
that his biological father was distant and that he should probably call his
stepfather “father.” However, his relationship with his stepfather was
complicated. Erik described him as follows:
It’s true that he has been very strict, perhaps both physically and psychologically,
so I have struggled a bit because of how he has been. But it isn’t only negative;
there are also some positives – for one thing, I have become a calmer person.
He went on to defend his stepfather, saying that he was a difcult child:
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I had ADHD.” At another point in the interview,
talking about how it was at school, he again described experiences with his
I: How was it growing up, then?
E: No, it wasn’t very easy because I had it quite tough at school, and I was
very angry and frustrated when I came home from school, nearly every day.
And then, almost as soon as I came home, I was scolded by him [stepfather].
Yes, he looked for things I did wrong, to yell at me and so on. And it wasn’t
that easy when I had it so hard at school, and then I came home, and then, in
a way, I got even more. So it wasn’t very easy, it wasn’t…
I: Was he like that towards your sisters?
E: No, he was mostly like that towards me. I was a little bit… I was a little
bit difcult when I was a child. A little bit naughty, you could say. Not at
school – fthen, I was very proper and quiet. But when I came home, because of
the bullying , my anger came out because I was with people who… yes, who knew
me well and loved me I know, and things like that. So it was a little difcult,
a difcult situation, and it is a bit hard to explain, too. But my anger came
out when I was at home. And perhaps that is partly why he was so strict.
The struggles at school clearly inuenced his home life. Feeling safe at home,
he let it all out there – his anger, frustration, and outrage at being treated in
that way. However, he could not let himself go; he had to hold back and felt
he was not allowed to show his true colors. Instead, he had to be cautious as
he knew his stepfather would challenge him about the smallest incident;
as Erik said, “He looked for things I did wrong.” As mentioned above, he felt close
to his mother, and in the second interview, he also spoke about
how important she had been to him in managing being on welfare and trying
to escape from that situation. However, she had not always been able to be
there for him – fsomething that Erik kept returning to in both interviews:
Quite a few years ago, she was in an accident in which she damaged her back
and neck. She tried to work as much as she could but was working less and
less because she couldn’t manage. In the end, she worked so little that she might
just as well be on welfare.
This was a very serious accident that happened when Erik was young – about
the time when he said the bullying and dyslexia started. This accident changed
his mother’s life; although she tried, she was no longer able to work. It also
changed his own life, and he struggled both at home and at school.
Anton’s story
Bullying is mentioned by quite a few of our informants. When we met Anton,
he seemed to be a pale and shy young man. His teacher, who accompanied
him to therst interview, privately advised us that she considered him a weak
student. Anton lives with his mother and they are close. She is a professional
cleaner; his father, now retired, was a trained marine machinist. His parents
divorced when he was young, and he has had regular contact with his father.
Anton is the youngest of three; his siblings, who are much older, have
completed their education. He had returned to school after dropping out
before, and he was still at school when we met him for the second time.
Anton experienced bullying when he moved to a new lower secondary
school. He said he was different from the others and shy, with no friends.
He struggled to talk about it, holding back. But when asked if the teachers
helped him, he said they did so when the bullies became physical but not
when they were verbally abusive. Anton also struggled to get to school on
time, which also became an issue.
A: I had a lot of absences.
I: Yes.
A: But …
I: It had to do with bullying?
A: Yes, that, and the fact that I didn’t like … to present things and so on.
Those things …
I: Yes, there were a lot of presentations?
A: Yes, a lot.
I: Well then, did you avoid them by being absent?
A: Yes.
I: What happened then?
A: No, I was told to buy myself an alarm clock so I could get up in the mornings.
I: So you explained it by saying that you had problems getting up in the morning?
A: Yes, excuses that I had this and that and blah, blah, blah.
I: Yes, what was that?
A: That I was tired in the morning? No, I am, what do you call it – fa Type-B
person, is that what it is when you get up early?
I: No, it’s a Type-A person that gets up early.
A: Yes, that’s what I am, so then, no, it was more than that. The presentations
or that, there was something I was fretting about or the walk to school or yes.
I: Yes, I can understand that. So you were fretting about school?
A: Yes.
I: And then you disappeared?
A: It was easier than going [to school]. …
I: How did your teachers react to your absence?
A: We had quite a few meetings.
I: Did anything come out of the meetings?
A: No, I went to … is it called PP [educational psycholog y] services? Took
some tests and stuff.
According to the school, the reason for Anton’s truancy was that he slept in.
However, he himself explained that he actually wakes up early; sleeping in
was not the problem. He was anxious about walking to school because of
being bullied and about standing in front of the class to present something.
So, it seemed easier not to go. The school told him to buy an alarm clock,
saying that the problem was him. They tested his abilities, but they failed to
deal with the bullying.
Trond’s story
At the welfare ofce, we also met Trond, another young man who had dropped
out. He came across as eloquent, polite, and forthcoming. His parents were
divorced and he had grown up with his mother and stepfather. Both of his
parents are shopkeepers, and the rst time we met it seemed that this was
the direction he also hoped to take. When we rst met him, he was looking
for an apprenticeship. Trond explained how his parents had wanted the school
to check whether he had ADHD, as they found him very active and struggling
to concentrate. The school disagreed and told them that the observed problems
(both at home and at school) indicated that he was a difcult child. This
seems to have ended his parents’ pursuit of help. In hindsight, Trond found
it curious that when he was tested in upper secondary school, they found he
had ADHD. He then went back even further to talk about his early experiences
with teachers:
On leaving eighth grade and entering ninth grade, we got a new form teacher
[the teacher responsible for supporting students]. And the rst day I arrived at
school, I was taken out in the hallway where he told me that he knew who
I was and that he had read my le and everything else I had said, so I should
just settle down.
His new teacher at lower secondary school must either have known or been
warned about Trond. He made a point of telling Trond that he knew Trond
was trouble, that he had read Trond’s le, and that Trond had to calm down.
In his own mind, Trond had not consciously done anything to break school
rules, such as playing truant:
I have never been one to play truant or anything like that. Never done anything
very prohibited in terms of school rules and things like that. But I am easily
distracted and can easily get up and walk over to my mate in the classroom and
mess about and talk. That is typical of me.
Because of the diagnosis, Trond seemed to feel that he now had proof that
he was not a difcult child out of malice; he was a difcult child because he
struggled with concentration and remaining still. Looking back at his years
at school and what had happened in his life so far, we sensed some regret
about not being understood and being seen as someone who just wanted
For example, I can say that if I had been tested for ADHD a lot earlier,
I would have had a greater chance in life. If I had learned to manage it earlier,
I could easily have got through lower secondary school, for example … and
perhaps even managed to get through upper secondary school.
Trond realized that his current struggle in completing his schooling resulted
from a process outside his and his parents’ control. He did not have a chance
to tell his story. The teacher’s preconceived ideas always won; he lost and his
parents lost. The joy of proving himself right could not quite override his
sadness about what might have been.
Asgeir’s story
Turning to Asgeir, this young man had always managed quite well at school
despite his dyslexia. He talked about himself as having been a geek in primary
school—unlike most of his peers, he had read Lord of the rings and Harry
Potter. He lives with his parents, who are well educated. He was currently
a second-year student in the Restaurant and Food Processing strand,
specializing in being a waiter. While quite shy, Asgeir looked like someone
who wants to stand out. He conrmed this when he talked, saying that he
enjoyed talking one-on-one but struggled in groups. In the second interview,
he had reached a point where he no longer enjoyed school, and he felt that
the teacher was not doing enough to support students.
The only things I can think about are examples of him [the teacher] being very
rude … We were supposed to be in the restaurant, and then he was going to
show us how to serve and stuff like that. And I had already learnt how to
serve… last year, from the last teacher we had. So, as I already knew how
I should serve, I stood a little behind the others. So let’s say the others were
about at the end of the table, and I literally stood as far away as here [showing
us]. And they were doing this here, like this, and I was playing with my hat.
He stands there, like this, saying, ‘Asgeir, could you come closer?’ And I just
said, ‘I know this already.And he just said, ‘But you are not following.
And then I repeated what he had just said, which I still remembered. …
Afterwards, he took me aside and told me I was weird and that I didn’t t in
with the class. He also said that he would call my parents at home. And I said
that ‘I don’t think my father will be especially pleased to hear you’ve called me
weird and said that I don’t t in and then called them to complain about me’.
And he never called my home. At the parents’ meeting, when my parents said
that it is rude … to say that a student is weird and such, he talked about it.
He said that he was going to do something about it; I haven’t heard anything,
and …
I: Do something about what?
A: I understood him to mean that he should say he was sorry or make it right,
to make sure there was no misunderstanding…. But he hasn’t done anything
at all. And just the other day, he said … it was just kidding.
Later, when Asgeir saw the teacher being rude to a friend, he pointed out that
this friend was hurt and suggested the teacher should perhaps apologize.
The teacher responded: “I never apologize to a pupil” and walked off.
Asgeir’s parents exercised their lawful right to a session with his teacher
to discuss what had happened. Unlike Trond’s case, the teacher admitted that
he had been rude, and he said that he would apologize to Asgeir. However,
he never did; it was all for show. So, even though Asgeir’s parents understood
how school works and got involved, they were not heard.
Framing narratives
At the outset, we asked what leads young people to such different outcomes.
Why do we think Erik will do badly? And why do we expect Asgeir to do
much better? In fact, all of the narratives presented here reect similar
problems, some of which are quite severe. However, we believe that situations
which at rst sight appear similar are likely to end up very differently. We
believe this has to do with the different framings in each story, which leave
these young people open to different trajectories. We suspect that Erik and
some of the others reveal a narrative framing that could end up making them
As stated in the section on methods, this study collects data differently
from most studies on school dropout. Our guesswork at the meaningful
frames surrounding the narratives we have reproduced is informed by Clifford
Geertz’s distinction between thin and thick descriptions (Geertz, 1973, pp. 6–7).
The narratives in these dialogues can be viewed as thin descriptions, and our
challenge is to guess at the thick description that makes these narratives
meaningful for the study participants.2 These thick descriptions correspond
to the contextualizations or frames within which these young people view
their schooling. At best, these contextualizations correspond roughly to those
of their schools (including teaching staff, policies and so on). Sometimes,
however, they do not.
The stories presented above are mostly about silencing. For example, Erik
told us that he did not feel safe at school and that it took all his energy just
to get through the day. The bullying seems to have been the hardest thing
for him and affected him severely. Being beaten regularly without anything
happening is bad, but experiencing teachers as facilitating even more bullying
during lessons is hard. Here, his narrative corresponds with Fine’s argument
about how students’ discordant voices in relation to health are “muted” or
unheard (Fine, 1991, p. 44). Erik had no teachers that he could lean on;
instead, he felt ridiculed and that staff turned a blind eye to the bullying he
suffered. This was so hard that the support for his dyslexia was of no help,
as he had to concentrate on surviving and had no energy left for learning.
His story tells us that he is on his own – alone, quiet and unnoticed. It is
noteworthy that he does not talk about friends at school and he has difculty
identifying any teacher that had tried to help.
Anton’s story seems very similar to Erik’s in terms of how he is silenced
at school. He nds himself alone and bullied by his peers. His narrative tells
us how he struggled with presentations in class and how nervous and desperate
that made him feel. To avoid being bullied, he stayed at home. That was the
young boy’s own solution, but it quickly became part of the problem. Here,
the silencing relates to how Anton’s own perceptions are muted to accommodate
the school’s perspective. As the story developed, we learn that the school
addressed the problem; they present Anton with solutions but fail to ask him
what the problem is. They say he has a problem waking up and that he must
buy an alarm clock. His anxiety about class presentations is ignored, as is his
experience of being bullied; what he needs is an alarm clock. The school
sends him to an educational psychologist to test him – to assess whether the
problem relates to learning difculties. But the bullying continues and the
anxiety persists. The school has dened the problem, but his own experiences
are ignored. Anton had dropped out of upper secondary school once before,
and his teacher informs us that they consider him a weak student who is in
danger of dropping out again.
2 As researchers, we are of course part of the dialogue and contributed to how the
interviews unfolded. We have discussed this elsewhere ( Moshuus, 2005, 2012; Moshuus
& Eide, 2016).
Trond’s account seems to differ from those of Erik and Anton. Here is a
loud, outspoken young man who seems eager to share his opinions. He has
many friends, but like Erik and Anton, he is struggling on the margins of
school. Trond admits that he is physically active and distracted in class.
However, he questions the school’s response; in his narrative, he tells us how
all of the staff knew about him – even new teachers knew he was “trouble.”
Looking back at his schooling, Trond felt cheated of an education. The school
silenced him, leaving him to sort out his learning deciencies on his own.
Only one of the narratives presented here is not overtly about school
silencing, but even Asgeir’s story seems to be about how the school shuts out
those who struggle to keep up. Like Trond, Asgeir is able to stand up for
himself. This is apparent in the story he told about his teacher who rebuked
him for not paying attention during practice. To that point, this seems like
another story about silencing. However, in front of the whole class, Asgeir
demonstrated that the teacher was wrong. He had paid attention, he was just
keeping a distance. Here, the narrative is no longer about Asgeir being silenced.
On the contrary, Asgeir told us about this to show how he was talking back,
framing his story as narrating how he was something of a dissident at school,
opposing the requirement to be silent. But the story he told us was not the
kind of dissent that would end with his exclusion; this was not the kind of
rebellion that the school would try to prevent (Fine, 1991, p. 50ff). Nor
was it an example of the secret communities that form as a countercultural
reaction to what school is about (Willis, 1978). This narrative told us how
Asgeir was able to position himself at school despite having second thoughts
about the training he was receiving. Asgeir wanted to complete the year in
order to begin a different program the following year.
So far, we have identied why three out of these four young people
presented us with narratives in which their contextualizations differ from
those of most young people’s experiences of school. To most of us, these
stories are quite shocking, revealing how dyslexia, ADHD, and even outright
bullying are silenced by schools. However, while all of these stories are
about how youth are silenced, we fear that Erik may face a jobless future –
something the others may yet avoid, although both Anton and Trond continue
to struggle. Asgeir, on the other hand, suffers but is ghting back and has a
plan for how to complete school. This difference seems to reect how the
silencing experienced at school frames them.
Some young people experience their schooling as silencing. As these stories
show, this means that they are made individually responsible for whatever
makes it difcult for them to progress through education in the same way as
their peers. Here, we nd dyslexia, unruly behavior (ADHD), and even
bullying shorn of their relational and contextual settings and instead
characterized as problems of the individual. Yet, in most of these stories, we
also see something else. In Anton’s case, we know that although his parents
sought to discuss his late arrivals in terms of his age and his own problems,
these issues are not part of his narrative. Perhaps they were unsure how to
respond, but they did not leave him alone to confront his teachers’ demands,
and his siblings pushed him into becoming more social. He was never alone.
Nor was Trond; like Erik, he was out of school, but when the school depicted
him as a troublemaker and the author of his own misfortunes, his parents
came to his aid, asking the school to get a medical evaluation. In short, he
was never alone in his ordeals either. No parents in any of these narratives
were more present than Asgeir’s, who, as he told us, contacted the school
after the episode in question and demanded an apology.
In short, all of these stories show how silencing at school stopped short
of framing these young people by virtue of the interventions and care they
all received at home. The only exception was Erik, who struggled more than
most at school and also struggled at home. His father was a developing
alcoholic, his mother was suffering from a severe injury, and his stepfather
harassed him. This is what makes Erik’s story so important in explaining
why some young people suffer more than others. Some may suffer at school
only to nd that suffering balanced by events elsewhere in their lives. Erik
was barely able to operate within the educational frame, but it was the
combination of silencing at school and his home situation that framed him.
He put it best himself: “It wasn’t that easy when I had it so hard at school, and then
I came home, and then, in a way, I got even more.” While we fear that he is at much
greater risk than the others, we also believe that his story holds a lesson for
us all.
Conclusion: The difference between frames and being framed
What can we learn from Erik’s story? In terms of risk accumulation, the young
men presented here face great challenges. It would be easy to categorize
our informants as being at increased risk of dropping out. All had attended
vocational strands, which at the time had the highest dropout rates; as males,
their risk was further increased (Markussen, 2014; Utdanningsdirektoratet,
2014, 2015). Additionally, like most of those who drop out, Erik, Trond,
and Anton had low marks on leaving lower secondary school and come from
lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Falch & Nyhus, 2011; Markussen, 2014;
Rumberger, 2011; Sletten & Hyggen, 2013). Yet despite all these similarities,
their stories prompt us to speculate that their outcomes may prove to be very
different. It is when we complement the perspective of risk accumulation
with a focus on the relationships the different young people in our study
develop with their world that we see the lesson of Erik’s story.
In all of these stories, we heard about conicts at school. Following
Michelle Fine, we saw how their narrative frames reflected that these
young men were largely powerless to reverse the contextualization of school.
In this sense, their stories of their schooling coincide with Fine’s understanding
of school as a rigged game framed to their disadvantage. Yet, there is more
to these narratives than the framing prescribed by Fine’s perspective. In three
of the stories (those of Anton, Trond, and Asgeir), we also nd the presence
of parents, friends, and siblings who act in ways that suggest different or
competing contextualizations present in their narratives. Their actions—even
the failed ones, as when Trond’s parents were unable to persuade his school
to seek a medical evaluation—matter for what these actions did to alter
their situations at school. But the actions also enabled these young people to
tell tales about their experiences that generate contextualizations opposing
those they had habitually experienced at school. In short, these experiences
allowed them to tell tales that—to some extent at least—undid some of the
framing they had experienced at school.
Research on school dropout focusing on risk accumulation has found that
young people from middle class families do much better at school because
they understand the dominant culture in their school (Markussen et. al., 2008;
Rumberger, 2011). This study, focus on young people’s own accounts,
suggests that we should pay attention to how young people interact at school
as well as outside of school in order to improve our understanding of how
their family background affects their schooling. For some students who
experience silencing at school, this silencing may result in their schooling
becoming a rigged game in Fine’s sense. But, for others, it does not. In their
accounts, we nd narratives of how the actions of parents, siblings, and
friends help them to frame their schooling differently. This is the tragedy of
Erik; he did not have such tales to turn to.
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Corresponding authors
Mette Bunting
University College of Southeast Norway
Geir H. Moshuus
University College of Southeast Norway
... Frafall kan forstås som en mediert relasjonell prosess som utvikler seg over tid mellom individuelle og strukturelle faktorer (Bunting & Moshuus 2017a;Nielsen & Tanggaard 2015;Tanggaard 2013;Grønborg 2015). Ungdoms fortellinger om sted kan hjelpe oss til å få bedre innsikt i hvordan denne prosessen mellom det individuelle og det strukturelle utvikles og hvordan forandring og kontinuitet påvirker ulike hverdagspraksiser. ...
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... There are 15 study programmes available, 3 in a general programme leading to higher education and 12 in the vocational studies. The latter is known as the '2 + 2 model', comprising 2 years in school and 2 years of apprenticeship (Bunting and Moshuus 2017b). Students can also go from the apprenticeship system to complete a general academic course, extending their schooling to a third year and enabling them to access higher education (Markussen, Frøseth, and Sandberg 2011). ...
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