Institutional categories at work: a consideration of how labelling can slow down rates of learning in a rural primary school.
Schools as classifying institutions
Can the organisation within an institution affect rates of learning and poor student performance in a rural primary school? Our approach to this question is to see institutions as exerting a strong, but under-analysed, influence over the cognition of their members. According to Mary Douglas (1986), institutions 'do much of our thinking for us' as they hold the ready-made classifications needed to communicate. Simply stated, communication is a substantial element of teaching and learning.
Teachers and students are, to a degree, free to choose how they will communicate, but to do so they must use sets of pre-established classifications. A group or an institution, for example, holds and carries forward previously conceived forms of thought and labels for things, duties, responsibilities, a division of labour and rituals that inform present, everyday interactions.
A child makes meaning from the classifications used in a family, just as teachers take their cues from a school's classification schema that also predates them. A second, not always acted on, aspect of face-to-face interaction and communication is that situated meaning and ecological validity are derived from factors both internal and external to the situation and the interaction itself (Barker, 1968; Bourdieu, 1993; Cicourel, 1964; Goffman, 1961). A mother emphasising good manners to a child is also enacting social expectations of a social category of 'good parenting'. As teachers point out rules and criteria for acceptable schoolwork, they too activate pre-established categories from an education department and professional standards.
Social control over the cognition of members of institutions comes from the inside and from the outside. 'Control' does not rule out conflict, resistance, compliance, rebellion or fights, which are ongoing facts of institutional life. Control occurs through classification schema that permeate everyday common sense, as categories in use shape thinking and judgments made about oneself and others. Institutions make labels and the labels construct different kinds of people according to the categories in use (Douglas, 1986, p. 112).
While institutions control the classification schema, there is still no certainty as to how categories will be received and acted on. Douglas (1986, p. 98) suggests Durkheim shows there can be a 'good fit' and a 'bad fit between public and private classifications'; individuals can reject the judgments of others, or feel incapable of meeting public expectations, or not act on classifications at all when the classifications are incoherent or do not make sense to them. Institutional control and strategy for working within institutions is played out within these limits. The object of these opening paragraphs has been to outline the theoretical parameters of our study based in a rural town, but can be applied to schools in general.
We wish to apply an institutional view to the study of education and schooling. In purely functional terms, teachers should, through their professional training, have the proficiency to guide students academically towards the 'right' thing to do and away from inappropriate alternatives. Ensuring students become more competent learners as they meet expectations is a required educational service. Not all students, parents or teachers do, however, share a school's definition of an educational situation. Schools, as institutions, are thus organised so that teachers are not cut off as isolated individuals. Set curricula, report cards, behaviour policies, and so on act as a shared schema to classify daily activities (usually in dichotomies; right/wrong, tolerated/not tolerated). As they do, and must, apply these classifications, teachers come to perceive students and form opinions on the merits of their performance of school work; and develop strategies for working with them in class and in their general planning ('a pleasure to have in my class', 'needs more work on word attack skills', 'daydreams', 'parent should read more to them at home'). These perceptions underpin relationships through which teachers come to understand how students respond to their teaching, drift away from it, or are difficult to make progress with.
We argue, from a preliminary analysis of 33 student files, that there are tendencies for a school to equate good academic performance with classroom compliance, and to overlook learning potential as off-task behaviour increases. Such locked-in definitions of the situation (Thomas, 1923) can be, in all probability are, accepted as an inevitable consequence of teaching in rural schools. But beyond this, an alternative question is to what degree can unquestioned schemes for classifying students play hidden and unexamined parts in reproducing poor academic performances in rural and urban schools? Finally, what alternatives can the profession, and the groups who supply the current words in use, offer in conditions where professional categories have the opposite of their desired effect; where learning and development are slowed down rather than enhanced?
Our argument is developed across three sections. The aims of the study, the background and methods are outlined in section one. Processes used to locate and represent a classificatory schema are outlined in section two. We then discuss the preliminary findings and assess the future viability of the approach and suggest methods for its refinement and further application.
Background: the town and school
Myadall (a fictitious name) is a western Queensland town (population around 3,000) that could be referred to as 'rural' and 'remote'. The town provides education for residents and for those who travel there from outside properties. There are three schools: a state high school, a Catholic primary school and a state primary school. The latter is the focus for research in this paper. State primary school enrolments fluctuate between 300 and 400 students. Most of the teachers are not local residents, and have limited or no experience with the town. There is a constant turnover in teaching staff. Myadall is a service town, separated by distance from the grazing properties that support the cattle and wool industries in the district. It provides government and privately-owned services required for the livelihood, health, education and recreation of townspeople. Thus Myadall is one of a number of towns classified as rural in policy and in the media but with economies so different that comparisons are misleading (Sher & Sher, 1994, p. 37). While the town has a different relationship to education than those of towns and cities on the coastal regions, the conclusions we draw may or may not apply in other places classified as rural and urban.
This study is an extension of a report on youth transitions in a rural town. The research took two years based on an employer survey, interviews, document and census analysis and part-time participant observation (one week per month on average) in Myadall and occasionally on properties. A large survey had also been carried out (3,500 respondents) in high schools to measure variations in cultural capital in areas from Brisbane to the southwest Queensland. Analysis showed, not surprisingly, that educational outcomes were lower the further one moved west of the Great Dividing Range and allowed for comparisons between Myadall and other towns both in terms of school results and the work and study aspirations of students and their parents. A decision to include the primary school in the report was not made until the second year of the study. The intention in this aspect of the research was to look more closely at the school as an institution and its part in student rates of performance.
If all institutions operate from a system of classifications, what then would be the benefits of taking this view on this particular rural school? First, children were reaching a low learning plateau early in primary school and not improving--some were 'going backwards'--even with the best intentions of staff. Second, the trend continued even with staff changeover, which pointed to some aspects within the institution itself. We were given access to a large range of school files that formed the basis for outlining the forms of classifications in operation within the school. This determined our method and research design.
Conceptual framework and method
Durkheim and Mauss (1903/1963) first identified that 'forms of classification' guide social organisation and provide the categories that give meaning to individuals within social institutions. Our research question is formulated within a Durkheim and Mauss framework. Through it we are trying to understand the long-term effects of categorisation as it is tied to people being labelled, (Mercer, 1973) made up (Hacking, 1986) and set into various institutional careers (Goffman, 1956). There are a number of ways to make operable what we are attempting. The research could be located within poststructuralist assumptions wherein discourses override what can be said and done (Foucault, 1972), also a view that owes much to Durkheim. Closer to our situation is Bahktin's (1986) concept of speech genres in which speakers can be isolated from the linguistic resources that would enable them to clarify their intention within discourses. This taken, however, our analysis is based in a social anthropology originating in Goffman (1961), Goodenough (1973), Frake (1980) and extending to Bourdieu (1996), the target of which is not discourse itself, but the control classifications systems hold over cognition. Smith (2005, p. 188) provides a most recent and useful rationale, in which
institutional practitioners are regulated through devices such as rules ... guidelines, officially authorised definitions ... that are standardised across ... work settings ... (and) into clearly delineated categories to organise how their practitioners perceive, discuss, and handle institutional business.
Methods are devised to isolate appropriate categories from within discourse and dialogue. In our case student files contained the central discourses. All words (adjectives and verbs) and phrases that showed how teachers described children and their behaviour were extracted. The categories remained as written in each file.
We have drawn on a seminal study of a high school by Cicourel and Kitsuse (1963). Their method and theory allowed us to see 'the differentiation of students as a consequence of the administrative organisation and decisions of personnel in the ... school' (p. 6). They provided a basis for the study of a single school that could be used for this exploratory investigation and work to iron out more refined methods for a study of a full set of student files, which is to follow on from the present research.
Our aim was to investigate possible relations between low rates of student performance in a rural school and the institutional processes schools use to classify and label students. Following Cicourel and Kitsuse (1963) we sought to:
(a) understand processes whereby students 'come to be defined, classified and recorded in the categories' found in student files (through semester reports, comments on behaviour);
(b) investigate the 'vocabulary and syntax' used by staff to identify a variety of student types recorded about day-to-day interactions (in the adjectives and dichotomies that compare students about in-class performances and behaviour);
(c) perform content analysis on the student files to assess rates at which students came to be in categories for academic performance, attitudes to classroom work and behaviour in and out of classrooms; and
(d) trial various visual forms to represent the processes of categorisation.
Our intention was to keep in view the importance Durkheim (1951) placed on shared categories as indicators of collective rather than individual thinking. As described by Cicourel and Kitsuse (1963, p. 221), 'the rates' at which social phenomena occur and how to account for them 'as characteristics, not of individuals, but of social and cultural organisations ... with which they are regularly associated'. In our case, could repeated rates of low performance in a primary school be explained in part from factors in the school's organisation? The main problem for Cicourel and Kitsuse was to investigate 'the processes by which persons come to be 'defined, classified and recorded in the categories of the agency's statistics'. Their data was the common sense 'vocabulary and syntax' of language used by school personnel to describe, interpret and record information about students. We wanted to investigate 'the day-to-day activities of high school personnel and the conceptions, definitions and criteria employed to classify, sort, and record cases in the categories of the school statistics' (p. 222). Our data sources were: Years 2, 3, 5 and 7 standardised test results; student report cards; and handwritten notes on student behaviour.
Handwritten notes are part of the school's behaviour management policy, a document required in all state schools in Queensland. The policies are directed to protective factors, safe school environments, and protecting the right for all children to learn. Written notes range from comments on slips of paper to formal letters. They are kept in each student's file and used to make a student aware of certain behaviours and their consequences as evidence to support student suspension or exclusion. Teacher aides (and staff) are on duty before and after school and in breaks to monitor student behaviour. They hand out 'pink tickets' for breaking rules and keep detailed written records of what is said and done by whom for each incident.
Thirty-three files were analysed of students seen by staff as being on a continuum from 'doing well' to being 'behind' their expected year level. Files were checked for their amount and type of information, their comparability and to make some decisions about the number of files that could be handled within the parameters of the study (Lee, 2003). Files were sorted according to 'official' content (report cards, absences and suspensions), 'behaviour' (removal from class, an award, 'pink tickets' given) and 'anecdotal' (handwritten notes and examples of work and general comments). These forms of record keeping, their detail and filing are done to hold together views (local and departmental) of the school as a safe and productive place to send children to school.
Rates of student performance, as measured in benchmark tests
State benchmark test scores distribute all tested students into four categories across a typical/normal curve (upper and lower 25% and a mid range of 50%). Low rates of learning in literacy and numeracy were taken from standardised benchmark tests for Myadall primary school. These tests were introduced into all Australian schools in 1997. Since that time up to 70% of students at Myadall school were selected for extra tuition in reading for the six years between 1997 and 2001. Table 1 shows that around 70% were in the lowest quartile for the state in Years 3, 5 and 7 in 2001 for reading and number.
Rates of learning outcomes of this type, carried for five years of recorded testing, and perhaps from earlier years, will form relations between learning and teaching. These are likely to have effects on student and teacher interaction. This showed in reading children's files where more use was made of words such as 'refusal' in subjects involving writing (numeracy and literacy) and less often in physical subjects (music, art and physical education). Classroom unrest can spill over into misbehaviour in the school grounds, and then back into classrooms, all of which determines school organisation. The type of organisation used, allocation of students to classes, funds to direct to Reading Recovery, the numbers of teacher aides required, how many should be Indigenous, and so on, are the result of a strategy. The forms of classification used to make the best of this organisation and to show its results to a regional office, to a state department and to parents have been determined over time.
Using taxonomies to represent a classification system
Taxonomies were constructed in line with models from anthropology of the 1970s and 1980s (Frake, 1980; Goodenough, 1973). The intention then was to fashion cognitive maps (Spradley & McCurdy, 1972) from words common to cultural settings and linguistically map everyday practices. A subject in the primary curriculum was taken as a domain for the taxonomies. For 'literacy', subdomains were arranged according to four areas: listening, reading, writing and speaking. Arranged underneath we placed contrasting binary values (e.g., competent/needs support) and under these were attributes teachers had written in their comments about students. The entire taxonomy then provides a paradigm and a simple illustration of a classificatory system for a single subject and then for other subjects. All terms drawn on for the taxonomies were a part of the data analysed. When combined, taxonomies for all curriculum subjects, social development, work attitude and student misbehaviour, convey a view on the classification system used to categorise students. One condensed example can perhaps give a feel for the process. Figure 1 shows the framework for the taxonomies for the domain of literacy.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
The classification system is relatively autonomous from the environment in which a school is placed in that it is made up of words from broader educational writing and government policy. The report card is a core example.
Locating categories on report cards
The report card presents an 'official' point of view of the child as a student. It performs what Cicourel calls a 'diagnostic' function, in that it shows a child's standing within more or less universal criteria. The report card thus acts as a membership categorisation device (Silverman, 2001). Contained within its format and syntax are the 'categories' and the forms of categorisation that 'lock discourses into place' (Baker, 2000, p. 99). Analysed as a membership categorisation device, the report card divides into two types of classification for each subject (achievement and effort), and each area contains four categories. For achievement the categories were: 'excellent', 'competent', 'developing', and 'needs support and guidance'. Those for effort were: 'consistently', 'usually', 'sometimes' and 'rarely' displayed. Teachers tick the categories for achievement and effort as they see fit for each child across all subject areas, as shown in Figure 2.
We have added the numbers 1 to 4 to Figure 1 to explain our analysis of report cards and teacher judgments of students. All boxes ticked by teachers were added into a total, and then averaged for a whole number and one decimal point score for each student for each subject. Report card scores of one (1) represent a high rating of 'excellent' for achievement with four (4) standing for the low rating, 'needs support and guidance'. Tables were then constructed to compare achievement and effort and to provide some leads into how teachers differentiate among students. In Figures 3 and 4 we show average scores for overall attitude to school, and achievement in Maths and Literacy for a girl in Year 7 and a boy in Year 5. It was difficult to see clear differences between students when working from a four-point scale (e.g., with the four choices teachers tick on report cards). The closest we could obtain for comparison were decimal point average scores for achievement.
The girl, Student A, has an 'excellent' average (between 1 and 1.5) for overall attitude, which contrasts with her achievements in Maths and Literacy (between 2 and 3). Semester one, in Year 7, is an exception, where achievement improves as overall attitude goes down. Overall attitude for the boy, Student B, is between 1.3 and 3.7. His achievements for Maths and Literacy are in the zone for needing help and guidance for the years reports were available. A simple process of sorting and placing the diagrams side by side brings out patterns of differentiation through which staff judged student performance.
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
There is a clear differentiation, for instance, between categories one, 'excellent overall attitude' and four, 'needs help and guidance'. A student in category one, having the required attitude, seems to still be within teacher definitions of the pedagogical situation; even when achievement is at the outer regions of category three, 'developing'; as is the situation of Student A. In comparison, Student B sits for three years mostly in category four, 'needing support and guidance' for both attitude and achievement, which in its wording rests outside of the existing classroom situation. Behind the official report card terms are some unspoken euphemisms that provide a realistic definition of pedagogic situations in the school. Student A is 'keen, good to have in the class, but slow' and Student B 'has an attitude problem, can't do much more with him'. Common sense would suggest good attitude as a sign of engagement, which it is, but tied more to compliance with the teacher than connectedness with the curriculum. The situation is disjunctive, creating mutually exclusive alternatives. Disengagement rises as students move away from category one for attitude and curriculum subjects, especially Maths and Literacy subjects where 'attention', being on-task, is a major factor in learning. When they follow organisational procedures for behaviour management to work on student attitude teachers end up with students in opposite ends of the category. The compliant student (Student A) can mistakenly be seen as academically secure and not needing similar pedagogic effort as another student (Student B) to reach competency. Compliancy and poor overall attitude work against improved achievement and competency, but differently. With compliance interactions and forms of pedagogy are set; they seldom disrupt classroom order, and they can move a student into less stable relations with learning. An example is shown in Figure 5.
[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]
Student C, in Figure 5, is between categories two and three for attitude, while his achievements move from near excellent to developing and back again for Maths between Year 4 and Year 7. Literacy achievement in Year 7 is nearest to developing. Relationships between attitude and achievement are not as clear here as in the comparisons made earlier between Students A and B. Students like Student C would be seen as 'capable if he puts his mind to it', as in comments about 'not working to ability level', 'working when the mood suits', 'easily distracted', and so on. From the number of cases at hand, Students A, B and C make up three 'types' active in the forms of differentiation between students exercised by teachers. Conforming or not conforming to definitions of attitude is the key indicator. Once students are in these categories, the teacher's problem is to improve performance within and across each category. This is of course a simple, uncomplicated description. More detail on individual student careers can help further explore these distinctions.
[FIGURE 5 OMITTED]
Individual student careers as related to school organisation
Individual profiles were developed for each student in tandem with taxonomy construction and analysis of report cards. Each profile consisted of a table to represent individual student careers for their time at Myadall Primary School. In converting them to diagrams we could compare and group and differentiate between individuals and groups. An example of an individual student career is shown in Figure 6.
The diagram is designed to compare competence and needs support factors for Student B discussed earlier. Years enrolled at the school are marked on a horizontal line to show Student B's career from Year 1 to Year 6. We can be see he repeats Year 1, is absent from school one day per week on average, with this rising to around two days on average. Suspensions begin in Year 3 and rise each year after that. Areas his teachers say he requires support are listed in boxes below the horizontal line of the diagram in Figure 6. At the end of his first year at school Student B cannot write his own name. His written work is now referred to as untidy and hesitant, neither neat nor logically presented, and sometimes not completed. By Year 5 he is described as capable of quality writing, but refuses to participate, is involved in off-task behaviours such as talking, and in altercations with other students in class time. During what would be Year 6 for him, Student B is taken to be 'not attending school much' and seen riding his bike around the town in school time. Local residents and service workers, when asked about his attendance, say that such patterns are not new; that he will return to school when ready, as he does some months later. We would like now to extend this situation to highlight relations between the school, as an institution, its system of categories, and the town.
[FIGURE 6 OMITTED]
Figure 6 is a model of a student's career through his first seven years of schooling. It is built from categories used to situate this student within the working space of their classrooms. The categories originate in teacher's professional discourse. The top section of this model shows entry-level requirements for classroom work related to competence (pride in work, tidiness, concentration, reading, writing, sorting, spelling). These are constants across the years. They guide teacher cognition as do the terms used to describe where he is in terms of distance from competence, or needing support. Professional categories (word recognition, participation in written tasks) mean something else to the child carrying a particular label. From a child's point of view schoolwork is on a continuum from 'easy to do' to 'I'm no good at this' or 'I can't do this'. Descriptions of his behaviour (hesitant, unwilling, confused, distracted) show some effects of Student B's not being able to do class work (unwilling, not liking assistance, refusal). Not the least are the days missed from school; from 20 to 40% for each year from the time he repeats Year 1, including an average of one day in ten on suspension from Years 3 to 5. His next step, to stay away from school, constitutes, we contend, a rupture of a relationship between a potentially competent learner and an institution unable to hold him within its system of categories for competency. That he is neither successfully coerced to attend by family nor brought back to the school by the principal or service workers would suggest such ruptures are part of a wider relationship between the institution and town residents.
The academic career of Student B has provided an example for an analysis of the case of one rural school and how, in its organisation, students are differentiated into compliant and non-compliant categories. From data on his report cards Student B (Figure 3), is well within good overall attitude for the first three semesters he is at school. His attitude moves around a 'needs support' category in Year 2, moves back to excellent behaviour for a semester in Year 3, and then into the opposite range of near or into a 'needs guidance and support' category from the remainder of Year 3 until the end of Year 5. For achievement he is mostly in the category non-conforming and non-performing; one the school organisation is essentially ill equipped to deal with. Not being able to write to a point where work can be completed in a tidy, neat, logical, confident manner--all the other side of the binaries his teachers ascribe to him--make the task of merging compliance with schoolwork performance nearly impossible.
This case is a concrete example illustrating a theoretical point about the organisational structure of schools as institutions: that classification schemata and categories directed more to compliant behaviour than competency orient teacher styles of thought and cognition in this school. The theoretical issue and the practical dilemma is one of activating a more pedagogic discourse and replacing categories of control and compliance with those of learning.
An obvious organisational starting point is with definitions of the teaching situation as seen and experienced by students, such as Student B. Understanding and responding to what is being faced by Student B and students in similar conditions is not a matter for consciousness raising, but a consideration of the institution. Classification systems and categories need to be seen as formulated in wider social relations that are then played out in school organisation and classroom pedagogical interactions. The combined pool of know-how about curriculum and school organisation runs on a different plane to that of students enduring the daily frustration and isolation of not being able to write effectively. The option Student B takes to opt out of Year 6 for some months, and the tacit agreement with it by residents, give some logic to his decision. The theoretical construction and practical understanding of these points of view is central to the organisation of institutions and the categories that focus on teaching and learning.
Two points are made in conclusion. First, forms of organisational classification and use of categories are unexamined factors in rates of low performance in schools. They may or may not be altered either through interventions or experimenting with alternative styles of leadership. Some of the main generators of the system of classification in Myadall Primary School (the behaviour management plan, forms for judging, reporting and commenting on student performance) are in all probability locking in factors that lead to a misrecognition of student learning requirements. These same organisational procedures have a wide seal of approval and have opposite outcomes in other schools. As trite as it may sound, new forms of world making (Goodman, 1978) may be required, such as those through which dialogue opens up amongst staff and with students (see, for example, the case of Shoppingtown High in Teese & Polesel, 2003). The reality is that better performance may not necessarily follow (Hayes, 2005). Students in rural areas such as Myadall face structural inequality. Poor school performance, failure and lack of secure anchoring to learning are an intergenerational fact of life for Myadall students and parents. Time and funds are needed to compensate for lack of the cultural resources needed to succeed with curriculum subjects.
Second, gaps remain in the methods and research frameworks that can provide the fine-grained detail of how discourses capture institutional cognition. As Cicourel (1964, p. 21) suggests:
Social phenomena are buried in implicit common sense assumptions about the actor, concrete persons, and the observer's view about everyday life ... The researcher often begins his classifications with only broad dichotomies, which he expects his data to 'fit', and then elaborates on these categories if apparently warranted by his 'data'.
Cicourel is pointing to how, as researchers, we too can be captured in our attempts to conceptualise phenomena. We, as researchers, can ironically become victims to what we say about those whom we research; our literature, theory and categories can take over what it is we are trying to understand, and to our detriment. His comments are pertinent to a continuation of research of this kind. Our graphs and taxonomies are still exploratory, and a second attempt with the entire data set (around 180 students) requires some balance between content and more statistical analysis, combined with a more complete analysis of words and syntax. Comparisons are needed with other schools, rural and urban, particularly where a classification schema fosters good academic performance. Further analysis built on genuine comparison could help in understanding how classifications can be concretely implemented and built in teaching practice and relations between students and teaching staff. Our intention is to extend the analysis on the social and institutional effects on cognition (e.g., Douglas, 1986; Smith, 2005). We would hope that our report on this study in progress would be of some interest and benefit for researchers and students wishing to extend or critique what we have attempted for an understanding of schools as social institutions.
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Irene Han Lee
Dr Robert Funnell is a Lecturer in the School of Education and Professional Studies, Griffith University, Nathan, Qld 4111. Email R. Funnell@griffith.edu.au
Irene Lee is an Honours student at Griffith University.
Table 1 Performance distribution: Myadall State Primary School compared to state norms in reading and number results in Years 3, 5 and 7 (2001) Range Year 3 Year 5 (State Reading Number Reading Number Norms) Upper 25% 5% 0% 0% 5% Middle 50% 35% 45% 30% 45% Lower 25% 60% 55% 70% 50% Total 100% 100% 100% 100% (38) (38) (30) (20) Range Year 7 (State Reading Number Norms) Upper 25% 4% 4% Middle 50% 25% 37% Lower 25% 71% 59% Total 100% 100% (28) (27) (State benchmark statistics, Myadall Primary School) Figure 2 Excerpt from report card showing transformation of marks Achievement Needs support & guid- Subject Excellent Competent Developing ance LITERACY E C D NS&G Displays [check] confidence and speaks clearly Participates [check] in class discussions Plans what [check] to say/ organises information in formal and informal situations 1 2 3 4 Total comments Effort Subject Consistency Usually Sometimes Really LITERACY C U S R Displays [check] confidence and speaks clearly Participates [check] in class discussions [check] Plans what to say/ organises information in formal and informal situations 1 2 3 4 total comments
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|Author:||Funnell, Robert; Lee, Irene Han|
|Publication:||Australian Journal of Education|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2007|
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