Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn: Supporting the Development of New Social Justice Educators

Sep. 01, 2011

Source: Teacher Education Quarterly, Volume 38, No. 4, Fall 2011
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study explored the role that participating in a critical inquiry project (CIP) played on the development of new educators who aspire to teach from a social justice perspective.
The study also examined how relationships between the first- and second-year teacher participants shaped their development as social justice educators, learners, and leaders.

Participants were 12 undergraduates of a two-course sequence on social justice education (SJE).
Data were collected through interviews and meeting sessions.


Participation resulted in members becoming reflective of their journey and remaining committed to teaching and social justice.

Unspoken Group Norms

Norm One: Expectation of Full Participation
Members understood CIP was not a place to sit back and observe; that it was acceptable, even desirable, to participate even if you didn’t have all the answers.
There was an unspoken expectation that if you were there, you were going to contribute.
The members recognized the sense of pressure in the group, but felt that it contributed positively to their development.
This norm set the stage for rich collaboration that supported their development.

Norm Two: Expectations of Difference and Multiple Perspectives
Members understood that topics discussed would sometimes be uncomfortable.
Therefore, there was an unspoken expectation that people might come from different perspectives, and these must be respected.
The members’ understandings that were deepened through the norm of expected differences set the stage for them to have difficult and often unresolved discussions that supported their development.

Norm Three: Allowance for Tension
The fact that CIP was a diverse group, coupled with their openness to different perspectives, paved the way for intense discussions marked by some level of tension.
This norm took three forms: it was acceptable for issues to remain unresolved; there was room to unpack complexity; and it was desirable to be challenged intellectually.

Norm Four: Different Kind of Talk
The tolerance, safety, and desire to hear multiple perspectives allowed the participants to talk to each other in ways that aren’t typical of mainstream discussion.
The CIP talks stood out to members as qualitatively different because, when people with different opinions disagreed, it didn’t affect their relationships.
These discussions taught members ways of engaging in positive cross-cultural dialogue.

The group make-up and norms facilitated a motivating collaboration within CIP. Despite their years teaching, all members felt they had something to contribute.
This sense of efficacy fostered a reciprocal exchange of feedback, ideas, and resources.

Style of Collaboration

Collaboration Led to Models of Social Justice Education
By acting as models, members provided each other with inspiration and motivation.
The more experienced teachers gave a sense of what was coming next and their projects helped newer members understand how to get started, and sparked ideas for new projects for everyone.
CIP members inspired each other by providing models of what was possible for people who are going through similar experiences.

 Collaboration Improved Ability to Teach for Social Justice

The ways in which members collaborated also improved their SJE practice by triggering their thinking, helping them get work done, and preparing them for multiple contexts.
The members were adapting their willingness to allow for tension into their ability to facilitate discussions with students.

Collaboration Developed Leadership and Mentoring Skills
By taking turns setting agenda’s and facilitating meetings, the participants learned to lead a group of adults, which provided leadership practice for other settings.
By providing practice in facilitating and presenting, members felt more confident in themselves, their skills and their ability to be leaders in the field.
Through the exchange in sessions, members were equipped with an arsenal of resources and the ability to share them with colleagues in collaborative ways.

Tangible Results

Four tangible benefits to the members emerged from the data:
First, members were able to reflect on their journey of developing as social justice educators, seeing where they started and where they were still heading.
This ongoing reflection and their own perception of their development kept them committed to the group and to the goal of SJE.
Another tangible result was how members learned to have each other’s backs.
In many ways, they exemplified some of the tenets of SJE by being ready and willing to take action on each other’s behalves.
A third result was that CIP gave members opportunities to teach SJE to others.
Through leading workshops for students in their former program to presenting at national conferences and writing a book chapter about CIP, members grew as leaders by passing on their knowledge and encouraging others to teach SJE.
Finally, members felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
The sense of pride they felt boosted their confidence and motivated them to keep learning and teaching SJE.


These findings indicate that collaboration within CIP furthered the development of new social justice educators.
While the activities of lesson planning and presenting, were key elements, without the four norms that expected participation, encouraged multiple perspectives, and encouraged “taboo” talk, the stage would not have been set for participants to push each other towards growth.
This has implications for those interested in replicating critical inquiry groups for new teachers.
Copying the agendas of CIP sessions will be insufficient; it is necessary to create the collaborative space that allows for critical discussions that aren’t always resolved. 

Updated: Mar. 01, 2017