Muddying the Waters: Studying Teaching for Social Justice in the Midst of Uncertainty

November 2019

Source: Studying Teacher Education, 15:3, 317-333

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The authors, writing as social studies educators and researchers from the USA and New Zealand, describe an initial stage of a cross-cultural collaborative self-study project that began from admitting their own uncertainties about teaching for social justice.
The article shares a journey from initial uncertainty about social justice education and their research project to a position where that very uncertainty became the focus of their self-study. In doing so, they analyze the challenges and opportunities of authoring a research question in a cross-cultural collaborative self-study, especially where the conceptual ground on which the study rests is, arguably, desirably muddy.
This article is the first from a project that the authors anticipate will run over the course of the next few years.
Their project involves ongoing rationale development and refinement – bringing philosophical questions about the purposes of social justice education together with pedagogical questions – in order to improve their curriculum decision-making through self-reflection (Hawley, 2010; Hawley & Jordan, 2013).
Aware of the often marginalized voices of pre-service teachers in self-study research (LaBoskey, 2012; Loughran, 2007), the authors invited pre-service teachers who were part of Social sciences curriculum study 2 (TCHG347) to participate in shaping their research question.
All 17 pre-service teachers in TCHG347 were asked to participate in a semi-structured focus group interview of up to 90 minutes, and eight accepted the invitation.
The questions about the course, the pre-service teachers’ own educational experiences, and their practicums were designed not only to provide access to their understandings and practices of social justice education but also to offer discordant thinking from the authors’ own.

Learning from New Zealand Pre-Service Social Studies Teachers
Themes of multiplicity and confidence were particularly evident in the pre-service teachers’ meanings, experiences, and practices of social justice education.
The pre-service teachers held flexible conceptions of social justice and a high degree of comfort over conceptual complexity and multiplicity.
They were unequivocal that social justice is contested and differs across cultural contexts and wanted to go beyond definitive or universal notions of social justice.
Among over 50 allied terms that were associated with social justice, they most strongly emphasized critical and active responses and appeared to be seeking an orientation to citizenship education that involves examining the structural underpinnings of social issues and injustices and taking action on the basis of that understanding (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004, 2006). The pre-service teachers were well aware of structural inequalities associated with race, gender, and class within society.
In particular, they stressed the importance of equity and access to, and control over, resources.
However, returning to theme of multiplicity, it was also clear that these pre-service teachers wanted to emphasize a politics of difference (North, 2008).
Especially in relation to indigeneity in New Zealand and Australia, they tended towards notions of social justice as recognition, particularly respect extended through human rights.
They stressed the relational aspects of social justice, including the often painful ways in which people encounter struggles for social justice.
In contrast to the way that teachers are often characterized as either resistant to or advocates for social justice, the pre-service teachers had what Boylan and Woolsey (2015) describe as striated and smooth identities.
In other words, they were sensitive to the complexities of social justice education and acutely aware that they would have to carefully navigate teaching social justice issues.
All were aware of and/or had noticed avoidance, barriers, and discomfort associated with politicized and controversial topics.
Concomitantly, they displayed a sense of confidence and most seemed to find the prospect of teaching for social justice exciting and generative.
They appeared to have a clear sense of what they would do pedagogically, developed through positive and negative experiences on placement and the theoretical and practical tools provided in the course, and saw the modelling and trialing of approaches in TCHG347 as especially supportive.
Most particularly, the pre-service teachers felt that they had gained strategies to avoid indoctrination and, instead, to critically and confidently explore differing values and perspectives with their students.

Returning to Themselves: Authoring Their Question
In this section, the authors discuss how they wrestled with authoring a question, and how the themes of multiplicity and confidence – evident in the focus group discussions – richly informed their research question.
What captured their interest was the opportunity, across successive cohorts and in different contexts, to explore the effects of adjusting their approaches to
(i) be more overtly encompassing of different visions for social justice,
(ii) consider the productive tensions involved, and
(iii) encourage greater problematizing of practices in the name of social justice.
Their central research question has become, therefore, about how they prepare pre-service social studies teachers to navigate the uncertainties of social justice education.
Specifically, how does multiplying social justices’ frames of reference articulate with pre-service social studies teachers’ conceptual clarity, pedagogical confidence, and ethical commitments?
Significantly, their question as now formulated represents a turn from conceiving their collaboration in dialogic terms – that is, learning from each other’s contexts – to seeing its co-formative nature as emerging from common ground.
They came to recognize their mutually held desire as one of holding with the theoretical, ethical, methodological, and pedagogical tensions infused in ‘teaching social studies for social justice.’ From the muddied waters of their thinking, they identified a research question that mobilized the very uncertainty that had brought them together.

This article contributes to the literature by exploring the messy nature of the authors’ collaboration in developing a research question for cross-cultural, collaborative self-study.
The initial stage of their ongoing project has taken them from a shared and somewhat guilty recognition about the vagueness of their commitment to teaching for social justice to a place of greater clarity about their research focus.
The insights of the New Zealand preservice teachers have encouraged them to be more overt in their approach to social justice education and, in particular, to seek ways to multiply social justice’s frames of reference.
Their challenge ahead has become not only how to help pre-service teachers be comfortable with the conceptual ambiguity of social justice but also how to thrive in its complexity.
Three aspects of their collaboration to date have significantly shaped their research trajectory.
The first aspect was admitting their uncertainty about teaching for social justice. In doing so, this same uncertainty has become core to their theoretical considerations.
The second aspect was developing comfort with the protracted and messy process of reaching greater clarity about their research focus.
They have found that a longer reconnaissance phase has been highly important, as it has enabled them to find a mutually sustaining and meaningful space in which to continue to problematize and refine their assumptions and practices.
The third aspect was realizing that the experiences and insights of the pre-service teachers provided generative ground from which to develop their research focus.
Far from an exercise in self-congratulation, their largely positive and affirming responses provided the reflexive surface from which the authors have begun to consider how to maintain their sense of confidence and, at the same time, further clarify and wrestle with differing conceptions of social justice and explore their own commitments in light of societal pluralism. Placing their own uncertainty at the forefront of their practice and in dialogue with their pre-service teachers is now central to moving their self-study ahead.

Boylan, M., & Woolsey, I. (2015). Teacher education for social justice: Mapping identity spaces. Teaching and Teacher Education, 46, 62–71.
Hawley, T. S. (2010). Self-study methodology as a means toward ongoing rationale development and refinement. In A. Crowe (Ed.), Advancing social studies education through self-study methodology: The power, promise, and use of self-study in social studies education (pp. 55–70). New York, NY: Springer.
Hawley, T. S., & Jordan, A. (2013). Exploring rationale development as intellectual professional development for experienced social studies teachers. Journal of Thought, 48(3/4), 2–12
LaBoskey, V. (2012). The ghost of social justice education future: How the words of graduates contribute to self-transformation. Studying Teacher Education, 8(3), 227–244
Loughran, J. (2007). Researching teacher education practices: Responding to the challenges, demands, and expectations of self-study. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(1), 12–20
North, C. (2008). What is all this talk about “social justice”? Mapping the terrain of education’s latest catchphrase. Teachers College Record, 110(6), 1182–1206
Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What kind of citizen? The politics of educating for democracy. American Education Research Journal, 41(2), 237–269.
Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2006). The limits of political efficacy: Educating citizens for a democratic society. PS: Political Science & Politics, 39(2), 289–296. 

Updated: Aug. 05, 2020