Social justice – Leading attitudinal change in students

Stephanie Sharp, Lecturer, Institute of Education                                  s.sharp@reading.ac.uk                                                                                                                    Year of activity: 2016/17

Overview

After exploring representations of ethnicity within the ‘reading for pleasure books’ in primary classrooms I proposed that a group of second year, undergraduate, trainee teachers would undertake a small scale research project to support their understanding of equality and diversity in the primary school setting.

This study led to an attitudinal change in the trainees’ approach to school resources, such as books, by becoming more critically aware of equality and diversity issues. They went on to be active in enhancing curriculum design for future cohorts.

Objectives

  • To raise trainee teachers’ understanding of social justice to enable them to develop a more critical approach to resources available in primary school classrooms
  • To refine curriculum design by engaging with university guidelines to promote the trainees’ academic, personal and professional potential

Context

The IoE and the Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) work collaboratively to support trainees in their understanding of diversity and equality. Modules build on these activities in order to provide them with an opportunity to refine their thinking to open a dialogue on issues of inequality and social justice.

During my time visiting schools I have come to recognise that there is a lack of diversity in the ‘reading for pleasure’ books offered to pupils and in our increasingly diverse society many children do not find themselves reflected on the cover of these books and so I worked with a focus group to challenge this assumption.

Implementation

A convenience sample of six student volunteers, representing the majority female demographic of the course, made up a focus group. Firstly, students were introduced to Sara Ahmed’s writing on invisible whiteness in a diverse population, from a hegemonic position of privilege and power (2012). Secondly, using a census guide published by the Department for Education (2013), we examined the wide range of ethnicities currently present in UK classrooms. Thirdly, I randomly selected 50 children’s picture books to enable the trainees to identify the main protagonists by their ethnicity and then compared their findings to the census data.

The activity revealed that very few of the ethnicities listed on the census were represented in the children’s books, with a majority representation of white protagonists.  The trainees then repeated this activity (Blackledge, 2000) on their school work placements. The trainees followed the University’s ethical guidance and gained permission from each of the schools to carry out this investigation.

Impact

Outcomes confirmed the hypothesis that the majority of children were under-represented in the ‘reading for pleasure’ books in their classrooms.

The trainees presented their findings to their peers, which led to a deep discussion, where students questioned the content of their own personal reading as well as that provided in the classroom.

The trainees also requested that this practical activity should be undertaken by all trainees in their first year to inform their early understanding of social justice. This was an unexpected outcome for both the trainees and myself. They took ownership of their learning and recognised that, by being proactive, they were key in refining an aspect of curriculum design. They are proud of this achievement and of their attitudinal shift.

Reflections

The certainty of evidence-based research gave the trainees the confidence to challenge provision in schools and while it must be acknowledged that teacher practitioners are working hard to ensure that they provide classrooms that are equitable and fair, there are still areas to address, however small. This research led to attitudinal change in the students and ensured that they understood, at a deep level, what social justice means. Without this process, the students would have assumed that the books provided for pupils in schools have been carefully selected with pupils at the heart of the choices made.

Follow up

In response to the request from the focus group, this book audit activity is now embedded as part of curriculum design. It has been organized as a school based task, to be repeated annually to support the teaching and learning that takes place with first year student teachers.

Links

Ahmed, S. (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke University Press.

Blackledge, A. (2000). Literacy, Power and Social Justice. London: Trentham Books Ltd.

Department for Education. (2013). Schools, pupils and their characteristics. Retrieved March 27, 2016 from https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-characteristics-january-2013

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