We Are Here!

We need to educate teachers to think about pushing past the superficial treatments of culture and get to the depth of student’s identity and successful learning and to consider Adams (2007) argument that how we teach is distinct from what we teach. We need to set extremely high expectations for every student’s success and maintaining that at all costs. Having a real understanding of what works best for each individual to acquire the highest standard of education regardless of race, class, ethnicity, immigrant status, socio-economic status, or ability.

I am currently working on a research project with my friend and colleague, Dr Carol Ann O’Síoráin.

This reflection centres around content from our forthcoming publication on learner voice, social justice, and a Universal Design for Learning(UDL) approach to teaching and learning entitled Every Little Voice Matters: Learner voice, social justice, and a UDL approach to teaching and learning. We recorded our discussion on YouTube and the video link is available at the end of this reflection.

Image depicts Dr Seuss’s Horton the Elephant on a blue background with the title of our publication in preparation with the word’s ‘We are here! We are here! We are here!’

What follows is the narrative of my contribution to the discussion.  Carol Ann continues the conversation about doing things right and doing the right things… and you will definitely need to listen to, or watch the video to capture her important contribution to the discussion. (I will upload the audio file soon).

Carol Ann and I believe that ongoing professional conversation is vital, and we invite you to contribute to this discussion with some points to ponder. Here is an online link that you can use to engage with questions that we have provided for you. https://padlet.com/sgarland12/b87dzlc6341xykv4

Points to Ponder

  1. What does a socially just education look like in the Irish context?
  2. What examples or suggestions do you have that might contribute to a model for marrying educational policy making and research with inclusion and socially just classroom practice?
  3. Has your concept of inclusion become your own oppressor? Have you fallen into an ‘ethical sinkhole’? 
  4. When it comes to inclusive policy and practice, ‘are you doing the right thing, or doing things right?’
  5. Further reflections on learner voice, social justice and UDL for teaching and learning

Our conversation is approached from a sociological perspective about why learner voice is critical for a socially just and equitable education in Ireland.  

Let’s begin, shall we?

Schaefer (2020) defines sociology as simply the scientific study of social behaviour and human groups.  It focuses on social relationships and how those relationships influence people’s behaviour and how societies, through those relationships, develop and change. As you read this, I encourage you to engage your sociological imagination. 

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@andressalas

Your sociological imagination is simply a particular type of critical thinking that invites you to think about your ‘self’ and your awareness of the relationship between yourself and other individuals, AND your interaction with the wider society… but to think as an ‘outsider’ might think, rather than just from your own perspective, experiences, and cultural biases.  

Watch this short video for a better understanding of the sociological imagination. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=my_zyLCRBms

Let me see if I can further set the stage for this reflection. Do you know the story of Horton Hears a Who, by Dr Seuss?  It is the story of a kind-hearted elephant named Horton, who lives in the Jungle of Nool. 

Hear the full story of Horton Hears a Who by: Dr Seuss here: https://youtu.be/B-i1E1UbwVI

Horton is a happy, easy-going guy who enjoys all the benefits in life, of being a citizen of Nool. But, unlike many of his fellow ‘Jungle-dwellers’ he’s a very ‘intuitive’ and open kind of an elephant (in touch with his sociological imagination, let’s say), so when he hears a tiny voice calling out to him, he doesn’t ignore it.  He investigates… He listens and searches and finds the tiny world of the Whos’ on a speck of dust – a whole city of little Whos’, who are very different from the people in the Jungle.  He can’t really see them, but his big ears come in handy and he can certainly hear them.

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@sharonmccutcheon

The problem is that the other citizens in the jungle of Nool cannot hear the Whos’ and frankly are not bothered with the possibility that they even exist. Horton is mocked and threatened by the others in his jungle world for believing in, and caring for those people in the other world.   But that doesn’t stop Horton. He works tirelessly to advocate for the little Whos’ and brings to light the importance of their world and the idea that listening to difference and working together to protect the right of ‘voice’ can be transformative for everyone. 

Quote from the Dr Suess book ‘Horton Hears a Who’.
Image credit: https://quotesgram.com/horton-hears-a-who-quotes/

Why do I start with this story?  Because, Horton is a lesson in social justice and the audacious possibility that if we respect and listen, every little voice counts! There is a significant disconnect between theory and practice in teacher education, and Carol Ann discusses this in more detail in our recorded discussion.

What I want to expand on, is the issue of Equity and Equality and the concepts of Horizontal and Vertical Equity. 

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@erickarim

The barriers to equitable education can affect groups based on race, gender, and many other factors. The issues are not only who is being targeted but also how we try to resolve them. In terms of equity vs equality in the classroom, most schools focus on horizontal equity. Catapano (2013) defines horizontal equity in education as treating people who are already assumed equal in the same way. Horizontal equityis only useful in homogenous schools, where each person really is given the same opportunities in life. 

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@nate_dumlao

But here’s the thing… in most schools, students come from a variety of backgrounds– some more privileged than others. For this reason, educators should focus on vertical equity, which assumes that students have different needs and provides individual resources based on these needs. (waterford.org)

UDL is based on this design idea. Social Justice AND an equitable education is for everyone. 

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@karen1974

Basically, a social justice framework or approach, is a way of seeing and acting aimed at resisting unfairness and inequity while enhancing freedom and possibility for all. Schools often unconsciously reproducerather than remedy the patterns of social exclusion and oppression seen within the larger society. A social justice framework in education presents a pathway to make sure that we are ALL seen as human beings and that we’re ALL equitably treated.  

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@jessbaileydesigns

We need to educate teachers to think about pushing past the superficial treatments of culture and get to the depth of student’s identity and successful learning and to consider Adams (2007) argument that how we teach is distinct from what we teach. We need to set extremely high expectations for every student’s success and maintaining that at all costs.  Having a real understanding of what works best for each individual to acquire the highest standard of education regardless of race, class, ethnicity, immigrant status, socio-economic status, or ability. 

Teaching from a socially-just perspective is simply a commitment to challenging social, cultural, and economic inequalities imposed on individuals arising from any gap in the distribution of power, resources, and privilege. (mills.edu)

Unfortunately, making educators conform to a strict set of guidelines sets the expectation that each class fits a prefab curriculum, when in reality, each and every class (and individual student) learns uniquely different. Social justice demands equity for all students… not equality, but equity.  Equality is giving every student the same thing. It is like giving everyone a size 38 pair of shoes and expecting them fit.  

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@markusspiske

Equitable education works when teachers are empowered with a sociological imagination and mindset, to understand and incorporate students’ backgrounds and experiences as strengths rather view them as hurdles to overcome. (mills.edu)

In Ireland, now more than ever, the need for educators to affect change in education is critical.  A recent Irish Times report (2019) on class and disadvantage in education printed what we have all experienced in the last decade or so… Ireland is more ethnically and socially diverse today than it has ever been. (IrishTimes.com)

At a disadvantage: while middle-class girls thrive, working-class boys struggle. Image Credit: Moment/Getty (IrishTimes.com)

Schools with the highest need for English learners’ curriculum don’t have an adequate number of qualified teachers or school leaders. They go on to state that ‘the bottom line is that there are gaps in the educational system that are tracked and measured disproportionately. These inherent gaps are satisfied for students with wealthy families who have an excess of out-of-school resources BUT remain for students with poor families.  

In 2015, the department of education and skills, the department of children and youth affairs and Comhairle na nÓg initiated the The National Strategy on Children and Young People’s Participation in Decision-making 2015-2020.

They were interested in ensuring that students in Ireland have a voice and input in decisions that affect their lives – such as education.  They produced a very informative report called ‘So How Was School Today? Report of survey on how young people are taught and how they learn’, that validates the importance of student voice in education reform.

Devine (2017) states ‘government policy is clear that children and young people should have a say in matters that directly affect them and that they should be empowered to express their views’. But the findings from the survey and report highlight the lack of voice young people have in school and that they most certainly believe they should have more say.  

A new survey of students suggests a serious mismatch between how priority subjects on the school curriculum are being experienced by our younger citizens, says Prof Dympna Devine. (IrishTimes.com) Image Credit: iStock

The report confirms that gender is an issue in relation to the level of stress in school… and that exam stress is a big factor for student well-being as well as how teachers teach. The survey exposes the need for further research on teacher influence and attitudes toward students and the affect these biases have on student well-being and attitudes toward school themselves.  (IrishTimes.com)

The Children’s School Lives study found that about half of teachers feel standardised tests are causing anxiety among children and parents. Photograph: iStock
(IrishTimes.com)

The survey also revealed that as young people move from the primary level through the secondary level, they become less positive in their attitudes about school. They suggest that further research is needed on the kinds of learning methods that challenge and stimulate students, and that encourage students to be actively involved. The benefits of such methods need to be explored so that the relationships between teachers and students are based on trust and respect. 

Finally, their report indicates a need for further research to explore how teaching and learning in schools is influenced by social class and ethnicity… and if this differs for boys and girls, and from one kind of school to another. 

A moving address from Senator Lynn Ruane on social justice and inequity in Irish society.

Educators are responsible for creating meaningful change and Social justice is a mindset (mills.edu).  Actively using your sociological imagination. The goal is that as a student teacher in Initial Teacher Education (ITE), you learn to implement it, not recite it for a test.  

A Social Justice Framework needs to be incorporated into both ITE and CPD for educators and administrators for a more equitable, inclusive and holistic learning environment that incorporates the powerful tool of allowing learner voice to direct us in what they need for successful learning. By learning in a social justice-oriented setting, educational leaders go on to impart this pedagogy to the school systems they serve.

A classroom practicing social justice will encourage:
(by the teacher with the learner)
1. Active contributions from the students in the class and real-life, societal and community connections between students and teachers.
2. Active contributions from the students in the class and real-life, societal and community connections between students and teachers. 
3. Active contributions from the students in the class and real-life, societal and community connections between students and teachers.
4. Implementing an actionable and measurable curricula so that you can track improvement.
5. Constant discourse and comfortability with dissent, tension and inviting those uncomfortable conversations in a safe space and with a sociological imagination. 

‘A social justice classroom is one that is critical in nature, thus, we should be constantly encouraging students to question the world around them as well as the schools they attend.’ 

— Belle (2019)

edweek.org

It is important to see this again:

Such important conversations need to be had around these issues.  Let’s keep the discussion going.

I hope that you’ll take the time to visit the link below and reflect on the five questions presented.

Click the ‘Points to Ponder’ link below to reflect on the questions presented.

Points to Ponder

  1. What does a socially just education look like in the Irish context?
  2. What examples or suggestions do you have that might contribute to a model for marrying educational policy making and research with inclusion and socially just classroom practice?
  3. Has your concept of inclusion become your own oppressor? Have you fallen into an ‘ethical sinkhole’? 
  4. When it comes to inclusive policy and practice, ‘are you doing the right thing, or doing things right?’
  5. Further reflections on learner voice, social justice and UDL for teaching and learning

Reference List

Adams, M. (2007). Pedagogical frameworks for social justice education. In M. Adams, L. A. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice (p. 15–33). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Belle, C. (2019). What is Social Justice Education Anyway? Education Week. 23 January 2019.

https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-what-is-social-justice-education-anyway/2019/01 Accessed: 19 January 2021. 

Catapano, S., & Thompson, C. (2013). Teachers begin developing socio-cultural awareness in early field experiences. Learning Communities13, 13-27.

Devine, D. (2017). So, how was school today? Report of a survey on how young people are taught and how they learn.

Garland, S.A. & O’Síoráin, C.A (In prep) Every Little Voice Matters: Learner voice, social justice, and a UDL approach to teaching and learning.  

The synopsis narrative of Horton Hears a Who adapted from: https://thebookbadger.com/we-are-here-horton-hears-a-who-and-activism/

https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/9128db-national-strategy-on-children-and-young-peoples-participation-in-dec/