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Equity, Social Justice, and the Inclusive Classroom (Research for Teachers)

Carl James

Commenting on his experience in trying to engage his “high-energy and at-risk” grade 6 students, a young male teacher noted:
“I tried to design an educational program  with  an array  of cultural  resources that I thought  would  speak to the diverse  needs  and interests  of the students.  But my attempts  at being a critical  and reflexive  educator were  having no effect on them,  and so very little learning was occurring. The ways in which  the students  reacted  to my lessons  were  all over the place.  This continued for a few weeks,  until we engaged  in a community walk.  I told the students  that the assignment was for them  to teach me about  their  community, about  their  lives, about  their  individual reality.  And  with  a class of eight students,  each student was able to take a turn  being the tour guide and explaining significant and meaningful sites in their  community.

They showed  me routes  they took walking  to school,  where  they played, which  areas they were  not to venture  into late at night.  Many of the students also invited  me into their  homes. This experience, for me,  was informative and paradigm changing. It radically  altered  the ways I have  come  to construct, direct,  and articulate my pedagogy,  as well as altered  my perception and orientation toward  teaching and learning. And  from  this experience, a deeper  relationship was forged between myself  and the students.”

While this  “critical  and reflexive”  teacher’s  use of  cultural  resources is  germane to  engaging students, it was not until he acknowledged his students as agents with knowledge and experiences shaped by their community – i.e., taking turns  being tour guides – that they became responsive to his efforts. Such community lessons enable students to exercise agency, tell  their individual stories, and affirm their voices. This orientation to the teaching/learning process provides opportunities for teachers to know the students, build relationships with them, engage them in their learning, and ultimately co-construct   curriculum  and  educational programs – all of which are essential to creating educational and school environments for equity, social justice, and inclusivity. Indeed, as teacher Julie Landsman points out in the video White Teacher/Diverse Classroom (2007), teachers too often “rush over” the significance of community in the lives of students, and in doing so fail to build the necessary relationships with students and parents.

Critical to the work of educators who take a social justice and equity approach to teaching is their understanding – which they will pass on to their students – of the societal or structural roots and causes of the inequity and  resultant  social  conditions  and  problems that they and their students encounter in their daily lives. Within this framework, students learn to make the connections between their privileges and/or disadvantages as related to  classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, their social  and cultural capital, and their social and economic situation. In this way students learn the “systemic causes of issues that shape  their lives” (Ginwright, 2008) and come to understand the reasons for their struggles and social conditions.

As a grade 2 teacher concerned with equity and social justice, Allen (1997) worked with his students to identify inequities,  biases, and stereotypes in their reading materials. His action research showed that his students were “developmentally  capable” to question and analyze particular patterns in representations and omissions – based on race, colour, class (or poverty), and gender – in their reading materials and act upon their observations.

Based on her study of preservice elementary teachers’ emerging identities as science teachers, Moore (2008) concluded that it is at the classroom level that many felt that they had control or agency in teaching to modify curriculum and meet the needs of students. A “social justice science teacher identity,” she writes, “is essential for teaching and acting to improve science learning experiences for traditionally  marginalized  students,  many of which (sic) are in urban schools” where they need to “have  access  and opportunity to learn science in empowering and transformative ways” (p. 608).

One of  the challenges faced by today’s teachers is adhering to the principles of social justice, equity, and inclusivity in a schooling context that promotes standardized  testing. Such tests tend to be aligned with a common curriculum which in the existing educational system privileges those students whose cultural and social capital are similar to that of the school’s, as opposed to a curriculum which caters to the diverse  needs, interests, and aspirations of all students.

Teachers in schools where students are at a disadvantage – typically because of cultural and language differences – tend to teach to the test and students tend to learn by rote, in order to handle the requirements of the tests. This situation provides a very narrow learning experience for already educationally and socially  disadvantaged students.  Given  his experience administering the EQAO test, one teacher commented: “There were so many things that were on the tests that the students had never heard of . . . Some students had never gone camping, and there were questions  on  different  [camping]  equipment” (quoted in Solomon et al., 2011, p. 85).

In sum, teachers committed to creating an  equitable,  social  justice,  and  inclusive classroom cannot avoid being activists if they are to address the inequities that account for the social and educational conditions that impact  their  students’ educational  performance and outcomes. As critical self-reflective practitioners and advocates, they must work as allies with marginalized communities to help construct culturally relevant and transformative teaching practices that provide students with hope and open opportunities, and show “the democratic possibilities of education” (Hytten, 2006).


Further Reading 

Allen, A.M.A. (1997). Creating space for discussions  about  social  justice  and equity  in an elementary classroom. Language Arts,74(7), 518-524.

Ayers,  W.,  Quinn, T., & Stovall, D.  (eds.) (2009). Handboo of Social Justice in Education. New  York:  Routledge.

Brown,  k.M. (2004). Leadership for social justice  and equity:  Weaving a transformative framework and pedagogy.  EducationaAdminis- tratio Quarterly, 40(1), 77-108.

Farnsworth,V. (2010). Conceptualizing iden-  tity, learning, and social  justice  in community- based learning. Teachin andTeacher Education, 26, 1481-1489.

Ginwright, S.A. (2008). Collective radical imagination: Youth  participatory action research  and the art of emancipatory knowledge. In J. Cammarota & M.  Fine (eds.), Revo- lutionizing Education Yout Participatory Action Research (pp.  13-22). New  York:  Routledge.

Hytten, k.  (2006). Education for social  justice:  Provocations and challenges. Educational Theory, 56(2), 221-236.

James, C.E. (2010). Life at the Intersection: Community, Class, and Schooling Halifax: Fern-  wood  Publishing.

Landsman, J. (2007). Whit Teacher/Diverse Classroom DVD, Stylus Publishing.

Moore, F.M.  (2008). Agency,  identity, and social  justice  education: Preservice  teachers’ thoughts  on becoming agents  of change  in ur- ban elementary science  classrooms. Researcin Science Education, 38, 589-610.

Solomon, R.P., Singer, J., Campbell, A., & Allen, A. (2011). Brave New  Teachers: Doing Social Justice Wor in Neoliberal Times.Toronto:  Cana-  dian Scholars’ Press.

Zajda,  J., Majhanovich, S., & Rust, V. (2006). Introduction: Education and social  justice. Review of Education, 52, 9-22.