07 SES 06 A, Social Justice
Poverty and its consequences in the more-or-less affluent West have become muted questions in educational research. A recent handbook on social justice in education barely referred to the question amid extensive discussions of gender relations, sexuality, race and ethnicity. But the question of poverty and its effects on young people’s participation in education is ever-present in publicly valued measures of schooling’s effectiveness. For example, the most recent PISA outcomes reported the continued disparity between the achievement of students from the least advantaged families and communities and those from the most advantaged. Worryingly, PISA reported that students from the poorest communities in Australia, along with those in Britain and America, recognised a substantially lesser value in schooling’s preparation for adult life than did affluent students. Such a reduced expectation of life-constructing possibility of education points to the importance of commitment and interest in young people’s successful educational participation.
The paper will explore a re-definition of learning as a social practice: an effort to understand learning so that it reflects how young people become involved in learning and how teachers have sought to enhance that participation. Building on earlier work which argued for a socially pragmatic understanding of learning as reflexively grounded agency, the paper will argue that teachers’ recognition of successful learning does not wait for test results nor is it accounted for in the formal language of developmental scales accompanying education systems’ curriculum documents.
Within the teachers’ case writing, much of which was consumed by the recounting of classroom problems, there are signal examples where students became active learners often as a result of unheralded teacher insight and curriculum creativity. The striking feature of the cases is the familiarity the teachers have with the students’ lives outside school. ‘Professional knowledge’ appears in these cases as more than technical understanding of learning theories and attention to the ‘data’ presented in national testing. The knowledge shown by the teachers in the cases presents as acute awareness of students’ lived circumstances, their families’ biographies and their embeddeness in local communities. It is an example of the formation of ‘lost citizen tools’ (Baumann 2000) connecting the individual and the social in neo-liberal society.
Translating social awareness into pedagogical tact, the teachers communicated an understanding of student interest and the way that it connected with the mainstream curriculum. Here interest reflects in practical expression the meaning understood by Dewey (1916/1944: 126): not only an active cognitive state but also a ‘personal emotional inclination’. The outcome of learning in this formulation is social and arguably the very stuff of learning is the student becoming an interested learning self, desiring to learn and with aspirations for the future. Learning and learning outcome as social practices are thus embodied in how students reflexively understand themselves and in the power they express in social settings. Seen this way, learning can be socially just in the relational sense used by Gewirtz (2006) even if the goal of distributive justice continues to be confounded by the socially divided nature of education.
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