How can socially just pedagogy be applied in higher education?

judgement scale and gavel in judge office
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Social justice in education is a field of study that is growing in importance throughout the world. Globalisation trends in higher educational institutions (HEIs) have meant that diverse groups of students and staff are interacting with one another now more than ever before. How can socially just pedagogy be incorporated into classes with diverse student and staff populations in different disciplines? Employing Nancy Fraser’s framework can help lecturers to ensure that socially just pedagogy is maintained in their practice in different disciplines and areas of inquiry. My new article in Teaching in Higher Education seeks to bridge the gap between scholarly social justice discourse and actual HEI lecturers’ practice.

Divided into three dimensions (economic-distribution, cultural-recognition, and political-representation), Fraser’s framework (2007, 2013) allows for applications in different societal institutions, including education. The first dimension of Fraser’s model is economic and calls for a (re)distribution of goods. At a micro, classroom, level, the ‘goods’ being distributed can be comprised of the knowledge, experience, and context of students. The cultural dimension of Fraser’s framework consists of recognition. This dimension, in an educational context, ensures that students are given a space whereby cultural value is ensured and all students are given the recognition they need to participate equally in classes, with peers and the lecturer. Finally, representation in education ensures the inclusion of students in the model ensuring their participation in redistribution and recognition.

Participatory action research (PAR) may be one method to apply Fraser’s framework in HEI classrooms. By applying PAR to classrooms, students may have a sufficiently creative space where they can receive the recognition and representation that they are entitled to in their educational lives, empowering them to take part in the redistribution of knowledge in the content development of their courses. One way of applying PAR in this context is to share the responsibility of pedagogical planning with students. Adopting joint pedagogical planning for courses may work to establish a sense of community cohesion within classes, based on the shared human experience of different groups being acknowledged and celebrated, while differences between students are recognised and appreciated. Students, in their pedagogical planning, may be sharing knowledge from resources with the educator as well as with other students. The linear knowledge transfer of resources-educator-student may be replaced with a knowledge-sharing community model that is circular.  By promoting student voice and sharing the power in key decision making with students, collaborative communities can be encouraged within HEI contexts and a more socially just pedagogy can be employed that seeks to empower students.

The framework that has been developed here does not require institutional policy or sluggish bureaucratic change. Lecturers have the power to adopt a socially just pedagogical framework in their classes independently of the institution they may be a part of. A concrete model of how this framework can be applied to course schedules is provided in the article. Active participation in this framework is encouraged whereby the students are power holders in content development and delivery. This framework places the power at the grassroots level with the lecturers and their students.

How educators can ensure social justice in their classrooms can be a complex task. Here, PAR is one way that socially just education can take place, in that it adheres to the social justice framework laid out by Fraser. By encouraging students to reflect on the course content and act to create new content that reflects their own lives and contexts, socially just education can be encouraged in a variety of classes and disciplines. By focusing on the individual student, and the class as a whole, educators can help students to create collaborative communities through student voice and course content development. In this way, students take a leadership role in their education through planning and delivering course content, something that no other social justice model incorporates at the moment. By giving students the autonomy to act as co-creators and co-investigators in the pedagogical planning of their courses, the education they receive can be a rich socially just experience.

Carla Briffett Aktaş (Education University of Hong Kong)