by Gyunghee Park and Karl Kitching

November 2020


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In response to both contemporary social movements and market-driven “internationalisation” efforts across the globe, third-level administrators and educators alike have increasingly sought to incorporate social justice principles into their pedagogical practices and policies. Ranging from pressures to ‘diversify’ student and staff bodies (as well as course curricula) to addressing matters of systemic inequality, recent decades have been marked not only by a growing concern for particular issues but also the possibilities for social justice interventions in education across the board (Dolby & Rahman, 2008). At the same time, these efforts have evolved around what Will Kymlicka (2007) describes as the prevailing consensus that pluralistic multi-level states which actively work to recognise and empower minority populations represent “the more truly ‘modern’ (or even ‘post-modern’)” societies we ought to strive toward (pp. 42-3). Along these lines, Voyer (2011) observes, the proliferation of equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives and multicultural programmes across educational contexts have in many ways been perceived to be the key indicators by which individual teaching and learning institutions may distinguish themselves as being fair, inclusive and, therefore, modern.

Within this vein, the present paper explores what it means to teach for social justice in the modern university. Focusing on the teacher development dimension of social justice in Higher Education (HE), this paper offers findings from a scoping review of literature centred on social justice-oriented teacher education and professional development programmes for HE educators[1]. Our aims here are principally twofold. First, we explore the notion of social justice in education. Specifically, we focus on some of the conceptual, normative, and policy ambiguities surrounding social justice in HE discourses. That is, while most working in the modern university would certainly agree that all students ought to have equal opportunities and positive learning experiences regardless of their identity or status, a growing number of studies have confirmed that it is far more difficult to define in consensus how best to meet these aims or what exactly social justice in HE should entail (Hill et al., 2018; Icaza & Vázquez, 2018; Osler & Starkey, 2018; Villa-Nicholas, 2018; Riley & Solic, 2017; Isaac et al., 2016; Ohito, 2016; McDonald et al., 2013; Singh, 2011; Bell & Roberts, 2010).

At the same time, Leonie Rowan (2019) observes that as academics’ engagements in teaching and research are ever-increasingly scrutinized under the auspices of the progressively more corporatized structures of the academy, research about teaching continues to occupy an ‘uneasy space’[2] (p. 7). Indeed, even within the broader corpus of literatures that comprise the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (or SOTL), only in the past decade have we seen more frequent, albeit limited, attempts to critically interrogate the wider social justice philosophies underpinning these works (Liston & Rahimi, 2017; Leibowitz & Bozalek, 2016; Kreber, 2013; Hogan & Massé, 2010). Viz. a preliminary analysis of the dominant SoTL philosophies and more foundational critical pedagogical principles as seen in the works of Paulo Freire (1968) and bell hooks (2018), among others, we examine some of the broader diagnostic lenses used to broach matters of access and inclusion in HE. We argue that clearly defining the terms of our pedagogical orientations are central to addressing key challenges for intercultural, gender-focused and community-oriented education. In terms of cutting across the discursive ambiguities of ‘fairness’ and ‘equality,’ this means delineating between perspectives those committed to the dismantlement of Eurocentric, white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, and consumer-service models of HE[3] from those that are not.

By extension, the second aim of this paper is to examine how such principles may be implemented in praxis. Specifically, we consider what can be gleaned from 14 studies of social justice teacher education and development initiatives published within the last 10 years. Using data gathered from a scoping review of literature, this paper points not only to the lack of a cross-disciplinary research basis on successfully supporting HE educators to critically engage social justice issues but also the paucity of institutional supports and commitment to enacting social justice commitments across and beyond the education and caring professions more generally. In addition to a markedly greater emphasis on primary and secondary teacher education programmes, we note a lack of clarity in the literature regarding the impact of existing initiatives, and the difficulties of substantially engaging teachers’ existing politics and pedagogical practices. In the final section of this paper, we offer further reflections on the lacunae across the fields of HE teacher development for social justice. In particular, we note the lack of a political conceptualisation of teaching as labour, and a discernible absence of historical perspectives attending to the colonial-capitalist formations of HE, which continue to frame diversity and equality in reductive ways. We end by considering the necessities of using the relative academic freedom at one’s disposal to teach about and for social justice in this regard as well as the need for broader coalitions and collective commitments to support and enjoin with existing movements struggling to affect change for a more socially just HE.

[1] This examination will inform the design of a professional development project for third-level teaching staff in Ireland. Launched in early 2019, the Disciplines Inquiring into Societal Challenges (DISCs) project aims to explore the views and experiences of HE educators across disciplines who seek to incorporate foundational social justice principles into their pedagogical practice and academic engagements.

[2] See also Kreber (1999, 2000, 2013).

[3] Despite its intersectional philosophy, this paper does not aim to exhaustively consider all questions of structural injustice in HE. We acknowledge that, in particular, ableism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia and religious discrimination are not directly examined here.



1. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and questions of social justice

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The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (or SoTL) refers to the composite works that have attended to the variant aspects of student learning for purposes of advancing more effective individual teaching practices. While not all teaching-based research refers explicitly to the ‘SoTL’, the banner has been a useful description for the growing body of literatures that aim to understand how academics in HE examine their own teaching and students’ learning[1] (Leibowitz & Bozalek, 2016, p. 110). The moniker itself is typically attributed to Ernest Boyer (1990) whose writing in Scholarship Reconsidered suggests that the academic enterprise not be defined solely in terms of the pursuit of knowledge but also by acts of discovery, integration, application, and teaching[2] (Umbach, 2007). Boyer’s central assertion was that “those who teach must, above all, be well informed, and steeped in the knowledge of their fields” while, at the same time, be able to “build bridges between their understanding and…student’s learning” (qtd. in Kreber, 2013, p. 5). The field of the SoTL that emerged through and in relation to Boyer’s texts has thereby distinguished itself from other forms of HE development, by emphasising reflection and scholarship through the process of researching one’s own teaching and learning context (Leibowitz & Bozalek, 2016).

Carrying on the traditions of classroom assessment and faculty development, the SoTL has thusly employed many of the existing methods and methodologies used in the study of education but ultimately aims to improve educators’ level of expertise in their respective disciplines as well astheir skills and capacities for imparting that knowledge onto others – even at the most beginner level. On this account, Meyer and Land (2006) propose that students’ basic understanding of the core principles and fundamental ideas central to any subject of study is crucial in terms of facilitating students’ capacity to understand a subject beyond its surface. Without a clear grasp of these ‘threshold concepts’ (i.e., the valued ways of thinking and knowing that characterise a particular field), the knowledges they seek grasp will remain out of reach[3]. As follows, the SoTL centres on a basic appreciation for the crucial “connections between subject matter knowledge and knowledge of pedagogy, epitomised in the notion of pedagogical content knowledge” (Kreber, 2013, p. 5).

Yet, as Kreber (2013) points out, matters of social justice amongst and between both educators and students has, by and large, remained on the margins of the SoTL literature. In fact, work that explicitly references social justice and the SoTL remains relatively limited (Kreber 2013; Leibowitz and Bozalek 2016; Liston and Rahimi 2017; Rowan 2019). Hence, the question of how the SoTL engages social justice issues raises yet another question about what exactly we consider the concept of ‘social justice’ to mean in the first instance. Apart from its generally progressive connotations, ‘social justice’ is often ill-defined and contested in the contemporary educational landscape. How our individual and institutional commitments to social justice play out in praxis or translate in terms of tangible outcomes is often unclear. And while this is true of HE cultures generally, it is also reflected in the imprecise and oftentimes marginal position that social justice occupies in the SoTL (Kreber 2013). Certainly, however, educators’ understanding of HE – in terms of its current state and purpose or what it means to develop anti-oppressive pedagogies – depends largely on their own particular orientations to the communities within which their teaching and learning takes place; i.e., their politics.

As will be addressed further on, critical pedagogy literature (which explicitly identifies education as a political act) has a much longer, consolidated history than that which identifies itself as (or is typically included within) the SoTL (Castagno & Brayboy, 2008; Ladson-Billings, 1995). While not using SoTL terminology in their own theorisations, the works of Paulo Freire (1968) and bell hooks (2018), for instance, have long spoken to how examinations of our pedagogical orientations and practices are crucial in terms of understanding not only education’s transformative capacities and revolutionary potential, but also the very structures and systems that underly and inform our teaching and learning practices. Postcolonial, feminist, queer, and other critical perspectives have also pointed to the historical politics of pedagogical development and processes by which disciplinary knowledges have been structured.

In this sense, however, the SoTL has underscored how such an undertaking involves a degree of reflection, research or scholarship which is usually achieved in the process of academics researching their own teaching and learning contexts. In many cases, it also includes students as researchers of their own learning and as knowledge producers (Griffiths 2004). A definition that embodies SoTL is ‘where academics frame questions that they systematically investigate in relation to their teaching and their students’ learning’ (Brew 2007, pp. 1–2). Although there are a variety of conceptions of the SoTL, the idea that it is about academics and students engaged in research on their own teaching and learning is the view adopted for the purposes of this paper (Leibowitz & Bozalek, 2016, p. 2).

[1] Whether any such examination warrants a subdivision within the broader umbrella of academic industries, Rowan continues, is debateable but the broad objectives associated with the SoTL are important for all educators to consider (ibid.).

[2] While Boyer’s contributions have been crucial in shaping the field of SoTL, he was not the first to think about the academic works of teaching, service, and research in this way. For instance, Shulman (1986) used the phrase ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ in years before Boyer, and Blackburn, Boberg, and Pellino (1984) discussed the scholarship of pedagogy before them.

[3] Launius and Hassel (2015), for example, refer to threshold concepts in women’s and gender studies as the ways of thinking, seeing and knowing that characterise Women’s and Gender studies and are valued by its practitioners. They specifically identify understandings of (a) gender as socially constructed, (b) systems of privilege and oppression, (c) intersectionality and (d) Women’s and Gender Studies as a praxis, as key threshold concepts.


1.1 Distinguishing approaches to social justice in education

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The question of what constitutes a ‘social justice issue’ in education typically involves a constellation or spectrum of positions. Generally, these are delineated by one’s particular orientation to and broader understanding of the structures, processes, and manifold expressions of economic and social inequalities, which ultimately shape our engagements both within and outside of the classroom. In this sense, it is worth considering some approximation of perspectives to help situate our own work and demonstrate what we consider to be some of the most pressing problems for critical pedagogy and the SoTL in HE.

For Hill et al. (2018), there are roughly three positions that we may consider as having “formed the basis for social justice focused pedagogies” in research (p. 3). The first is rooted in the philosophical traditions of Humanism, a perspective which centres “human interests and dignity” (Marshall qtd. in ibid). ‘Humanistic education’ therefore focuses on the provision of personalised teaching methods that attend to “the learning and emotional needs of each individual [student]” while “working within the constraints of [the] classrooms, schools, and communities” in which their learning takes place (ibid.). However, as Hill et al. suggest, such an approach is necessarily limited because it “does not challenge the structures that create oppression” (ibid.).

By extension of this critique, a second lens for theorising social justice derives from Marxist critical theories, particularly those associated with the Frankfurt School. Focusing on economic explanations of oppression, the aim for educators is to openly challenge the “socially constructed structures that oppress marginalised others, rather than simply doing their best for students within these constraints” (ibid.). Within this vein, Hill et al. also include what they call “‘post’ theories” and more ‘culturally-oriented’ examinations of inequality (ibid.). These include the intellectual traditions of postmodernist, postcolonial, feminist, and queer critique. “Post theories,” the authors suggest, “raise questions about critical theory perspectives such as empowerment” (ibid.). Shifting focus from the infrastructure – or “unity of the productive forces and the relations of production” – to the superstructure – i.e., “particular historical systems of beliefs, [such as the] religious, juridical, [and] political” –  the aims of critical pedagogy centre on “understanding how class ‘interacts upon multiple groups and sectors in various historically specific ways’” (Kincheloe et al. qtd. in ibid.). Altogether then, these perspectives fall under this ‘big tent’ of critical approaches.

The third position stems from a neoliberalist outlook. As the authors describe, “[at] a superficial level, neoliberalism aligns with humanism due to a focus on self-actualisation and individualised education,” but markedly distinguishes itself in the “belief that free markets can mitigate economic and social problems” (ibid., p. 4). Bialystok (2014) notes that when the terms of ‘social justice’ are ill-defined, neoliberalism thus tends to co-opt these issues for their own aims. By this measure, “[the] neoliberal mantra is that governments should be about providing opportunities and, to succeed, citizens need only…take personal responsibility for their own outcomes” (ibid.).

In addition to further distinguishing between perspectives lumped under the ‘big tent’ of critical approaches, we would like to add a fourth and fifth perspective along this spectrum (see: Figure 1). On this account, we maintain that it is important to distinguish between how educators advance their pedagogical positionings in theory and then in praxis. Crucially, this depends on a number of contextual factors, such as how educators perceive (as well as enact) their institutional roles and engagements. Borrowing from Lorraine Zinn’s (1997) topography of philosophical orientations to Adult Education, we add both a ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ perspective as well as a ‘progressive’ approach. A ‘conservative’ position interprets hierarchical education outcomes as a matter of personal/collective failure or deficiency and is more broadly inclined to deny that white supremacist, colonial-capitalist and patriarchal systems historically perpetuate inequalities. Such an outlook may regard such systems as positives and thereby frame the terms of ‘social justice’ as a defence of them (ibid., see also: Giroux, 2020; Gingell & Winch, 2008). Unlike the ‘neoliberal perspective,’ liberals may recognise past inequalities generated by such systems but emphasise cultural reforms over economic ‘free market’ initiatives. In this sense, a liberal approach considers compensatory measures, such as access programmes and diversity initiatives as sufficient measures that may ‘level the playing field’ (Kincheloe et al., 2000).

Further distinguishing between critical orientations in theory and praxis, the ‘progressive’ approach delineates between those who attempt to work within the extant bounds of the system in order to affect change and those who emphasise building solidarities between struggles both within and beyond the institutions within which their work takes place. In such a way, we emphasise the recognition of critical pedagogies to underscore the multiplicity of approaches taken among educators who seek to combat inequality and alleviate human suffering through their teaching (López-Gopar, 2019). As Ruiz and Fernández (2005) note, however, this variety only holds true insofar as the principles and purposes that commonly constitute such a sociocritical orientation are present in each iteration (p. 258). At the same time, we also acknowledge the complexities of defining one’s own political orientations and how no one individual or entity necessarily aligns to a singular position within this constellation or spectrum of views. For instance, a person or movement may be culturally conservative with regard to matters around abortion and same sex marriage while still advocating for radical wealth redistribution.

Figure 1: Landscape of Pedagogical Orientations


1.2 The legacy of critical pedagogy scholarship

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While the SoTL strongly supports the virtues of being critical, the vast majority of its composite literatures focus on the development of individual cognitive and affective skills rather than unpacking the unjust structures upon which the intellectual and institutional manifestations of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism, and heteronormative patriarchy are rooted. Questions of method, cognitive and affective outcomes are valid and important, of course, but narrowly focusing on these elements effectively delimits our understanding of what it means to advance social justice in education. In such a way, Ruiz and Fernández-Balboa (2005) point out that critical pedagogical methods – such as the use of generative themes, critical reflection in/on action, and alliance formation – “are the means by which the principles and the purposes of [critical pedagogy] are fostered and achieved” rather than ‘critical methods’ in and of themselves (added emphasis, p. 244). “For them to be so,” the authors write, “they must be congruent with the…principles and purposes” of a critical politics (ibid.).

Indeed, as Raewyn Connell (2019) reminds us, the HE sector has long been rife with anguished debates surrounding “outdated [pedagogies], exploitation of young staff, distorted and even faked research, outrageous fees, outrageous pay for top managers, corporate rip-offs, corruption, sexism, racism, and mickey-mouse degrees” (p. 2). These issues are not only central to discussions around systemic inequality both within and beyond the classroom but shape the very conditions that determine our pedagogical engagements (Abdul-Raheem, 2016; Kreitz-Sandberg, 2013; Lynch et al., 2012; Berrey, 2011; Young, 2010). In such a way, a number of scholars have critically examined the proliferation of ‘social justice’ initiatives in recent years that have fallen short of addressing the kind of structural changes needed to challenge the intellectual and institutional failings of HE, which are oftentimes masked under the banners of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ (Connell, 2019; Rowan, 2019; Bhambra et al., 2018; Isaac et al., 2016; Mills & Ballantyne, 2016; Berrey, 2011). In kind, writers such as bell hooks (2000, 2003, 2018) have “emphasised the significance of hearing the voices of groups historically silenced in gaining agency and expression in educational practices” (Morley et al., 2020, p. 8). Along these lines, critical thinkers have sought to develop more inclusive practices by identifying the ways in which Black, queer, transgender, disabled, and other marginalised persons are systemically undermined and excluded in these environments (Echezona-Johnson, 2017; Gorski et al., 2013; Platero, 2013; Goodfellow, 2012; Lazutka & Navicke, 2010).

To this extent, Paulo Freire’s (2018) groundbreaking exegesis of the academic enterprise in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been foundational to the ever-expanding corpus of critical pedagogy scholarship. For Down and Steinberg (2020), Freire’s book “[championed] a call for radical change in schooling and a humane, social shift to contextual education” (p. xl). On these grounds, Freire surmised that the processes of unlearning oppressive assumptions inherent to everyday life begins with the development and cultivation of one’s own critical consciousness. Spear and da Costa (2018) thusly describe the development of critical pedagogies as “a psychodynamic theory of individual change that relies on [altering] individuals’ basic perceptions and understanding of their reality” (p. 203). Such an approach seeks to problematize issues surrounding education viz. an unpacking of those prevailing false assumptions that inhibit social change through reflection and dialogue, principally among privileged and oppressed groups (ibid.). By extension, Henry Giroux’s (2001) Theory and Resistance in Education – which was the first to name Freire’s philosophy a ‘critical pedagogy’ – further progressed the appeal for more dialectical methods[1] and counter-narratives against traditional ‘banking’ approaches to teaching, which tend to presume students’ minds are empty vessels to be filled with teachers’ knowledges[2] (ibid.).

This entails an engagement with both students and the wider communities of which we are a part as partners in dismantling unjust structures, rather than treating them as recipients of pre-digested knowledge/stances abstracted from their lived realities. By this measure, Luykx and Heyman (2013) propose that the transformative aims of critical pedagogy entail “not only ‘filling the gaps’ in the curriculum, but enjoining students in an analysis of the standard curriculum’s priorities and silences” and the underlying logics upon which those priorities and silences are based (2013,  p. 348). In other words, educators must “deal not only with students’ negative educational legacies, but also with the ideological consequences of [their] particular experiences of [academic] success” (ibid.). Birr-Moje (2007) also cautions that socially just pedagogies cannot rely simply on teaching about themes of social inequity, but must also act as pedagogies for social justice by providing “opportunities to question, challenge and reconstruct knowledge” and thereby transform not just the learner but also “the social and political contexts in which learning and other social action take place”(p. 4).

Within teacher education and development contexts, the intent of critical pedagogy is thus to enable educators to address inequalities through action, which entails not only acknowledging oppression but engaging in a productive dialogue that ultimately unearths a sense of empowerment for both teachers and students along the way (Giroux, 2020; Rowan, 2019; Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2017; Ohito, 2016; Lazutka & Navicke, 2010).  Thus, both educators and learners develop together a “heightened awareness of the world and the power structures that shape it” (Styslinger et al., 2019, p. 9). To that end, educators must foremost acknowledge what and how we teach; how we relate to students and other colleagues; and the role and purposes of higher education more broadly. This means critically examining the implicit and explicit principles espoused in and out of the classroom, and the ways in which these principles shape the whole of our academic engagements. It is, in this sense, that educators position themselves politically.

[1] In his own theorisations of human consciousness, Freire begins on the basis of understanding history is dialectical. In this sense, he distinguishes a tripartite process whereby “themes” (i.e., the worldly expression of ideas and values during a historical moment) and “limit-situations” (i.e,. the historical conditions that limit human freedom) exist alongside their opposites. In regard to the theme of “domination,” for instance, there exists a dialectical opposite (i.e., “liberation”). Within this context, there are those who strive to be free and those who seek to preserve their oppressive power. Ultimately, the contradiction reaches a third phase – a resolution – which emerges over time through social change. In this sense, education plays a key role when it is advanced toward instigating this social change through the development of a critical consciousness viz. teaching and learning.

[2] Gore (1992) distinguishes between “a strand of critical pedagogy which emphasizes a particular (if shifting) social vision” such as one advocated by Giroux and McLaren to be “separate/d from a second strand of critical (liberatory) pedagogy which emphasizes instructional processes in specific contexts,” which includes the works of Freire and Shor (p. 61).



2. Developing critical pedagogical stances: (re)connecting to the SoTL

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Within the present context where “the forces of neoliberalism and fascism have merged” across the globe in sweeping efforts to “[dismantle] the historically guaranteed social provisions provided by the welfare state” and foreground the terms of “profit making and market freedoms as the essence of democracy,” Morley et al. (2020) assert that the development of not only critical but public pedagogies are essential elements in challenging these powerful currents and re-imagining a life beyond them (p. 1). Fostering the necessary competencies in educators to connect with students and communities on issues of heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, and consumer service models is, in this sense, a significant challenge. Certainly, as Leonie Rowan (2019) points out, universities spend a lot of money on programmes to ‘upskill’ staff and these may benefit individual careers and enhance some elements of ‘the student experience’ (pp. 6–7). But “[there] is far less evidence to suggest that academics are supported to develop an understanding of what it means to deliver ‘personalised’ courses to diverse learners” (ibid.).

This is where the question of ‘who our teaching scholarship serves’ comes to the fore. In this sense, a critical element of Boyer’s (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered is its call to challenge the traditional distinctions placed between research, service, and teaching. Yet throughout HE generally, teaching and research are regarded as being mutually exclusive enterprises – whereby for some, teaching is the means to research, and, for others, research is the means to teaching. The SoTL aims to dispel this dichotomy by illuminating interconnections between the two. The notion of “service,” however, is oftentimes viewed to be the least significant component of contemporary academic work, and is typically understood as an undertaking in service of one’s employers (Liston & Rahimi, 2017, p. xi). For Liston and Rahimi, “service” thereby involves engagements with “various institutional, departmental, and even professional committees,” which then move quickly into “administrative positions within the university… where teaching and scholarship become secondary to the business[es] of managing the institution” (ibid.).

In the context of the SoTL, McCarthy (2008) notes that Boyer’s (1990) work supported the idea of “teaching as intellectual work and ‘community property’”, and of “foregrounding the idea of a ‘teaching commons’” (p. 8). But this notion of service, and of teaching as a public/community act, has been co-opted by consumerist logics. For Rowan (2019), this has resulted in more and more policy endorsements across HE institutions centred on the pursuit of “market friendly and cost-effective achievement of goals” framed in terms of “what is now increasingly seen as a service industry” (2019, p. 5). As a result, academic staff have been “asked to attract and retain high-quality student-consumers”, typically understood as individuals who may “bring prestige to the university in the form of impressive entry scores… [graduating] in a timely manner… [securing] employment quickly, and then permit their successes to be badged as the achievements of a university alumnus” (ibid.). In addition, academics are “expected to ensure our student-clients report themselves as satisfied with the quality of their educational experiences using the specific mechanisms valued in our individual institutions” (ibid.).


2.1 Critically analysing ‘community engagement’

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Research on the question of service in Irish HE tends to be framed within this liberal reformist ‘community and civic engagement’ model, which includes ‘service learning’ approaches (Boland and McIlrath, 2008; Quillinan et al. 2018). Raddon and Harrison (2015) argue that such approaches may have value but need to be critically interrogated for their growth within corporate academy structures, neo-liberal ideals of entrepreneurial citizenship, and the associated withdrawal of state welfare from communities. The civic engagement model as currently conceived in Irish HE is unlikely to pose a significant threat to these ideals or to university practices and partnerships, which student movements point out: directly or indirectly exploit students and communities. These include, for example, catering contracts with companies that profit from the racist Direct Provision (asylum seeker accommodation-surveillance-deportation) regime and the failure to provide or reduce rents for campus accommodation.

Along these lines, Noel (2010) points to how the disconnect between teaching, research, and service extends beyond the classroom, and underpins a fundamental distinction drawn between the institutions of teaching and learning, and the communities in which they are embedded. In an examination of urban school communities, Noel writes that while educational institutions are located in a community, they are often not viewed as being of the community. For instance, it is not uncommon for teaching faculty to not share the culture or race of their students. Using Moll et al.’s (1992) conceptualisation of “funds of knowledge,” Noel thus refers to the network of knowledge and skills established within and outside communities that typically do not align with the types of knowledge valued in the educational system (ibid., p. 10). For Noel, “[when] a teacher takes the time to learn and recognize a community’s funds of knowledge… [they] can more effectively draw on those to create a culturally relevant classroom. In so doing, they may be able to bridge these disconnects and alleviate the inequalities entrenched by them.

bell hooks (2018) reminds us that it is crucial for educators to “collaborate in a discussion that crosses boundaries and creates a space for intervention” (p. 129). For Styslinger et al. (2019), teachers may cultivate social justice orientations with their students by not treating them as consumers, by tapping into learners’ consciousness, and by “trusting that students ‘will feel increasingly challenged and obliged to respond,’ to the inequities and injustices they come to recognize and realize” (p. 9). Building on the notion that students and communities as partners in learning and knowledge creation (rather than consumers or clients or pre-designed ideas), critical pedagogies here can focus on ensuring the educator, student and academy organically confront real-world and potentially uncomfortable issues in a spirit of critical solidarity and with a focus on radical transformation.


2.2 Foregrounding the context in which we teach

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In this sense, working against the broader global antidemocratic and authoritarian imperatives of what Giroux (2014) calls the ‘disimagination machine’ – i.e., the corruptive, commodifying, and repressive apparatuses of the state that serve to undermine critical thinking capacities – requires educators and learners to altogether develop an awareness of their selves and the world. But the difficulties of doing so cannot be understated. In a study of educators’ pedagogical development, Ruiz and Fernández-Balboa (2005) found that participants “seemed to be guided more by good intentions than by real knowledge of this type of pedagogy” (p. 257). Moreover, simply exposing teachers to the idea of the need to transform schools and society was not sufficient in and of itself to affect change and transformation among them (ibid., p. 258). In such a way, the authors were unconvinced that what many of their participants practiced was ‘critical pedagogy’ even when participants identified their approach as such (ibid.).

At the same time, Gore (1992) suggests that claims to empowerment tend to “attribute extraordinary abilities to the teacher and hold a view of agency which risks ignoring the context(s) of the teachers’ work” (p. 63). But for Gore, “context must be conceived as filled with social actors whose personal and group histories position them as subjects immersed in social patterns” (ibid., p. 67). By this measure, “contexts for the work of empowerment need to be defined historically and politically with acknowledgement of the unique struggles that characterize the exercise of power at the micro levels” (ibid.). Within this vein, however, much of the literature tends to emphasise neoliberalism and ‘globalisation.’ Terms such as the ‘enterprise university’ and ‘corporatised university,’ Goodwin and Proctor (2019) write, have thus been “developed to capture the rationalization and restructuring of institutions along market lines” (p. 5). “These designations also describe the ways that university research, scholarship and teaching…have been subjected to competitive and performance regimes” (ibid.). In this sense, some have framed discussions around social justice in education as a ‘salvaging’ effort, so to speak, whereby the aim is to “recover” the role of the university (Delanty, 2003; Jacob & Hellstron, 2000; Barnett, 1999; Dearing, 1997; Habermas, 1987)

Yet, as Connell (2019) points out, the “modern teaching-and-research university” has a longer history in nineteenth-century models of education that emerged in Europe and their colonial universities. By this measure, she asserts that HE institutions be viewed as social assets that can be used for different purposes. In such a way, they “can be made a tool of power: that is how we got atomic weapons” (ibid., p. 8). And historically third-level institutions “have been used to exclude many groups: women, colonized peoples, working classes, Catholics, Dalits, Jews, Protestants, and others” (ibid.).  In order to develop a “better logic,” Connell thus contends that we “challenge the numbing official propaganda about ‘excellence,’ ‘competition,’ and ‘achievement’” by “[digging] into the basic make-up of the institution and its conditions of existence” (ibid.). This means recognizing that (1) research and teaching are forms of labour; (2) the research-knowledge formation has always been part of a global economy of knowledge within which worldwide relationships and hierarchies have been constituted; and (3) developing paths of change necessitates a proper reckoning of these points (ibid., p. 9).

In the Irish context, the global focus and justification of ‘the university’ and ‘university education’ has not significantly changed from or acknowledged its origin in British colonial-capitalist structures, whereby, for example, elite, white Anglican and Catholics graduated to serve with/alongside the Empire as civil servants, medics and missionaries (Shepard 2012). The much-lauded mass expansion of Irish HE has been heavily distorted by neoliberal capitalism, seen in efforts to exploit student ‘markets’ in the Global South, and dramatically shift HE working conditions towards precarity and performativity. In this sense, these developments reflect the interlocking, inherently exploitative systems of (colonial, neoliberal) capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy upon which HE has been founded and further underscore a need to fundamentally dismantle them in order to forge emancipatory cultures focused on universal student access, curricular justice, democratic student-staff decision-making, solidarity-based community partnerships, and secure HE working and studying conditions. Critical pedagogy scholarship is typically aligned to this radical analysis and considers education as an act which itself is not neutral, and which is positioned on the political spectrum.



3. A review of education and development initiatives for those who teach

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In anticipation of a large number of studies with heterogeneous methods and varying levels of quality, a scoping review of literature was conducted using the framework laid out by Arksey and O’Malley (2005). Although a formal definition does not exist, we can say that the aim of such a review is to ‘map’ the relevant literature in a field of interest. Through the use of a “rigorously defined protocol,” Garrard writes, scoping reviews are particularly helpful in terms of “identify[ing] the gaps in research on a… [subject] not fully matured to justify a systematic review or meta-analysis” (2017, p. 26). Whereas a systematic review typically begins with a well-defined question and the establishment of appropriate study designs in advance, scoping studies seek to address broader topics where many different study designs might be applicable (Arksey & O’Malley, ibid.). Typically used in the fields of STEMM, scoping studies are less likely to focus on specific research questions nor on the quality of included studies. Instead, the aim is to cast a broad net using specific search criteria that may allow researchers to mine the vast body of existing literatures for particular study sets.


3.1 Search strategy, screening and inclusion criteria

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To ensure the study’s reproducibility (as well as transparency and consistency), a search strategy was developed a priori. This included a list of search algorithms and the development of an abstract screening strategy consistent with the aims of the DISCs project. A search was then conducted using Academic Search Complete to identify articles on interculturalism, community, and gender in Higher Education settings. The Boolean Operator terms included were ‘OR’ and ‘AND’ and the search was limited to studies written in English, conducted between June 2009 and June 2019 in academic peer-reviewed journal publications (see Figure 2).

S1 Population (HE)S2 Exposure (Programmes)S3 Outcomes (Aims)
Higher Education OR Teaching OR LearningIntercultural OR Community OR GenderSocial justice
Figure 2. Boolean Operator terms

As initial runs of the search strategy revealed a very limited number of studies on teacher education programmes or initiatives focusing specifically on social justice education in higher education, two searches were conducted. The first included ‘population’ and ‘exposure’ terms in figure 2, but excluded the term ‘social justice’ in order to focus on any studies that may speak to the themes of gender, community, and interculturalism without making ‘social justice’ an explicit component of their study. The second, which included all search terms in figure 2, was conducted to ensure foundational social justice principles were a strong feature of the review.

The first search resulted in an initial search yield of 2,631 articles. Following a cursory abstract screening that focused on the elimination of duplicates and clearly irrelevant results (e.g., studies not pertaining to education at any level), we were left with 732 articles. In the next stage, two reviewers (the two authors) independently screened the study abstracts, focusing on those that put teaching and learning at the forefront of their inquiries. This brought the results down to 214. In the final stage of search 1, one reviewer read the articles in full to decide whether they should be chosen for inclusion in the review. Specifically, the screening focused on studies or examinations of teacher education programmes for social justice education focused on primary, secondary, and third-level teachers. It became clear that a search of studies with an underpinning focus on ‘social justice’ which may/may not include reference to intercultural, gender and community issues was needed in order to ensure we covered studies focused on more foundational social justice orientations. When the process was repeated to include all search terms, the search yielded 510 results. Initial screenings for relevancy left us with 211. Taken together, the searches produced a combined total of 425 articles.


3.2 Data charting and analysis

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One evaluator (the first author) read each of the 425 articles, using stricter criteria. For purposes of our study, articles were reviewed for purposes of identifying any existing examinations of teacher education for social justice. Any articles that did not (a) pertain to courses and programmes for faculty and entry-level or preservice teachers either studying or working at third level; and (b) involve a specific course or programme designed to incorporate social justice principles into individual teaching and learning practices[1] were eliminated. Nearly all articles found focused on issues pertaining to student experience and learning. Very few centred on the development of educators, and fewer still within the HE context. Following a series of detailed reviews, only 14 articles remained. Of these, 9 were published in the U.S.A. The remaining works were each published in Germany, Australia, Spain, and Finland. One article was the outcome of a multinational study. While the vast majority of these were based in the field of Education (11 in Education and 1 in Physical Education and Sports Pedagogy), 2 were conducted in the fields of Sociology and Anthropology.

In order to present a thorough-going narrative account of findings, a ‘charting’ technique was used. In addition to providing the analyst with a means to develop a picture of all qualitative data as a whole, this method aids in the interpretation of said data by sorting materials according to key issues and themes. That is, by ‘lifting’ these elements from their original context and rearranging information according to an appropriate thematic reference (Ritchie & Spencer, 2002, p. 318). Borrowing from the works of Ritchie and Spencer, a ‘data charting form’ was designed on Microsoft Excel, which enabled the reviewer to summarize basic characteristics of all studies using a template that facilitated comparisons across intervention types. The chart also helped identify gaps in the existing literature. The information was recorded as follows:

  • Citation (author[s], year, title of publication, source)
  • Study location
  • Aims of the study
  • Background
  • Methodology
  • Study population
  • Findings and recommendation

Once charted, the articles served to provide an overview of not only various conceptualisations of inequality and injustice in HE but how these conceptualisations have informed institutional and individual approaches to shaping teachers’ views of teaching, research, and service.

Along these lines, the review was conducted with four broad questions in mind: (1) What were the underlying principles that underpinned the authors’ approach to social justice education in HE?; (2) What seemed to be the targeted outcomes of the study?; (3) What insight or reflection was specifically attached to these outcomes?; and (4) What learning event(s) did the authors’ identify? As follows, all articles were colour-coded by the evaluator to clearly identify their relevancies for the present review. Despite vast disparities in their purposes and aims, the reviewer was able to identify broadly key omissions and areas for further research as well as ways in which the project team could better develop the DISCs Project. In such a way, the review helped refine the study’s overarching theoretical and methodological approach to incorporating social justice principles into teaching within and between disciplines.

[1] This did not necessarily mean that the article made reference to SoTL or ‘social justice’ specifically. Rather, it refers to whether or not the article committed to some goal of combating an injustice within education



4. Findings and analysis

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As mentioned, the broad set of 425 articles varied widely in terms of their intentions, aims, and foci. Some were theoretical inquiries of what it means to teach students generally or how we may define the terms of ‘social justice’ while others offered systematic analyses of surveys of students and staff with a multitude of intentions. There were also a number of reports compiling statistics about the difficulties faced by minority students and faculty. Many of these articles inform the preceding discussion of the SoTL, and the philosophical foundations of teaching for social justice. Overall, attempts to ascertain some broad set of commonalities and themes were difficult in and of themselves. Yet the sheer number of results pointed to another issue. With all of the evidence available –specifically regarding the manifold difficulties faced by students and faculty from minority backgrounds – it begs the question why there has been very little change.

The answer to this question became clear once the final 14 articles were located and reviewed. All of the articles spoke not only to the lack of formal integration of social justice themes in teacher education, professional development programmes, and faculty development, but also to the difficulties of designing such programmes and implementing them in primary, secondary, and third-level contexts. These works also pointed to a lack of clarity and understanding in terms of the efficacy of existing programmes, and the difficulties of challenging teachers’ existing politics and pedagogical practices.

Following an examination of these works, four principal themes encapsulating these challenges were identified:

  1. Developing an ethos of “inclusivity” amongst educators
  2. Engaging in pedagogies of discomfort
  3. Confronting teachers’ different understandings of ‘social justice’ and related political commitments
  4. Institutional barriers to social change

These themes were not intended to be mutually exclusive nor is there any doubt regarding the subjective nature of their categorisation. Yet while all of the selected works addressed multiple themes, the classifications used helped to highlight the most salient aspects of their findings.

What is clear in the studies under the four themes above is that, while most initiatives described in the literature are intended to bridge the gap between standard extant practices and more socially just approaches, few examine the ‘cognitive and affective distance’ between these points or where individuals and institutions are along this spectrum before and after their involvement in said initiatives. By and large in these studies, the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of social justice-oriented professional development programmes were typically gauged by immediate reactions of participants. Relatively few have explored the long-term effects of these programmes and those that have, have shown how any change in perspective or practice is ultimately hindered by the lack of institutional supports and engagement. Moreover, studies of individual social-justice oriented teaching and learning initiatives have also shown how difficult it is to not only develop critical pedagogical frameworks in praxis, but the complicated and messy realities of altering individual teaching orientations and habits.


4.1 Developing an ethos of inclusivity amongst educators

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In the third-level context, lecturers are faced with ever-increasing workloads and class sizes as many educators and staff have been employed more and more on a casually contracted basis in recent decades. Under these conditions, cultivating meaningful relationships with students can be quite challenging. However, understanding differences between learners and working one-on-one with students is key in terms of developing community-oriented pedagogies. According to Noel (2010), there is often a disconnect between the institutions of teaching and learning and the communities in which they are embedded. And this disconnect can work to further entrench existing social inequalities.  For Bentley-Williams & Morgan (2013), working towards an inclusive educational experience and ethos thereby involves increasing participation in and decreasing exclusion from the culture, curriculum and community of mainstream schools. Cultivating spaces for collaboration between teachers and learners is thus a cornerstone of inclusive education.  Within this vein, the following articles found in the review emphasise the importance of a whole-institution, collaborative approach to teaching for inclusion; creating opportunities to develop teachers’ competence in meaningful intercultural dialogue and integrating critical intercultural learning and reflection throughout the teacher’s learning experience.

Bentley-Williams et al. (2017) explore a ‘proactive partnership model’ designed to equip pre-service teachers with a deeper understanding of what it means to teach students with disabilities. Through the development of a multi-site pilot study, the authors examined the educational journey of 10 ‘high-quality pre-service teachers’, 5 school leaders/principals, and 6 education mentors using both data collected from semi-structured interviews and analyses of reflective journal entries submitted over a 38-week period. The authors propose that while the existing literature on inclusive education typically identifies (a) participation in professional learning, (b) developing strategies for inclusion; and (c) collaboration and support in early career development, less has been done to interrogate whether these approaches capture the complexities of ‘diversity’ and how they align with social justice principles. In such a way, they join the growing number of researchers who have argued for a reconsideration of existing models, rather than continuing to develop upon the ‘fragmented, superficial treatment of diversity in teacher education’ (ibid., page).

Available evidences suggest that ‘simply developing knowledge about inclusive legislation and policy’ does not adequately address ‘early career teachers’ underlying concerns about inclusive education’, such as what the concept itself should mean and entail. Hence, the authors propose the need for ‘planned, systemic, collaborative approaches’ where ‘various and diverse approaches are interrogated until a consensual understanding is reached between stakeholders’.  In the course of the pilot project, the authors identified five themes, each pointing to strategies that may enable a deeper understanding of inclusion among teaching practitioners. These include the needs for (1) a responsiveness to the unique school’s culture; (2) adjustments made for children with disabilities; (3) an openness to professional and personal development and growth; (4) ongoing adjustments, flexibility and adaptability regarding these programmes; and (5) an clearer understanding of what we mean by diversity and effective inclusive education. The programme itself was found to have made a positive impact among pre-service teachers as well as the wider school and parent communities. But the authors note that in order for these programmes to have long-lasting effects, there must be accountability at all levels of the school and across the educational sector to ensure their success.

In Bender-Szymanski’s (2013) case study of a community-led teaching project in Germany, the author explores the role of education in efforts to integrate Muslim minorities in German society. The project emerged amidst conflicts in the media concerning a Muslim community seeking to build a community centre where they could pray, meet, hold conferences, and offer counselling. The paper examines 10 seminars with students as part of their teacher education in multiple universities. The seminars were divided into three phases. In the first phase, participants were encouraged to role play and assume the positions of certain stakeholders in order to explore arguments on different sides. In the second phase, the participants were acquainted with the theoretical construct of argumentation integrity, and explored the empirical merits, standards, and strategies associated with different positions.

In the final phase, participants were asked to identify rule violations in real arguments put forth by politicians and media. At the end of the project, the author concludes that educational institutions should provide more opportunities for student teachers to learn how to engage in dialogues with people from different backgrounds, i.e., become dialogue competent. In such a way, “[projects] like the one described here, which are intense, in depth and look closely how we engage in discussions with others, have the potential to provide future teachers with the tools they will need to work in multicultural classrooms with multicultural and oftentimes controversial issues” (ibid., p. 589).

Using a case study of student teachers’ and teacher educators’ discourses about multiculturalism in Finland, Hahl & Löfström (2016) explore the underlying logics of intercultural curricula in teacher education. For the authors, a key issue in multicultural discourses in teacher education is the tendency to conceptualise ‘culture’ in terms of ethnic origins. Along these lines, the “notion of culture is commonly used for finding differences between people to the detriment of ignoring similarities” (ibid., p. 302). Indeed, while there are differences between different groups, such an approach tends to ignore the diversities between individuals belonging to the same cultural group (ibid.). Borrowing from the works of Shi-xu (2015), the authors define culture as a “set of concepts, identities, representations, attitudes, values, symbols, styles, rules, patterns, (power) relations found in the praxis of particular social communities” (ibid.). Moreover, while the terms ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘interculturalism’ are both polysemic they have their own distinct set of definitions. Due to their overlapping similarities, however, there is a tendency to use the concepts interchangeably. For Hahl and Löfström, maintaining distinctions between the two is important. Whereas multiculturalism refers to the features of a group, interculturalism “refers to the (positive) processes and relations of interaction and negotiation between individuals in multicultural contexts” (ibid., p. 301). In such a way, the intercultural “promotes the view that each individual belongs to different cultural groups simultaneously and negotiates his/her identities in interaction with others” (ibid.).

Hahl and Löfström thusly propose that in order for a programme to be truly “intercultural”, it must “integrate intercultural aspects and processes into the whole program[me] and not only design a separate course to address these topics” (ibid., p. 303). Too often, however, the authors suggest, “teacher education program[me]s lack a critical understanding of diversity, culture and interculturality” and thus “the foundation and goal of these issues may be problematic even in program[me]s that incorporate intercultural concept” (ibid., p. 303). By examining a first-year international teacher education programme in a Finnish University, the authors interviewed 11 student teachers and 11 teacher educators to examine in-depth how these discourses play out in praxis.

Based on their study, the authors focused on the “referential strategies (i.e., what identities speakers claimed… and how they talked to others) while paying particular attention to any contradictions in the participants’ discourses” (ibid., p. 305). In so doing, the authors identified four key strategies: (1) stereotyping and othering; (2) distancing; (3) verbalizing; and (4) downplaying multiculturalism” (ibid., p. 306). The first three were used by both students and teachers. Yet while both teacher educators and student teachers tended to use the same positioning strategies, they have different implications. For instance, “if teacher educators do not have a shared, critical understanding of multiculturalism, there is a danger that they promote culturalist viewpoints and, from their more ‘expert’ position, pass them on to student teachers who in turn use them with their future students” (ibid., p. 311). And although both teachers and students agreed they were diverse, “they were not in unison of what multiculturalism in essence is or how multiculturalism should manifest itself in class” (ibid.). Moreover, if “teacher educators approach multiculturalism in very different ways in the same or different courses of the program, and in an unreflective manner, it can send student teachers contradictory messages while failing to prepare them for analysing the strengths and weaknesses of various perspectives” (ibid.). 


4.2 Engaging in pedagogies of discomfort

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The second set of studies refer to those which emphasized the importance of examining race and racism and the need to engage discomfort around these examinations productively, as well as the difficulties faced when engaging privileged learners in this process.  In this vein, Milner (2003) has argued that programmes without an explicit or implicit racial competence component may suppress, dilute, or completely overlook the roles of race and racism in education. At the same time, however, “when racial competence is included in critical pedagogy, students [typically] experience discomfort which often results in resistance” (Simmons & Fellabaum, 2016, p. 122). As Mezirow (1997) has suggested, transformative learning thusly begins with a disorienting dilemma. Drawing from the works of Boler (1999), Liston and Salim (2002) describe the ‘pedagogy of discomfort’ as the engagement of students and teachers in a difficult and generally uncomfortable critical exploration of their existing assumptions, beliefs, and orientations toward race and racism in society. For Simmons and Fellabaum (2016), “[when] students experience the discomfort of critical pedagogy, some instructors find it necessary for them to create a means to neutralise or mediate the students’ discomfort in order to reduce their resistance to this content” (p. 122). The following articles centre on an examination of this resistance and methods that have been employed to address discomfort among pre-service teachers and educators.

Dolby & Rahatzad (2018) examine students’ experiences in an undergraduate teacher education course that focused on multiculturalism in education using a thematic analysis of 108 student essays from an ‘Immersion Experience’ assignment, which required participants to attend an off-campus event sponsored by a minority or international group of which they are not a member. The project was developed in response to changing demographic trends across the U.S. in hopes to increase students’ awareness of diversity. While initially students were nervous, felt isolated, and sometimes were afraid, they generally felt welcomed and included within these groups by the end of their assignment.

Altogether, however, it was found that students were generally afraid of interacting with individuals from different backgrounds, which prevented them from interacting with said groups prior to the assignment. The authors observe that “[many] teacher education students have never seriously discussed their own social identities and how the realities of gender, race, class, sexuality, and nation shape their experiences every day” (ibid., p. 21). This was reflected in their essays where students demonstrated “no real, lived experience with people from different backgrounds” (ibid.). Yet they were “[carrying] this lack of understanding and pre-existing stereotypes into classrooms” (ibid.). While the study itself was somewhat superficial and didn’t delve into the programme’s outline in any critical way, the points made here demonstrate again the lack of critical self-reflection in teacher training.

Evans-Winters & Twyman (2011) examine White students’ resistance to learning about and deconstructing systems of oppression. Using a case study of courses taught by two Black female professors in classes comprised of White pre-service teachers, the authors examine students’ evaluations to determine the courses’ efficacies in terms of deconstructing systems of oppression for learners. As Evans-Winters & Twyman point out, “[when] students fail to raise questions, respond to questions, or participate in class dialogue, the assumption by the professor is that students comprehend, consent, or are in agreement with… major points of discussion” in a given course (ibid., p. 464). Yet “Black scholars who teach pre-service and in-service teachers have long grappled with the ways in which White students resist dialogue and course work” through their silences (ibid.).

In such a way, some scholars have found that through the presumption of teachers having more power than students, “White students [enact] silence ‘as a weapon or way to defy and deny the legitimacy of the teacher and/or knowledge” (ibid., p. 464). Students of colour, on the other hand, have been found to be more vocal in class discussions, particularly when they centre on issues of race and racism. Thus, when “course work that moves beyond simplistic additive multicultural and conventional social foundations approaches” are introduced to “counter hegemonic spheres of knowing and understanding society”, White students’ silences may be seen as a “form of structural violence” (ibid., p. 465).

Moreover, the authors argue that this violence is institutionalised through faculty assessments where students are free to articulate their resistances on their terms, in anonymity. Following a review of their own assessments, the authors found that “respondents’ knee-jerk reaction was to colour their African American female professors as ‘racist’” (ibid., p. 468). This was interpreted as a way for students to “attack Black [women]’s credibility at the outset… [in order] to win over potential (White) readers [i.e., department heads and other faculty] as allies” (ibid.). The researchers also noticed that “students tended to imagine [the teachers] as antagonistic… Wrapped in a cloth of innocence, the respondent paints a picture of herself/himself and other members of her (social/racial) class as victims of this ‘difficult professor’ (ibid.).

From this perspective, the authors “interpret White student resistance as aesthetically linked to deficit ways of knowing about racial/ethnic minority student groups. Deficit ways of theorizing and engaging in knowledge(s) about students of colour is viewed as cultural hegemony, from our raced, classed, and gendered perspective” (ibid., p. 473-4). “White superiority, as an undergirding notion and practice in U.S. social institutions, informed students’ assessment of our course content, delivery and professional knowledge-base” (ibid., p. 475). Moreover, the authors’ findings raise important questions when taking into account that these students presumably go on to teach about race and racism themselves.

In her study of multicultural teacher education programmes, Laughter (2011) looks at the ways White pre-service teachers (WPTs) are prepared to teach students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Using a mix of audio and video-recorded interviews, written artefacts, group meetings, and ongoing comparative data analysis, Laughter examines how WPTs engage issues of race and racism in the classroom. Because WPTs make up the vast majority of pre-service teachers generally, Laughter seeks to problematise the ways in which these issues have been typically approached. Specifically, the author argues that multicultural teacher education (MTE) literature tends to view the development of WPTs through the lens of four interrelated assumptions: (1) that WPTs are often ‘dysconscious’ of how racism works; (2) that WPTs have lower expectations of students of colour; (3) that WPTs have little experience with communities of colour; and (4) that WPTs don’t understand themselves as racial beings (ibid., p. 44).

In such a way, Laughter argues, “[those] engaged in teacher preparation might assume that all teachers from a privileged demographic are the same” but there is strong evidence to suggest that WPTs themselves are a diverse group (ibid.). Whiteness, the author suggests, is “an evolving, socially constructed system of conscious/unconscious, intentional/accidental, explicit/implicit [privileges] associated with those who manifest certain characteristics… that evolve within a racialised society” (ibid.). According to Laughter, much of MTE research seems to assume that “every WPT grew up in a comfortably middle-class background and has always wanted to be a teacher” (ibid., p. 48). The project began with an “initial interview [to record participant’s working understandings of race, racism, and dialogue]” and then “a series of meetings designed to develop a dialogue circle” (ibid., p. 45).

Participants were then observed in the classroom before being asked for a second interview. Throughout this study, Laughter co-wrote ‘racial development biographies’ with each participant in order to get a sense of whether or not they were cognizant of diversity and their own Whiteness. According to the author, “WPTs are assumed to be cognizant of diversity but only through systems of Whiteness that treat diversity as a problem to be solved” (ibid., p. 48). Laughter contends that this view simultaneously casts WPTs as problems and thereby “reinforces dysconscious systems that see WPTs as unable to be part of a solution” (ibid., p. 49). Thus while participants “were likely dysconscious of several aspects of racism”, they were able to disentangle their own biases and think about racism at a much deeper level “through prolonged engagement with multiple definitions of race and through an exploration of their own racial identity developments”, they came to think about racism at a much deeper level” (ibid.). 

For these reasons, Laughter proposes that “teacher educators who can differentiate among their preservice teachers will be more effective in developing teachers who see the classroom as a site for social change and who have the tools to accomplish social change” (ibid., p. 46). However, Laughter’s use of the term ‘dysconscious’ seems to re-position WPTs as victims of their own privileges and the author’s focus on the capacities for WPTs to understand race and racism comes at the expense of not thinking about how and why WPTs are most likely to enter into the field of education.


4.3 Confronting educators’ diverse ‘social justice’ commitments

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Hill et al. (2018) conducted an international study involving a combined total of 72 physical education teacher educators (PETEs) and physical education and sport pedagogy (PESP) educators working in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S. in order to examine variations between educators in terms of how they understand ‘social justice’ in education. According to the authors, a principal difficulty in this regard rests in understanding how teachers define the parameters of “social justice” in their own lives and thereby orient themselves towards students’ needs. In order to clarify these distinctions, Hill et al. identify four main approaches: neoliberal, humanist, critical, and ‘posts’.

The first describes a marketized understanding of education as a sector for economic growth whereby educators view the needs of students in transactional terms and teaching as a service provision. The ‘humanistic’ approach describes educators who “[attend] to both the learning and emotional needs of each [student]” by “ensuring that [their] teaching provides equality of opportunity” for all learners (ibid., p. 3). For Culpan and Bruce(2007), as ‘humanistic educators’ seek to help students navigate the existing systems, “this approach…[works] within capitalism and… does not challenge the structures that create oppression” (ibid.). The third approach, or ‘critical approach’, focuses on the “socially constructed structures that oppress marginalized others, rather than simply doing their best for students within these constraints” (ibid.). The final approach, or ‘post’ theorists, “call for action on structures that create social injustice… [and question] dominant representations of knowledge and knowers, challenging assertions of what is considered right and normal” (ibid.).

Drawing from ‘post-theories’ – such as Critical Race Theory and feminism – the authors examine how practices of physical education themselves are imbued with  neoliberal values. Citing global trends such as outsourcing, recontextualization of concepts such as health, and the ‘scientisation’ of education research”, the authors examine how educators not only espouse a social justice orientation in conversation but how they attempt to incorporate those principles into their academic engagements and in the face of these challenges. In the course of their study, the authors found that a “small number of participants in the U.S. and U.K. described a perspective on social justice which might be seen as reproducing privilege or a discourse of an entitlement society” (ibid., p. 7).

Specifically, while the participants from the U.S. and U.K. “were able to mention…a number of ‘isms’”, they “did not account for disparities in opportunity or outcome or explain structural causes of discrimination” (ibid.). In such a way, while many participants defined social justice in terms of “[accepting] diversity and difference” and having a “greater understanding of equality”, an emphasis was “placed on being aware of ‘cultural norms’…[rather than examining] marginalisation in terms of power or structural inequalities” (ibid.). That is, ‘social justice’ was framed in terms of working “within, rather than challenging, the norms of society” (ibid.). Alternatively, other participants spoke to the need for challenging existing systems and enacting change. Yet the notion of taking action did not explicitly fall within the parameters of the majority of participants in their understandings of ‘social justice’. Based on these findings, the authors conclude that “participants’ definitions did not fit neatly into one category (neoliberal, humanist, critical, or ‘post’); instead, they expressed views reflecting different theoretical stances” (ibid., p. 12). These were not perceived as inconsistencies or contradictions but a broad range of definitions that speak to a “big tent” of approaches, which are generally taken for granted. In other words, educators’ orientations to social justice varied across the spectrum depending on the particular issues or actions that they were asked to address.

In an examination of a ‘syllabus inquiry workshop’, Ching (2018) explores the cognitive bases upon which university faculty in the department of Mathematics incorporated equity-mindedness and cultural inclusivity principles into their modules and courses. As Ching points out, despite continuing investments in reforms and policies to ensure parity of educational outcomes – particularly among students of colour – gaps in performance and graduation rates continue to persist. Drawing on the works of Bensimon (2009), the author asserts that these trends will not reverse if educators premise their understandings of educational success in terms of individual effort, motivation, and preparation, or lack thereof. In other words, much of the discourse and policy around educational outcome are largely predicated on an understanding of the issue in terms of a ‘learning problem’. According to this model, issues of ethnic or racial inequality are a systemic issue and generally seen as being beyond the educator’s power and purview to address.

Hence, students become the principal agents responsible for their own success. By contrast, Ching proposes that tackling inequality requires ‘structured opportunities for practitioners to reflect on their conceptions of equity, their role in advancing the outcomes of students of colour, the extent to which their current practices are serving these students’ needs, and the changes they can make to achieve racial/ethnic equality” (ibid., p. 388). That is, ‘shift the division of labour between the instructor and student’. As follows, educators must adopt an ‘equity-mindedness’ approach which entails (a) race-consciousness; (b) awareness of race-neutral knowledge, practices, and assumptions which may disadvantage students of colour; (c) a willingness to be responsible for eliminating inequalities; and (d) a recognition that policies and practices within their institutions perpetuate racial/ethnic hierarchies even in the absence of explicit racism as well as an awareness of how these operations manifest.

Along these lines, the author argues that using an action research approach to equal opportunity initiatives enables educators to critically engage the principles that underly teaching and learning. Rather than identifying the ‘right’ solution, the aim is to educate practitioners themselves by fostering an understanding of ‘the nature and consequences of their actions more fully’ and ‘assist[ing] them in weighing what should be done as a guide to (but not a prescription for) action’ (ibid., p. 392).

By looking at the syllabus as an ‘artefact of practice’ that communicates not only the personality of the instructor but the rules and norms of the predominantly white culture in which these courses are developed and structured, Ching’s study asked educators to critically examine their own syllabi and explore the unstated assumptions and beliefs about teaching and learning that are generally overlooked. Following the workshop, Ching found that many members of faculty viewed the exercise as useful but maintained that one cannot assume that ‘learners will interact with messages presented during a learning opportunity in ways that lead to conceptual change…even if the learners find the messages appealing and persuasive and are motivated to process them’ (ibid., p. 408). Rather, changing the existing practices and cognitive frameworks to which they are aligned “involves a shift in conceptual categories at an ontological level. Thus, for a faculty member to abandon her definition of equity, she would have to fully understand the new conception and believe that it offers a more coherent, plausible, and rhetorically compelling view of the world, one that she is motivated to adopt” (ibid., p. 416). Ensuring equal outcomes for students is thus not solely about access and opportunity but about providing the appropriate and sufficient measures for students who do not fit into the dominant white structures and white students for whom they are intended and were designed. At the same time, the author points to the importance of structural and institutional supports and shift in understanding across the sector.


4.4. Institutional barriers to social change

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With the aim to determine whether or not attitudes toward gender and sexism change in primary school teachers in years after their initial trainings, Cordón Gómez et al. (2019) conducted a developmental cross-sectional study of 1,296 Spanish university students in primary teacher education studies using surveys and statistical analysis. For the authors, quality learning about feminism and co-education is an essential component to teacher education, particularly in the early stages. Yet while evidence has shown that teachers continue to present sexist behaviours and attitudes as well as resist broader steps toward educational change and training deficits, the authors observe that little has been done to formally incorporate feminist principles into teacher education programmes in Spain.

Cordón Gómez et al. therefore ask whether or not existing sensitivities are the result of weak policies regarding teachers’ initial preparation. Throughout the course of their own study, the authors found that changes towards ‘less sexist attitudes’ do occur following teachers’ initial education. This may be due to (a) a higher level of education; or (b) lower levels of sexism among both men and women. However, at the same time  teacher education does not produce the desired effects as far as gender equality is concerned. Indeed, there remains a disparity between genders across the sector. The authors argue that this is in part because gender equality is not established as a core principle in any stages of teacher development nor is it put into practice in a systematic manner. As such, the authors argue that initial teacher education does not adequately eliminate sexist attitudes and will continue to be insufficient unless planned conscientious efforts are put in place.

Using content analysis of 41 syllabi alongside data from surveys conducted on 80 participants, Gorski et al. (2013) examine the (in)visibility of sexual orientation, heterosexism, and homophobia, and other LGBTQ concerns in U.S. multicultural education coursework. As the authors point out, “[heteronormative] discourses…dominate school environments, upheld, as they are, by administrators, teachers, and students at all levels of education” (ibid., p. 225). Yet while a number of scholars “have argued that teacher education programs should incorporate… topics ranging from sexual orientation to heteronormativity into coursework”, evidence suggests “that teachers largely are not being prepared to recognize homophobic bias, much less subvert heteronormativity” (ibid.). Moreover, “when heterosexism is broached in education coursework it most often is tucked into a single ‘diversity’ or ‘multiculturalism’ course” (ibid., p. 226).

Thus, by focusing on course descriptions, goals, objectives, and other indicators, the authors aimed to explore the nature of this (in)visibility in teacher education contexts across multicultural education courses taught in the U.S. This involved 80 individuals who teach MTE courses in the U.S. and an analysis of their syllabi. At the end of the study, Gorski et al. “little attention is paid to LGBTQ [issues]… particularly relative to those related to race” (ibid., p. 233). In addition, there was “similar inattention to a variety of other identities and oppressions…than sexual orientation,” which indicated “possible evidence for an endemic lack of attention to identity and oppression intersectionalities and an equally endemic lack of broad applications of equity, diversity, multiculturalism and social justice in MTE courses” (ibid., p. 234).

Along these lines the authors propose that the findings “confirm the concern that teacher education is inadequately preparing…educators for countering heteronormativity or creating equitable, if not merely relatively ‘safe’ school climates for LGBTQ youth” (ibid., p. 238). Hence, even in cases where teachers want to learn how to facilitate equitable learning environments, “they are not, in many cases, being prepared to do so in MTE courses” (ibid.). Moreover, because MTE courses are relatively most likely to include LGBTQ concerns in a conservative or liberal manner than in a critical manner, these programmes “implicitly [support] larger patterns of reframing LGBTQ-targeting biases and oppression as interpersonal problems rather than symptoms of systematic heterosexism” (ibid., p. 239).

Gorski et al. thusly argue that when equity concerns are addressed only in terms of “decontextualized identity” or culture-centric ways, these courses “run the risk of reifying deficit ideology” (ibid.). In other words, understanding these conditions in a larger socio-political and institutional context of heteronormativity also “means recognizing that they are not simple reflections of systemic inadequacies among those teaching MTE courses” (ibid., p. 242). At the same time, it is not possible to “squeeze learning experiences about the broadest host of equity concerns into a single course” (ibid., p. 240). The authors suggest that both institutions and individuals need not only “engage more often with LGBTQ concerns but also… more deeply and complexly with them” (ibid.).



5. Discussion

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The studies discussed above variously emphasise the importance of taking a whole-institution, collaborative and community-engaged approach to developing social justice pedagogies. Broadly, the articles speak to the needs for creating opportunities to develop teachers’ competencies in social justice issues and developing an openness to engage uncomfortable conversations rather than neutralise or dismiss them. While it was unclear as to the longer-term impact of their individual approaches, it is clear that teachers must do more to unpack their existing politics and pedagogical practices.

Moreover, while there are efforts in the literature to contextualise teaching efforts within the wider social and political climates of which they were a part, much less attention was paid to the matter of teaching as a form of labour. It is notable that while we extol the virtues of problem-based inquiry as it relates to teaching students about and for social justice, we tend not to openly problematise the labour conditions under which we do so. Indeed, although the fundamental question of teachers’ labour and who benefits from that labour is entirely connected to SoTL, the reality is that in the corporate academy, scholarly teaching, research and service is not considered to be public property – it is ultimately for paying students’ consumption.

For Bell et al. (2018), despite growing attentiveness to “valuing diversity” among scholars and practitioners, discrimination, exclusion, and inequality continue to persist in all organisations and institutions. Rather than making more “tentative and superficial changes” and recommendations (i.e., antibias training, employee resource groups, mentoring) for the very organizations and governance bodies that have contributed to so many inequalities for historically underrepresented groups, the authors propose the need for a solidarity framework typically found in grassroots and anti-oppressive initiatives to be expanded beyond their typical focus on class inequality. Bell et al. argue “what is studied and taught reinforces the importance and influence of what is studied and taught” (ibid., 235-236). They contend that “rather than continuing to study equality and inclusion solely in organizations in which inequality and exploitation are built into the foundations, social scientists should expand their research and teaching to include the types of organizations found in a solidarity economy” (ibid., page 232). Shifting away from ‘impact’ measurements and corporate alliances, a greater engagement with public teaching, worker co-operatives and anti-oppressive social movements that altogether seek to reduce or eliminate inequalities would help to build solidarities not only between HE institutions and the communities in which they are embedded but also within the academy in hopes to shift away from existing academic norms toward principles of shared and community-engaged ownership of knowledge production.

Another significant lacuna in the research was that the subject of ‘social justice’ in education was approached in a way that failed to engage postcolonial literature, research and scholarship. Yet ‘increasing’ levels of racism as well as economic and social changes cannot be understood without engagement of such scholarship, which challenges dominant ways of knowing about diversity and interculturalism. When taking colonialism as a global project and as the starting point of analysis, “it becomes difficult to turn away from the Western university as a key site through which colonialism – and colonial knowledge in particular – is produced, consecrated, institutionalized and naturalised” (Bhambra et al., 2018, p. 5). Indeed, the university was the site where “colonial intellectuals developed theories of racism, popularised discourses that bolstered support for colonial endeavours and provided ethical and intellectual grounds for the dispossession, oppression, and domination of colonised subjects” (ibid.). As such, the university provided colonial administrators “with knowledge of the peoples they would rule over, as well as lessons in techniques of domination and exploitation” (ibid.).

However, the reproduction of White, Eurocentric ways of knowing in HE has always been a significant focus of critical scholarship. As Han & Leonard (2017) point out, “many colleges and schools of education are predominantly White institutions not only in terms of the faculty and leadership but also in terms of curricular practices and institutional governance” (p. 113). In teacher education and training, “historically White faculty represent the norm in academia and inculcate mainstream knowledge, culture, and curriculum” (ibid.). Scholars advocating for the decolonisation of HE have shed light on “how universities buttress western claims to universalism by reproducing ‘racial colonial particularism/difference’” and “[exert] the exclusive right to ‘police, produce, and possess knowledge'” by “institutionalising the ‘practices of preserving and producing certain types of knowledge while eliminating or erasing others’” (Indelicato & Pražić, 2019, p. 295). Movements to decolonise HE led by students and scholars alike have exceeded “the multicultural agenda of diversifying what is taught and who teaches at universities” (ibid.). To actively ‘decolonise’ the university would necessitate that we actively acknowledge racism, misogyny, ableism, homophobia, and the devaluation of the labour of the racially minoritised. As Gopal notes, “[if] we don’t choose to have difficult and urgent discussions openly, then ‘diversity’ will remain a meaningless buzzword where people’s bodies are included in institutions, but their voices are silenced” (ibid.).



6. Conclusion

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HE institutions are deeply contradictory spaces. As Luykx and Heyman (2013) argue, “[educational] systems in advanced capitalist societies display fundamental tensions between contradictory goals” whereby “[on] the one hand, they enable social mobility, providing democratic access to educational (and eventually occupational) opportunities” and on the other hand, embody one of the “central social mechanisms ensuring efficient production of a stratified workforce (p. 346). Portrayed “as the crucible of cultural citizenship”, however, education settings are typically described as “imbued with a set of “shared values,” such as patriotism, faith in representative democracy, individual responsibility, teamwork, and respect for (limited) diversity” to the detriment of recognising the ways in which these very same institutions constantly reinforce “ideologies of white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy…and the linguistic hegemony of English” (ibid.). The contradictory nature of HE to some extent reflects how (and to some extent explains why), the meaning of social justice is contested, diluted, and co-opted in various ways in the academy. As our discussion above has pointed out, questions of labour and of decolonisation are often missing in discussions about teaching about and for social justice in HE, leading to potentially further fragmentation in shared goals and understandings regarding social justice.

In this light, the review has demonstrated multiple challenges to teaching about and for social justice in HE institutions that are consumer service-oriented, heteropatriarchal and invested in maintaining, rather than fundamentally challenging, white supremacy. We have identified some foundational orientations, which include the identification of education as a political act and the need to clarify one’s own politics therein; engagement of students’ worldviews as partners in learning; and cultivating a critical consciousness that acknowledges the role of power structures in reproducing inequalities.

As noted, there remain significant challenges in relation to how existing teacher education and development programmes/initiatives frame issues around student diversity and broach difficult topics and themes with both early-career educators and tenured faculty. And these efforts are, of course, proven all the more difficult by institutional barriers. Indeed, the challenge of developing foundational social justice orientations remains considerable despite the relative academic freedom that scholars, particularly those in relatively liberal societies, retain. Notions of ‘freedom’ and particularly freedom of speech have been seized upon in recent years by reactionary forces who have no desire to work across coalitions/collectives for social justice goals. While recognising the varied degrees of freedom available to tenured academic workers in comparison to those in precarious academic employment, it is critical to maintaining the ‘passionate intellectual life’ that the SoTL promises that we see our reciprocal acts of teaching, research and service as contributing to something that resists and moves far beyond institutionalised consumer service: to expanding critical social consciousness towards a praxis of positive social change.

Hence, beyond the tendencies to focus on individual teaching techniques, we argue that educators must foremost critically examine their pedagogical orientations and what it means to engage in the intellectual endeavours of academic labour. As Edward Said wrote so presciently more than two decades ago, these are two aspects of our teaching that are intimately entwined. Indeed, for Said,

“Nothing…is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position, which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship. For an intellectual these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits”(1996, pp. 100-101).



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