What does it mean to incorporate social justice principles into my teaching?



This is a question I have consistently grappled with and this is despite, or maybe because of, the fact that the values and principles underpinning social justice are never far from what I teach. To be specific, I primarily teach student social workers. Social work as a profession organizes around a core set of values many of which are concerned broadly with social justice in both individual and structural contexts.

For context the values associated with social work are generally divided into two categories, traditional and emancipatory. Traditional values are foundational to the profession and have a long lineage. They are listed here as follows1:
  1. Individualisation;
  2. Self-determination;
  3. Purposeful expression of feelings;
  4. Controlled emotional involvement;
  5. Acceptance;
  6. Confidentially and a…
  7. Non-judgemental attitude.

As will be obvious, these values are generally individual in nature. However, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the development of what have come to be known as emancipatory values in respect to social work. These differed extensively from traditional social work values in that the focus was much more on matters of social justice and challenging structural inequalities.

Much of the emancipatory movement in social work originated in the US and was perhaps reflective of the turbulence of that period there. Academics and practitioners espousing emancipatory values were openly and directly critical of traditional casework approaches. Emancipatory values include:

  1. Equality;
  2. Social justice;
  3. Partnership and…
  4. Empowerment.

A core part of the mission in teaching social work students is to teach about these values and relate them to practice. This is achieved via a range of method such as traditional lectures, case studies, portfolio work and practice placements. At the end of the social work education journey you want students to become professionals who practice with these values to the fore.

But what does it mean to teach about social justice, and is there a difference between teaching about social justice for understanding and teaching about social justice for doing? In the first instance, imparting a strong and robust discourse denoting social work as a value-led profession must almost certainly form part of any social work educative curriculum. However, such a task is not without challenge and this is reflected in some of the literature.

Clifford & Burke (2009) argue that methods relating to the teaching of social work values remain under-developed2. Allen & Friedman (2010) acknowledge the essentialness of imparting social work values to students but argue that a difficulty arises from the fact that the take up of these values is incredibly difficult to assess3.

It is also possible to suggest that there are competing values discourses in social work education that reflective the different sets of value detailed earlier and that this is reflective of the conflicted nature of the profession in general. In fact, the literature consistently highlights the divide that exists between these competing discourses in the form of traditional and emancipatory values.

Mackay & Woodward (2010), writing in Scotland, have recognised this4. They highlight the influence of neoliberal market driven ideologies and managerialism in the formation of social work curricula which, they argue, is reflective of governmental influence on modern social work codes of ethics. They further argue that students, in their experience, consistently do not recognise the more structural components of the social work value-base. Furthermore, they suggest there is a preoccupation among students with individual approaches to values at the expense of structural analysis and critical reflection. This is a point that they are not alone in making and one which was previously made by Price & Simpson (2007) who argue that social work education needs to reclaim sociology in order to best meet the needs of the most disadvantaged5. In a follow-up piece, concerning the same themes, Mackay & Woodward (2012) conducted a small-scale research project where 22 student social workers answered a qualitative questionnaire relating to values6. The results showed that for students, values often remain abstract. Students were also found to have difficulty in articulating around the area of emancipatory values and many struggled to say how they would apply such values in practice. Sayre & Sar (2015) have argued that social justice is a primary value in social work and that this should be reflected not only in what is taught but in how it is taught, particularly where students themselves may be facing inequality and oppression7. In this respect, they argue that by modelling the values that promote social justice they may also be imparted to students and, accordingly, this is perhaps where the answer to the original question is to be found.

As an educator, I strive to incorporate the values of social justice into my teaching practice by modelling them. I try to do this through how I interact with students in respect to their own needs, I try to remain conscious of the different barriers students potentially face in coming to the university and I work to circumvent or where necessary, subvert, these. I also try to challenge student thinking where and when appropriate. In doing so, I try to stay open to learning and being challenged myself. In this way, I aim to incorporate the values of social justice into my teaching in a way that is teaching for the ‘doing’ of social justice and not just for knowing about it.


1. For more, see Biestek, F. P. (1961) The Casework Relationship. London: Unwin

2. Clifford, D. & Beverley, B. (2009) Anti-Oppressive Ethics and Values in Social Work. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

3. Neuman-Allen, K. & Friedman, B. D. (2010) “Affective learning: A taxonomy for teaching social work values.” Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics. 7.

4. Mackay, K. & Woodward, R. (2010) “Exploring the Place of Values in the New Social Work Degree in Scotland,” Social Work Education. 29: 633-645.

5. Price, V. & Simpson, G. (2007) Transforming Society? Social Work and Sociology. Bristol: The Policy Press.

6. Woodward, R. & Mackay, K. (2012) “Mind the Gap! Students’ Understanding and Application of Social Work Values.” Social Work Education, 31(8): 1090-1104

7. Sayre, M. M. & Sar, B. K. (2015) “Social Justice in the Social Work Classroom: Applying a Professional Value to Social Work Education,” Social Work Education. 34(6): 623-635