Developing teachers as agents of social justice in low-income countries

This post is shared from the OU’s Education Futures blog.

Alison Buckler, The Open University

As an academic in the newly formed International Education and Development research group at the Open University, I’ve been thinking a lot about social justice recently. I’ve been particularly interested in the suggestion in UNESCO’s latest Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report that teachers need to be better trained in order to support the most disadvantaged children.

In low-income countries, while primary school enrolment and completion rates have rocketed over the last decade, significant numbers of children – literally millions – are not proficient in basic literacy and numeracy after several years of schooling. Those who fail to learn are predominantly from the least developed areas, poor and rural households, ethnic minorities, children with disabilities and girls. It is increasingly understood – although much more research is needed – that different aspects of disadvantage interact to negatively impact on children’s regular access to school and on their learning, and it is increasingly suggested that teachers could play a greater role in mitigating this impact.

A few months ago I returned to some of my PhD data to see if any of the teachers’ narratives resonated with what I was reading. My PhD was – among other things – an ethnography of women teachers’ lives in rural Sub-Saharan African communities and much of the data I collected was around their perceptions of their role as teachers and what they considered to be valuable pursuits in their work. I was particularly struck by these two quotes which come from the same newly-qualified teacher, working in government school in a village in Ghana:

These children really need help. They don’t see a future for themselves. You ask them what they want to be and they don’t know. One will say taxi-driver, maybe two will say teacher. That is all they see. They should want more… I try to help them see that there is more than this

It’s time consuming to use new methods with [these pupils] especially when they are so often absent and working [on the farms], so I do take the easy way with them and lecture them. I think I’ll use [the new methods] when I work in the town and the children are more motivated to learn

These quotes demonstrate how access and learning can be intertwined in disadvantaged areas. They imply, for example, an awareness of obstacles to equitable participation and a motivation to help the disadvantaged children. However, it is possible that her approach to teaching her pupils reinforces the inequity of their educational opportunities.

I’m currently developing a study that intends to explore these issues in more depth. I’m especially interested in the extent to which teachers consider themselves to be agents of social justice and earlier this month I returned to Ghana to test out these ideas in a college of education. The majority of prospective teachers in Ghana study at these colleges, working towards their Diploma in Education (Dip.Ed) which is the minimum qualification for teaching at the primary level. The three year programme consists of two years in the college studying subject knowledge as well as teaching theories and methods, followed by one year working as a practice teacher in a school. One hundred and twenty student-teachers returned a questionnaire designed to capture their attitudes to discrimination and social justice and their perceptions of their agency in terms of pursuing social justice.

A preliminary analysis of the questionnaire data has found that 87 per cent of first year student-teachers are excited about the prospect of teaching disadvantaged children, and 72 per cent feel confident that they can help them to succeed. Other research with newly qualified teachers, however (including my own), suggests that they feel far from agentive in their ability to positively influence disadvantaged children’s lives.

The focus of my developing study, therefore, is on the college experience. It is interested in the views around social justice that student-teachers bring to their teacher education and adopts a Vygotskian approach to exploring the learning environments and social contexts of teacher preparation programmes to understand how these views are embedded or disrupted by institutional and pedagogical processes within them. I am especially interested in the transition from the college-phase to the teaching-practice phase, where I hypothesise that much of the enthusiasm demonstrated by the first year student-teachers in the questionnaire data will be tested by the realities of the school experience.

While there is a broad body of literature that attempts to understand the preparation of teachers as agents of social justice in high-income countries, I am hoping to contribute towards a culturally nuanced understanding of teachers’ developing capability to dismantle frameworks that reinforce inequality in low-income countries. Such an understanding is crucial if teacher preparation programmes are to more fully realise teachers’ potential to promote more equal opportunity for the world’s most disadvantaged children.

I’m in the process of carrying out a more detailed analysis of the questionnaire data from the pilot study. I’ll share some of the highlights soon.

About Alison Buckler

I have worked at the Open University since 2006. For seven years I was a researcher for the Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA) programme, which creates and supports the use of open educational resources for teachers and teacher educators. My PhD, which was awarded in 2012, developed a model of professional capability for women teachers in rural Sub-Saharan African schools. I am currently developing a study that focuses on social justice in colleges of education.

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