Teaching for social justice? Or social work? Ghanaian student teachers’ perceptions of a teacher’s role in a rural community.

Alison Buckler, The Open University

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

Earlier this year I blogged about a new research project I’m working on which is trying to understand student teachers’ perceptions of themselves as agents of social justice in low income countries. The research stems from the increasingly worrying body of evidence which suggests that millions of children across the world are spending several years in school, yet learning nothing.

In Ghana, for example, 65 per cent of school leavers are not proficient in basic literacy or numeracy. Those who fail to learn are predominantly those from the least developed areas, poor and rural households, ethnic minorities, children with disabilities, and girls.

Across academic literature too, quality education is being redefined as a process that combines access and learning to enable the pursuit of valued capabilities and enable them equally within a chosen setting.

In both the political and theoretical sphere, the role of the teacher is receiving greater attention than at any other point in the Education for All (EFA) era. Teachers are increasingly positioned as agents of social justice, and expected to play a greater role in mitigating the impact of these multiple disadvantages that prevent children accessing, and benefiting from, education.

In June I carried out a small-scale study in a College of Education in Ghana to explore student teachers’ perceptions of barriers to school access and learning. A social justice attitudes survey was returned by 113 first and second year student teachers, and ten of these participated in follow-up interviews. The purpose was to understand more about their motivation and anticipated agency to remove these barriers.

Motivation to remove the barriers was fairly high:

  • 82% of student-teachers agreed with the statement ‘teachers should try and improve communities’;
  • 87% agreed that ‘teachers should challenge discrimination in schools and communities, even if it makes people uncomfortable’;
  • 97% of the student-teachers agreed that ‘teachers have a moral responsibility to treat children fairly and equitably’.

The responses to statements in the survey that were designed to capture their perceived agency to remove these obstacles, however, show a slightly different picture:

  • 54% thought that it would be difficult to change existing practices in a school;
  • 45% thought that more boys would transition to secondary school than girls, no matter what they did to address the situation;
  • Student-teachers expressed high levels of anxiety about teaching in a rural school (60% felt ‘very anxious’);
  • 40% felt that the challenges faced by rural pupils would influence the way they taught: the data suggests that student-teachers are twice as likely to use rote learning methods in rural or under-resourced schools, than in urban or well-resourced schools.

There also appeared to be a sense of inevitability about the challenges faced by rural children, and a separation between their perception of teachers’ roles as educators and as social workers. The student-teachers wrote and spoke passionately about injustices in schools and communities, and their intentions to address these, but only 5% of the responses to the survey-question ‘what prevents children learning in schools in Ghana?’ pointed to teachers. These quotes from the interviews illustrate this further:

‘I see myself as a sort of ambassador for modern ways… I see myself negotiating girls’ rights with chiefs – I think I could really make a difference there’ (Y1 male)

‘I don’t really want to be a teacher, I want to be a writer or a journalist – maybe for an NGO – and teaching is the best way of getting experience in community work and documenting the challenges that exist for people’ (Y1 female)

‘Subject knowledge is less important in the rural areas, out there teachers just need to know the basics… getting the children to come to school is the main thing… when they’re there, that’s a different story’ (Y2 female)

At the college, lectures on education for children with special needs and disadvantaged backgrounds are not integrated with lectures on subject teaching. In the survey, 45% of student-teachers felt that this was a positive thing ‘because those children are the minority so you need to know how to teach the majority first and then learn how to work with those other kids(Y1 male).

The student-teachers did appear to see themselves as agents of social justice, but saw this work taking place outside the classroom; they envisaged their contribution to local development taking place around the edges of the learning experiences they imagined they would create for their pupils, rather than through them.

As the third quote suggests, helping disadvantaged children is expected, actually ‘teaching’ them is a ‘different story’. The next phase of this study intends to explore how student-teachers’ views about themselves as agents of social justice are embedded or disrupted by institutional and pedagogical processes within a pre-service teacher education programme. This ongoing research aims to better understand this ‘different story’ and how it is told and understood across the teacher preparation experience.

This study was presented at the BAICE Conference at the University of Bath, 8th-10th September, 2014. Slides from the presentation will soon be available on the BAICE website.