What every teacher needs to know about teaching for social justice

The marvellous Teach Secondary magazine continue to publish my articles on a regular basis but don’t hold that against them; there are loads of other excellent reasons for reading. Here’s a link to my latest.

The world is not a fair place. Some children are born into advantage; others are not.

Many children in many schools have been raised in an environment where there is access to books, where their parents value reading and education, where there are middle class dinner table conversations about current affairs and abstract concepts. Such young people have an educational advantage from the start – this wealth of cultural capital that is their birthright means that ultimately, it doesn’t matter too much how or what we teach them; the stuff of school will stick, and they will most likely be fine.

Many children in many schools, however, do not share these advantages. Their parents may be need to work two jobs because they’re so poorly paid and just aren’t around to read stories and chat about politics. Maybe their parents grew up in the same kind of disadvantaged circumstances and found school an alien, threatening place. Perhaps they have passed on their suspicion of education and will struggle to help their offspring overcome struggles they may face in school. The experiences these youngsters take to school may help them survive in the neighbourhood they live in, but are less likely to help them relate to an academic curriculum, and so they find it harder to learn. How and what these children are taught is essential if they are to have any agency or choice in the lives they go on to live.

This is the Matthew Effect. So named after Jesus’s observation that, “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Advantage begets further advantage and disadvantage results in ever greater disadvantage over time.

We’re well aware of the gap between the academic performance of children from different social backgrounds, and great efforts have been made to close it. Schools are given ‘pupil premium’ budgets to spend in order to ensure those who begin life with greater social disadvantage do not become further disadvantaged by their time in school – and by and large, these efforts fail.

All too often the experience of children from families of lower socioeconomic status, is that they are penalised for not knowing what their more affluent peers know. What’s often perceived as a difference in children’s ability is actually a difference in the quality and quantity of what they know. If you don’t know something, you can’t think about it. And the more you know about a subject, the easier it is to learn more.

The best way to address a knowledge gap is to ensure that those who know least are given access to the most powerful and culturally rich knowledge in as carefully sequenced and systematic way as possible in order to get them to the same place as their more privileged peers. Instead, we disproportionately crowd ‘bottom sets’ with poorer children and teach them less challenging material at a slower pace, ensuring that if they were not less able beforehand, the certainly become so as a result of their experiences in school.

For children from affluent backgrounds, school is merely the icing on the cake. It’s more or less a luxury and whatever happens there won’t make too much difference to their long-term outcomes. But for others, school is the only environment in which they’re likely to find those with the necessary combination of opportunity, inclination and expertise to do anything about all this. If we leave their education to the vagaries of whim or fad, we will ensure the most disadvantaged are further disadvantaged by our selfish desire for professional autonomy and creative freedom.

Increasingly, there is good evidence both from educational research and cognitive science that what is most likely to benefit children is access to an academic curriculum taught using explicit instruction. By ignoring or disregarding such direction, we betray the needs of the young people who need us most.

16 Responses to What every teacher needs to know about teaching for social justice

  1. Great post, David. And, of course, more knowledge is accessed through reading which is severely hampered for children with severe reading problems. It’s worth noting that 20% of children arrive at secondary school reading well behind their peers. When we look at disadvantaged children, this rises to 40%. Quite staggering, really. I often wonder if solving this problem would be given more urgency if the 40% applied to middle class children. I suspect that the ‘bell curve’ excuse would no longer be mooted as a reason for such failure but, instead, minimum levels of competence would be insisted upon. Until such time, there seems to be much lip service given to addressing the reading problem in secondary school but little action – ‘sticking plaster’ approaches at best. https://thinkingreadingwritings.wordpress.com/2017/09/10/reading-crisis-what-crisis/

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    Virtually all of my teaching experience has involved teaching children (and occasionally adults) from disadantaged homes, and I’m sure that it would be difficult to design a system of comprehensive education less suited to their needs than the one we have now.

    However, we shouldn’t be too complacent about the children of educated parents. Even when the parents don’t have demanding careers and rely upon others to do the heavy parenting, there’s only so much you can do in your spare time. Yes, these children may ‘turn out fine’, at least in relation to the less fortunate, but all children learn far more when they are directly taught and regularly tested to secure learning in long-term memory. As things work now, it is unusual for pupils to amass sufficient knowledge and expertise to make any academic subject interesting enough to pursue independently whilst still in school. Intellectually speaking, they are just as much victims of progressive pedagogy as their less fortunate peers.

  3. David F says:

    Hi David–I struggle with this, and I teach at college prep school. On the one hand, I would love to see an integrated cross-dept reading program in culturally important works…but on the other, aliteracy hs grown to such an extent that I’m happy to see my student read anything at all. According to UCLA’s 50th anniversary edition of its HERI survey of first year college students in the US, 60% of students reported that they don’t read at all or only once in a very great while.

    How should schools respond? Promote pleasure reading? Focus on what’s important with the limited time we have with them? My librarian likes to emphasize student choice over directed reading–I’m not sure that’s the right answer, but if I see students with books in hand, it seems that’s a win regardless.

    Also, the damn devices get in the way amongst all groups! My students struggle not being only in the present moment and, because they don’t even bother reading popular genres, have little to no background in history, politics, law enforcement, etc. And don’t get me started about their poor vocabularies.

    About the only thing they do know in depth is military weaponry from too many hours playing Call of Duty.

  4. Mark Featherstone-Witty says:

    Responding to David F, numerancy and literacy are basis skills. Readiing for pleasure is a bonus and is going to the theatre, but if you don’t, it doesn’t mean you can’t be imaginative and insightful and empathetic.I undertand his point completely. My son hasn’t ever picked up a work of imagination, but consumes on-line debate and op.ed pieces. I suppose what I am saying is that there’s quite a range in that single word ‘reading’.

  5. goddinho says:

    Desperate is one of many adjectives I could use, but I value my job too much to use them!

  6. Naomi says:

    Interested in the different ways the ‘have nots’ are treated in school. There is evidence that teachers’ middle class attitudes and ignorance affect these children badly as soon as they start school. I notice that your choice of syntax suggests how separate you are from ‘the disadvantaged’. You describe affluent homes in assured terms: ‘where there is…’/’their parents value. .’/’where there are…’ – but your phrasing is insecure about those ‘who need us most’ : ‘maybe…’/ ‘maybe…’/’perhaps…’. Until we KNOW more about those working class homes, I’d be wary of deciding how to benefit the children from these backgrounds. Research shows those children arrive at school, as rich in language experience as middle class kids – teachers who don’t recognise this, assume deprivation and treat those children ignorantly – thereby laying down the basic path that leads to ‘bottom sets’. I’d agree about explicit instruction – but with the proviso that it is based on a respect for and interest in what children bring to the classroom, rather than an assumption about ‘the quality and quantity’ that they know.

    • David Didau says:

      Those are very interesting assumptions you’re making Naomi. Wrong, but interesting. You’re reading way too much into my deliberately tentative language.

      I’d be very interested to read the “evidence that teachers’ middle class attitudes and ignorance affect these children badly as soon as they start school.” Can you tell me what this might be and where I can find it? Also the “Research shows those children arrive at school, as rich in language experience as middle class kids” is contradicted by a compelling body of evidence that shows the exact opposite. Could you also let me have a source for this?

      Thanks

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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