What in the World is Social Justice?: A Phenomenographic Study of Queensland Final Year Pre-Service Secondary Social Science Teachers' Conceptions of Social Justice

Lawrence Di Bartolo (2008). What in the World is Social Justice?: A Phenomenographic Study of Queensland Final Year Pre-Service Secondary Social Science Teachers' Conceptions of Social Justice PhD Thesis, Education, The University of Queensland.

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Author Lawrence Di Bartolo
Thesis Title What in the World is Social Justice?: A Phenomenographic Study of Queensland Final Year Pre-Service Secondary Social Science Teachers' Conceptions of Social Justice
School, Centre or Institute Education
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2008-12
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Professor Martin Mills
Dr Gloria Dall'Alba
Total pages 343
Total black and white pages 343
Subjects 13 Education
Abstract/Summary This thesis is concerned with the concept of social justice. It is a concept increasingly used in educational literature, yet infrequently well theorized. However, if one of the key aims of education is the development of active and informed citizens who will work to further democratic processes and thereby a more just society, then teacher educators and policy makers need to develop in pre-service teachers a well considered sense of justice and a desire to teach for social justice. The problematic here is the highly contested nature of the meaning of social justice. Given the lack of a universally agreed upon understanding of what social justice means, a useful avenue of research is how do teachers, who are meant to carry out the above aims of education, understand social justice and what are possible implications of these understandings? Research of this nature is rare however, it is argued here that such research is important as the manner in which teachers understand social justice will have implications for the way in which they teach, the content they choose to present to their students, and their view of what a just society may look like. Accordingly, the aim of this thesis is to explore the understanding a sample of final year secondary pre-service teachers studying Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE) in a School of Education in a university in the State of Queensland, Australia, have, of the concept of social justice. The range of understandings of social justice held by this sample of pre-service teachers are then evaluated against a well known but infrequently well articulated (within the educational context) theory of social justice, that is, Justice as Fairness by John Rawls. Pre-service secondary teachers of SOSE, that is, social science teachers, were chosen for this research on the basis that it is they, who, by the nature of their subject disciplines, for example, history, geography, sociology, economics and political philosophy, are most likely to have greater opportunities to engage with issues of social justice, citizenship, and democracy within their teaching. Based on this assumption, teachers of SOSE should possess a greater knowledge of social justice compared to other teachers. While the focus of this research is on pre-service teachers of SOSE, it is incumbent on teachers of all discipline areas to work towards developing active and informed citizens who will work to expand and support democratic processes, as set out in the aims of education. As such, this research is relevant not only to social science teachers, but rather to all teachers. In order to carry out the above aim I modify and breakdown the complexity of Rawlsian theory to a number of more easily understood aspects or focal points of social justice and argue that the resulting conceptual framework is in line with both the aims of education previously stated and the widely accepted belief of Australia as an egalitarian society. Such a task, which has not previously been done within an educational context, seems timely as under the dominant neo-liberal ideology and the increased prominence given to difference theorists of social justice, issues of economic equality appear to have fallen off the agenda in recent governmental and educational social justice research and discourse. A phenomenographic research approach was used to ascertain the range of understandings a theoretical sample of 15 final year pre-service secondary teachers of SOSE had of social justice. Data were obtained from one-off semi-structured interviews. Phenomenographic research typically groups the pre-service teacher‟s responses into different categories or understandings of social justice. In this study, pre-service teachers displayed three qualitatively different ways of experiencing or understanding social justice. In brief, they characterized or understood social justice as: (1) providing equal opportunity; (2) as providing equal participation; or (3) as active citizenship. These categories may then be hierarchically arranged against the previously constructed Rawlsian framework. For example, in Category 3 (active citizenship), pre-service teachers understanding of social justice had more in common with the Rawlsian framework (indicating a deeper understanding of social justice) than either Category 1 or 2. Accordingly, Category 3 was ranked the highest under the above criteria followed by Category 2 and then Category 1. When compared with the Rawlsian framework, pre-service teacher‟s understandings of social justice were found to be lacking by varying degrees between the three categories in three key areas: social justice as a focus on structural inequality; social justice as a focus on a more egalitarian society; and social justice as a focus on active citizenship and the promotion of democratic processes. The implications of these omissions are discussed in terms of teaching for social justice, and promoting a more just and democratic society. In particular, the egalitarian nature of a Rawlsian framework directs future educational research, policy engagement, and teacher education on social justice to issues of poverty and inequality and their impact on the educational outcomes of low-income students in Australia and on the direction in which Australian society is heading. Accordingly, a case is made for the use of a Rawlsian framework of social justice in teacher education courses. However, such a framework is not to be regarded as the end point to debates of social justice, but as a useful starting point to a more substantive engagement with issues of social justice as they may apply to pre-service teacher education, and educational research and policy.
Keyword pre-service teachers, teaching for social justice, inequality, Rawls, active citizenship

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