Nov. 20, 2017

Social justice as citizenship

Doctoral student explores secondary student participation in school-based student groups

Rae Ann Van Beers wants to better understand children’s rights. Specifically, the doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Learning wants to know how young people understand and enact their rights.

“My passion for children’s rights was ignited when I began teaching in a secondary outreach program in southern Alberta,” says Van Beers.

As the students in the outreach program faced significant barriers in completing their high school education expectations of them were low. Van Beers, who had just completed her Bachelor of Education degree, quickly learned otherwise.

I found them to be generally hard-working, caring, intelligent, rights-bearing individuals who had the ability to fashion their own futures as they saw fit, simply requiring tools, and sometimes encouragement, in order to do so.”

“They taught me that they were not individuals to be pitied and ‘helped’. I still feel humbled that I was given the opportunity to walk that path with them, altering my own life path in the process.”

The path Van Beers has been on led her to a complete a master’s degree and enroll in the PhD program at the Werklund School of Education where she is researching youth participation in school-based student groups.

“In the Alberta educational context, social justice is becoming a significant focus of both curriculum and students’ time. Schools are supporting extracurricular activities for youth to participate in that are assumed to promote social justice ideals. The shifting notions of citizenship that are implied by these changes require an increased understanding of what such groups actually do.”

Van Beers shares some insight into social justice, children’s rights and the importance of including youth in her research.

Q: How do secondary-school students understand/define social justice?
While completing my Masters Degree at the University of Alberta, I began to puzzle over the concept of social justice. I was lucky to work with an organization that provided educational programming to students and teachers about citizenship education and social justice issues. As I facilitated more and more of the sessions that we developed at teachers’ conventions and in junior and senior high schools, I started to wonder about what people believed social justice really meant. It seemed to me that everyone was operating from their own understanding of social justice, causing conversations about it to become confusing, and even heated, at times. Some individuals felt that social justice and charity were basically interchangeable terms, while others believed that problems of inequity required systemic change rather than simply economic parity. My curiosity over the debates that I was hearing about the term social justice, coupled with my ongoing interest in what children and youth have to say about their own lives, led to my PhD research topic, which intends to ask secondary students their thoughts on this very topic.

Q: How do you plan to engage young people in your research?
One of my favourite aspects of teaching at the secondary level was the opportunity it gave to have rather deep conversations with my students about a variety of topics. It was these discussions that inspired me to engage in such conversations more formally through conducting interviews with other Low German Mennonite students about their educational experiences for my Master’s thesis. Not yet ready to leave the notion of doing research with youth behind me, I have decided ask secondary students what they believe the term social justice means and what actions they take in an attempt to live more socially just lives. In an effort to engage them more fully in the research process this time around, I plan to have them develop what I am calling peer-to-peer duoethnographies. This means that will be having a conversation about social justice with one another, rather than simply being interviewed by an adult researcher. Instead of having a handful of interviews as data for the study, as I did for my thesis, the dialogues themselves will be analyzed in order to better understand what social justice means to my participants.

Q: Why is it important to include young people in educational research?
Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child maintains that children and young people have the right to express their views on matters that impact them and to have those views taken seriously. With school being such a significant focus of their lives, students’ opinions about their educational experiences would certainly fall under this category. As Priscilla Alderson (2001) notes, students are already adept at conducting research since doing so is a major part of the everyday lives of children and youth. Their school lives in particular have been an ongoing study in how to develop and hone their research skills. Because they already have this training in various research processes on which to draw, it only makes sense to tap into their stores of knowledge by providing meaningful opportunities for them to share their insights and opinions with the educational research community.

Q: How do social justice and citizenship connect?
It seems to me that at this point the connections between social justice and citizenship are often assumed rather than overtly stated. Social Studies curriculum in Alberta hints at ideas of social justice in the pursuit of educating active, responsible citizens of this province. My past interactions with other teachers suggests to me that educators feel the need to teach about social justice, but are often unsure how to go about it. Change seems to be in the air with the current rewriting of the Social Studies curriculum and with that, an increased focus on social change may give teachers a more clear direction in how to deal with issues of social justice in their classrooms. Once that curriculum is complete and comes into effect, the ties between social justice and citizenship will no longer be assumed. It will then be helpful to know how the acts of citizenship that schools teach their students today influence the citizenship those young people enact in the future.

Q: Why is it important to research this field of study?
Who better to talk to about education than those on the receiving end of it? Hearing about their educational experiences directly from young people can help us to better understand the lessons they are actually taking away from their encounters with schooling. Genuinely listening to their insights can teach us a great deal about how we are doing in our attempts to train and welcome them into society as productive and engaged fellow citizens. At the same time, including them more fully in research processes shows our respect for them as holders of both knowledge and rights.