Putting equity and justice at the heart of the educational agenda: Lessons from the AERA Conference in Chicago

Post from Sean Bracken
The weather in Chicago in April is notoriously unpredictable. The Windy City, chosen as the site for this year’s AERA conference, can one day deliver bitter lake driven winds, a day later the balmy and beautiful warm breezes of summer are served. Taking advantage of the latter halcyon days, I walked from my hotel to the site of the conference situated among the various big named hotels in the midst of the breathtaking skyscrapers some three miles south from where I stayed. On my walks, I’d encounter teachers from early years settings leading groups of children who held onto hand loops on a rope ensuring that no one strayed from the group. A responsible adult led the group to the fore and one held the last of the loops to ensure that all the children were accounted for. Whilst attending many of the conference sessions, it struck me that perhaps our educational systems both in the USA and in the UK might also be in need of careful stewardship particularly in times when dangers to inclusion and equity abound.

Of particular interest to orienting ourselves towards a more just based educational engagement in the UK was a panel presentation of papers which provided a foregrounding analysis to the development of BERA’s manifesto for a Fair and Equal Education for all children. In his response to the various papers informing the manifesto, the eminent Professor Michael Apple called for a resurgence in critically engaged scholarship to counter powerful discourses of performativity and individualized competition in education which hinder equity and justice. There are significant implications for learning and teaching, both at the micro level of the classroom and at the more systematic level of the university and in wider policy development and interpretation. Apple has suggested that as educators there is a need for a more strategic and systematic approach to guide our work. Drawing on some of his more recent publications, he does not shirk the necessity to contribute actively to what he terms a ‘bitter epistemological war’ within which educators must play a critical role if education is to be seen to have a positive impact on shaping our future.

Positive change in the educational landscape can be wrought at many differing and intersecting levels, from students and lecturers working together to envision the type of learning communities they would wish to replicate in wider society, as well as being exemplified by leaders who provide tangible visions for how practices might become more inclusive. Paramount to realizing lasting change is the need for people to working collectively, which may be challenge some existing cultures that reify individual and hierarchical achievements. Whilst working together, Apple identifies some key areas where action can be targeted. Firstly, students and teachers within schools, universities and wider society can bear witness to, and seek to counter, the discourse of negativity, challenging some of the strong narratives which undermine the role of a university education and which seek to reduce the role of teaching to performance indicators. Open debate and awareness raising is critical in this process. If there is a grander epistemological war afoot, there should be consideration given to the nature of the battles into which resources are deployed.

Advancing the concepts of critical dialogue to ensure that an ever wider cohort of colleagues are engaged in meaningful discussion about the directions for university and school-based education is also core to countering non-democratic agendas. These types of discussions can build upon and extend existing critical traditions. For example, at another seminar based on the premise of justice in education, colleagues shared insights from a collaborative Masters in teacher education programme between Waikato University in New Zealand and Boston College in the U.S. Both parties are placing explorative concepts of justice and equity at the heart of the curriculum and areas such as literacy and numeracy orbit this core concept. Additionally, we should benefit from research being shared from within emerging schools which seek to explore how existing taken for granted pedagogical power structures (dare I mention ‘differentiation’ and streaming) may in fact perpetuate and deepen systems which disable access to equity in education.

Apple argues that concern for educational equity is too important for learning and teaching to be the sole preserve of teachers and scholars. There is a corresponding necessity to extend the capacity for others to contribute to discussions in critically aware, meaningful and informed ways. The toolkit required for sharing insights about the equality agenda needs to be extended beyond the preserve of academic voices, so it will include, but should not be restricted to, peer reviewed journals. Using tools for discussion such as Blogs and Twitter may extend the democratic discussion as to how public education contributes to the public good. There is a moral requirement then to carefully extend the writing craft to disseminate a message as to where education can impact on community practice and to ensure that the wider community also participates actively in formulating and sharing ideas about what is good for them. This is especially important while addressing the needs of those who have traditionally been marginalized from active engagement with educational agenda setting. Such initiatives may be disquieting for some of our more entrenched habits as academics to view our work as highly individualized and personal. The argument put forward by Apple is that by illuminating the dynamic capacities for wider collaboration and action we then become models of practice for our students.

Even as climate change makes our own weather patterns ever more unpredictable here in Worcester, I feel having listened to some of the many inspiring collaborative seminars shared in Chicago over the past week, that the young children who sought guidance from their elders as they walked through the city will be assured a more certain and caring future. It appears to me that there is a growing body of educators who are genuinely concerned about the need to take charge of policy and practice agendas by putting equity meaningfully to the fore of learning and teaching. There are indeed reasons to be hopeful and engaged.

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One thought on “Putting equity and justice at the heart of the educational agenda: Lessons from the AERA Conference in Chicago

  1. Hi Sean really enjoyed your post about education in the Windy City. Very interested about your points about the trends in the reductionist stance with respect to “quantifying” learning. It seems quite disturbing that there is a growing trend to try to distil high quality T&L down to mere numbers. Obviously resonates with the large multi-centre trials going on in the UK at the moment. Anyone who has ever tried to teach tired children on a windy Friday afternoon, might no doubt the efficacy of this approach. Karen Blackmore

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