Repositioning Students in Initial Teacher Preparation: A Comparative Descriptive Analysis of Learning to Teach for Social Justice in the United States and in England

By Cook-Sather, Alison; Youens, Bernadette | Journal of Teacher Education, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Repositioning Students in Initial Teacher Preparation: A Comparative Descriptive Analysis of Learning to Teach for Social Justice in the United States and in England


Cook-Sather, Alison, Youens, Bernadette, Journal of Teacher Education


In considering how best to encourage prospective teachers to reflect critically on their own experiences and perspectives, examine social constructions of privilege and inequality, and work to change classrooms, schools, and society so that they support learning for all students, initial teacher preparation programs rely on social commitments, institutional structures, course content, and pedagogical processes (Cochran-Smith, 2004; Darling-Hammond, 2002; Michelli & Keiser, 2005; Oakes & Lipton, 2007). Rarely considered, however, is the positioning of school students within teacher preparation and how their positioning and participation can inform both prospective teachers' preparation to meet the challenges outlined above and students' own experiences of and critical perspectives on education.

An individual's or a group's position in relation to other individuals and groups has a significant impact on the perspectives, relationships, and experiences of all involved (Bullough & Draper, 2004; Ellsworth, 1997; Gergen, 1999; van Langenhove & Harre, 1999), and it shapes in profound ways the possibilities for learning and change. Therefore, positioning students only as beneficiaries--or victims--of whatever pedagogical commitments and approaches prospective teachers develop is an issue of social justice in and of itself and has as well implications for how we conceptualize and structure learning to teach: Students are stakeholders who have a right to play an active role in the co-construction of their learning, the development of pedagogical commitments and approaches, and the critical revision of educational and social structures.

We therefore suggest that if the responsibility of teacher education programs that teach for social justice is to "work systematically and consciously to help prospective teachers develop empathy and vision that will help them truly 'see' their students, the skills to address their learning needs, and the commitment to keep working for students when obstacles are encountered" (Darling-Hammond, 2002, p. 4), then a focus on social commitments, institutional structures, course content, and pedagogical processes alone is not enough. In addition to those, teacher education programs must ensure that students are not only made visible but also repositioned as active participants in the process of learning to teach for social justice. Such repositioning has an impact on the individual students involved, on students as a group, on the power dynamics between young people and adults, and on how learning is conceptualized and enacted individually and institutionally.

In this article we present a comparative descriptive analysis of two projects, one based in the United States and one based in England, that reposition students as active participants within initial teacher preparation. We begin by defining three terms that provide the premises of our projects and of our discussions of them--social justice, repositioning, and teacher learning. Then, after providing brief explanations of the contexts in which the projects unfold and short descriptions of the projects themselves, we compare the ways in which the projects strive to enact a social justice approach and endeavor to prepare teachers to embrace a commitment to teaching for social justice.

DEFINING TERMS AND PREMISES: SOCIAL JUSTICE, REPOSITIONING, AND TEACHER LEARNING

Noddings (1999) points out that, "A central question for every modern theory of justice is who has a right to what" (p. 8). A fundamental aspect of our working definition of social justice is that all students have the right not only to learn (Brown, 2002; Darling-Hammond, 1997) but also to have a say in how their education is conceptualized and enacted (Cook-Sather, 2002a, 2002b, in press-b; John, 1996; Pollard, Thiessen, & Filer, 1997; Rudduck, in press). This definition responds in part to national policy in the United States and in England. …

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