Dissertation Spotlight graphic
Dissertation Spotlight

Dissertation Spotlight: Teachers’ Perceptions & Practices in Social Justice Education for Young Children

By The Room 241 Team January 23, 2019

At its core, social justice in education is about learning how we can make positive changes in our communities. Tina Lageson, EdD, is a kindergarten teacher at Glencoe Elementary School in Portland, Oregon and she is passionate about this topic, especially when it comes to young children. “There is a misconception about the ability level of young learners,” says Lageson. “We tend to shield young children from topics that other children live through. For example, in my classroom, we have discussed houselessness and racism from a child’s perspective. As educators, we need to show young children that their experience is not the only one that exists. Exposure to other life experiences builds empathy and compassion for others that is essential in adulthood.”

Lageson earned her BS in Early Childhood Education, her MEd in Curriculum & Instruction: Reading Interventionist, and her EdD in Transformational Leadership from Concordia University-Portland. She focused on social justice in education for her dissertation entitled, “A Qualitative Case Study of Teachers’ Perceptions and Practices in Social Justice Education and the Perceived Implications for K‒2nd Grade Children.” Let’s see what Lageson’s case study revealed.

Purpose and framework

The purpose of Lageson’s study was to understand how teachers who teach students in kindergarten through second grade perceive social justice and how they use those perceptions to implement social justice concepts in their teaching. She was also interested in learning how the children responded to those lessons and whether or not they understood the concepts and could apply the knowledge they had gained.

Lageson’s focus revolved around two primary questions:

  1. How does instruction on social justice concepts impact early grade learners in a classroom setting?
  2. How does this instruction influence learner perceptions regarding their role in society?

As part of her dissertation, Lageson defines terms and concepts including empathy, tolerating diversity, recognition of differences, and global citizenship. Her goal was to create a base of knowledge that allows the reader to understand the depths to which she strived to reach in terms of understanding social concepts and the justices that often accompany each one.

Lageson provides a framework based on social justice concepts and the methods used by teachers to instruct the students. She interviewed both parents and teachers and observed the teachers in their classes. Her observations allowed her to see first-hand how some of the teachers were creating a unique learning environment that not only expanded the children’s knowledge but encouraged them to become participants in conversations and activities.

While there were several limitations that were beyond her control throughout the study, Lageson addressed many of the internal factors to keep the study as valid and concise as possible. Any interaction with the students was only with the permission of the parents. This placed restrictions on the data that could eventually be collected. With that being said, the duration of the four-month trial produced enough data for Lageson to complete her dissertation and make powerful conclusions on how teaching social justice concepts to young children has a positive impact on both them and their ability to be active members of society.

Examples of social justice education from Lageson’s study

One of the teachers Lageson observed, Debbie Marie, created what Lageson referred to as a “macro-level of social justice” in her classroom. This allowed her to expose her students to social justice concepts in a new and unique way. Critical questions were encouraged and she urged the children to continue the learning process by offering the materials they need to find the answers on their own and share them with other students and the community. This eventually branched out to include ecological justice as well.

Other teachers worked to build positive classroom environments by using restorative justice concepts. Circles were created where students were encouraged to speak from the heart, respect those who are talking, and trust themselves to know what needed to be said. A variety of issues were addressed in this manner, including immigration, race, gender, and economic injustice.

Key findings

Lageson’s results indicate that teachers believe their students should have access to education that maximizes the child’s potential, no matter what their age. It is Lageson’s hope that teachers can use the study as a guide to assist them in providing their students with a more well-rounded educational model to help teach social justice to students in the earliest grades.

Her findings also show that teachers can see how the concepts of social justice can empower children to speak up about powerful issues. In her study, Lageson notes that teachers began to identify students as being capable participants who had a valuable opinion and perspective of the world around them and their place within that model. Those teachers also saw that by promoting social justice, they were encouraging children to take action and to move toward positive solutions in situations where diversity had the potential to divide the group.

Teachers who taught through hands-on learning techniques created experiences in which the child began to follow a path that led them to want to continue to learn more. These interactive learning moments also encouraged students to critically analyze information, leading them to a deeper understanding of the world around them.

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