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‘Just teaching’ or ‘Just’ teaching (a summary)

Article - 13 December 2019

Justice is a central concept in society but one whose meanings are complex and contested.

Justice is a multifaceted concept; we recognise the need for its presence in all aspects of life, it is something we desire, something we think we should do and expect others to do, and yet ironically, something we may fail to adequately describe, understand or enact.

All those years ago Aristotle promoted the need for thinking well to live well; living rationally and intelligently was the purpose of being human, and such leads to a state of human flourishing. In today’s speak we might say that a mindful life leads to high levels of wellbeing. If we add spiritual wellbeing to that equation, we may recognise ideas Aquinas later championed – that the ‘right-minded’, the good, the just person is the one who derives their virtues or values, if you like, from God’s goodness. In this sense, investigation into God’s characteristics and their link to justice is a great place to begin thinking well to live well – and living well requires some thinking about justice, which is a founding concept of communities and of relationships.

In relation to the purposes and processes of Education, it is important to acknowledge that teachers don’t ‘just teach’; they wear numerous hats and must understand a great many varied things in order to teach effectively. Teaching effectively is of importance to the next generation who benefit from teaching that prepares them for life. The effect of an excellent teacher, and equally of an ineffective teacher, should not be undervalued in their helping of students to understand what it is to be a good, a moral, a just human being.

Why Justice matters to Teachers

Justice is important to everyone. Every day we lay claim to the benefits of justice for ourselves, and others, expecting that we be the recipients of fairness, goodness, freedom and democracy. And fighting various causes of injustice in our world.

Inherently we know that justice is done when people are kind, loving, nurturing, selfless, gracious, grateful. Parker Palmer (2010), in The Courage to Teach, acknowledges this in discussing that who we are is how we relate, how we think, how we act. So, it behooves us all to learn more about what justice is, and to better understand how it may be enacted for moral good.

In Palmer’s words, ‘we teach who we are.’ All good teachers want their students to experience goodness and justice, and they desire to enable them to be good and just. Christian teachers will link justice to the God who is just. Such teachers want their students to recognise and experience for themselves, the love of God, and to live in ways that reflect the inherent goodness of God in their world. Essentially this means they will reflect God’s characteristics; and God is just. Justice is inextricably linked to love. In loving us God treats us justly. In loving students, teachers will seek to treat them justly, to engage them in understanding justice, and to assist them to their own actions of justice for one another.

Christian teachers can’t assume justice is done in their schools

Christian teachers do not ‘just teach’- there seems to exist an extra, moral and spiritual, layer of responsibility underpinning teaching practice (James 3:1-2). Pedagogy for Christian teachers must reflect ‘just’ teaching; teaching that is characterised by justice.

Justice, for example, is a key aspect of the transformational purposes of Christian schooling. If Parker Palmer’s (2010, p.2) words, ‘We teach who we are’ are true, then in terms of justice, who we are must be just. Wolterstorff (2006) also reminds us that teaching about justice requires us to teach justly; so how we teach will reflect justice if who we are is essentially just.

Unfortunately, there is no one neat or simple definition of justice. As social critic H.L. Mencken observed, ‘For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple and wrong’. Perhaps acknowledging that there is not an understanding, but multiple understandings, of justice is key to finding a useful working knowledge and understanding for oneself.

It is often the case, also, that where justice is valued, it is passively assumed to be done, whereas it may need more intentional action. My Education Doctoral research showed, for example, that many teachers in a Christian school assumed that justice was being done because Christian schools value justice, but the research revealed passive not active responses to injustice, and a range of injustices within that community. Paulo Freire’s seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, outlines the powerful transformation of a critical approach to learning and teaching that creates intentional understandings and action in terms of justice. The critical thinking tools that Critical Pedagogy offers link directly to the justice aims of Christian education, and the methodology uses of teachers who seek to teach justly. These include:

  • Guided inquiry and other critical thinking methods that facilitate student broad-based and in-depth thinking skills which encourage life-long learning, and authentic learning engagement in aspects of faith and truth.
  • Empowering of the next generation in knowledge and skills, but primarily in attitudes and character qualities that will bring good values, meaningfulness, purpose, justice and hope to their lives and their society.

Teachers hold the key

So, intentional development of understandings about justice enable us all to be people ‘of’ and ‘for’ justice. In loving God, Christian believers specifically must love justice and seek to do justice. As we are just so we may teach justly. In loving our students, we teach justly. Teaching justly requires teacher use of critical thinking skills to develop understandings of justice. As teachers critically understand and engage with justice so they can employ critical methodologies to enable students’ thoughtful and deep understandings about justice. In understanding justice, we better understand who God is and why justice matters. In better understanding and loving justice, we develop our understanding of and love for God.