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Blog post Part of special issue: Reimagining a curriculum for teacher knowledge

Towards an understanding of curricular justice: A provocation

Martin Mills, Centre for Teachers and Teaching Research, UCL Institute of Education

There are a number of premises that underpin this think piece about ‘reimagining a curriculum for social justice’. They include the assumptions that we need an education system with broad purposes – committed to benefitting society and individual wellbeing beyond academic outcomes – and that a rich, socially just curriculum is central to that. I want to draw on the work of Nancy Fraser to suggest what this curriculum might look like.

For Nancy Fraser,

‘justice requires social arrangements that permit all to participate as peers in social life. Overcoming injustice means dismantling institutionalised obstacles that prevent some people from participating on a par with others, as full partners in social interaction’. (Fraser, 2010, p. 16)

Inhibiting this parity of participation are economic, cultural and political injustices. Such injustices are brought about through an unequal distribution or resources and social goods, by various forms of discrimination and through the denial of a voice in key decisions impacting upon one’s life. The solutions are respectively redistribution, recognition and representation.

‘In a distributive sense, taking a high-quality curriculum as a social good, a just arrangement is one in which all students experience the same quality social good. This can only come about through a common curriculum.’

In a distributive sense, then, taking a high-quality curriculum as a social good, a just arrangement is one in which all students experience the same quality social good. This can only come about through a common curriculum. This does not necessarily mean that curriculum content is identical in all locations, but that all students experience a curriculum with common features. Within such a curriculum, all young people will be exposed to important disciplinary concepts; will be challenged intellectually; will be introduced to new and wondrous knowledge that they would not otherwise have encountered; and will come to see that knowledge is socially and politically constructed. The place of the canon in this is, of course and as always, a matter for serious discussion in relation to social justice. The work of Michael Young (2008) on powerful knowledges, and of Raewyn Connell (1993) on curricular justice, are good starting points for such discussions.

A just curriculum is also one that does not erase difference, but has ‘recognition’ as a central tenet. Such a curriculum belongs in the kind of common school described by Fielding and Moss which, they argue, ‘starts from a profound respect for otherness and singularity and a desire to experiment, to create new knowledge and new projects… [and has] a distinctive identity and [is] a place that welcomes and nourishes diversity’ (2011, p. 88). A common high-quality curriculum then would regard ‘recognition’ and the importance of making the curriculum meaningful to young people a central concern of curricular justice. In so doing it would draw and build upon the background knowledges of the students and their communities; it would acknowledge the ways in which culture shapes worldviews (for example, did Britain ‘discover’ or ‘invade’ what are now Australia, the North Americas and New Zealand); and it would make connections to the world beyond the classroom – often through the use of problem-based assessment. It would also not shy away from contentious issues, despite occasional backlash – one only has to think of the various reactions to teaching about LGBT+ issues and attempts to address homophobia through the curriculum to see how such backlashes can make life difficult for teachers and their schools.

A socially just curriculum would also be concerned with representation – with ensuring that the voices of teachers, students and their communities are heard in the creation of curricula. A process of ‘community curriculum making’ (see Leat and Thomas, 2016) is one example of how such negotiations can take place. Leat and Thomas suggest that, among other attributes, community curriculum-making projects emanate from students’ curiosity and draw upon the local community’s resources. As such, the enacted curriculum created through this process is, though led by teachers, negotiated with students and their communities. Such a curriculum would also seek to demonstrate the ways in which young people can have an impact on the worlds they inhabit, through the enhancement of active citizenship.

Raewyn Connell has made the observation that ‘[t]he issue of social justice is not an add-on. It is fundamental to what good education is about’ (1993, p.15). This is most certainly true of the curriculum. We need to ensure that young people from marginalised backgrounds do not get a lesser curriculum than those from privileged backgrounds. We need to make sure that difference is recognised and valued, and that those who are most often marginalised from curriculum-making decisions are instead engaged in making those decisions. These three areas of justice overlap, and at times may appear to be in conflict with each other. Enacting a socially just curriculum thus requires teachers who are knowledgeable about curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, reject deficit constructions of young people, and have deep commitments to and understandings of social justice.


Connell, R. W. (1993). Schools and social justice. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Fielding, M., & Moss, P. (2011). Radical education and the common school: A democratic alternative. London: Routledge.

Fraser, N. (2010). Scales of justice: Reimagining political space in a globalizing world. New York: Columbia University Press.

Leat, D. & Thomas, U. (2016). Productive Pedagogies: Narrowing the Gap Between Schools and Communities? FORUM, 58(3), 371–384.

Young, M. (2008). Bringing knowledge back in: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education. London: Routledge.

Author’s note

Ideas for this piece have been taken from the following sources.

McGregor, G., Mills, M., te Riele, K., & Hayes, D. (2015). Excluded from school: Getting a second chance at a ‘meaningful’ education. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 9(6), 608–625.

Hayes, D., Mills, M., Christie, P. & Lingard, B. (2006). Teachers and schooling making a difference: Productive pedagogies, assessment and performance. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Mills, M., Goos, M., Keddie, A., Honan, E., Pendergast, D., Gilbert, R., Nichols, K., Renshaw, P., & Wright, T. (2009). Productive Pedagogies: A redefined methodology for analysing quality teacher practice. Australian Educational Researcher, 36(3), 67–87.

Mills, M., Keddie, A., Renshaw, P., & Monk, S. (2017). The Politics of Differentiation in Schools. London: Routledge.