Doing difference differently: Frameworks for promoting social change and transformation in schools

Thea Renda Abu El-Haj, University of Pennsylvania


The problem this ethnographic study addresses is the relationship between various ways of understanding "difference" and particular conceptualizations of what might constitute just educational practices for students across lines of social demarcation. Thinking about differences that make a difference in schools, as in society, necessarily beckons forth critical questions about justice. If there were no issues of justice at stake, these differences would not make a difference. This dissertation seeks "constructive" approaches for understanding difference--that is, ways of understanding difference which strive for justice. To do this necessitates also understanding the different ways in which justice is defined and fair practices are conceptualized. A qualitative study of two schools--one public, and one private--in which educators are investigating, challenging and re-negotiating their assumptions and practices in relationship to "difference," grounds the conceptual concerns of this dissertation in the work of actual individuals and institutions. It is the context of social change which allows this study to examine the relationship between discourses about difference and various conceptualizations which institutions and educators hold of just educational practices. Committed to research which supports social change, this project developed out of an affinity for the growing tradition of collaborative, action-oriented and feminist research. Thus, this work is about how we, as individuals, but more importantly as a society, "think" about difference and what implications various ways of conceptualizing difference hold for how we act collectively to seek justice. The major finding of this study is that approaches to building just educational communities were usually bounded by questions about whether treating everyone the same, or treating them differently, would constitute fair practices. However, in failing to examine the norms and assumptions of the dominant society, both of these approaches limit the possibilities for transformative practice. In addition, this dissertation demonstrates how practitioners' work to build schools which are just educational communities was deeply affected by larger economic, political and cultural forces which operated both within and outside the school walls.

Subject Area

Bilingual education|Multicultural education|Curricula|Teaching|School administration

Recommended Citation

Abu El-Haj, Thea Renda, "Doing difference differently: Frameworks for promoting social change and transformation in schools" (1998). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9840165.