People & Research: Birgit Schaffar-Kronqvist focuses on ethical questions in education and building fair and equal communities

The AGORA Research Centre brings together a wide diversity of researchers and research groups interested in current issues of social justice and equality in education. Here we will present their research. This time, we introduce PhD Birgit Schaffar-Kronqvist.

What are your research topics?

My research is concerned with ethical questions in education. I have worked in quite different educational settings, from the didactics of philosophy to vocational training, from early childhood education to university teachers and leaders in educational. In all these contexts, I have addressed issues about what it could mean to understand education as an ongoing (ethical) question to the subject and the community. In what way do I and my community need to strive for more (scientific, factual) knowledge, (embodied) skills and (practical ethical) wisdom in order to enhance our possibilities of living together in a world with limited resources?

How does your research relate to issues of social justice and equality?

For me social justice in education starts in the concrete classroom setting. The teacher’s ability to initiate a beneficial and safe learning environment for all students is central. Everyone’s voice should be heard. That means teachers have to handle quite different tasks simultaneously throughout the activities of the day. How do you engage everyone in the shared classroom-activity? How do you encourage the ones who are rather shy to make themselves heard? And how do you give enough space for those who have a lot of thoughts to share? In a recent project, I worked with colleagues on how to raise early childhood teacher’s awareness about how to better listen to children and their often quite philosophical questions about everything between life and death, the world and the universe. In a similar way, I work with class-teachers to inspire discussions about how to establish a classroom environment that is hospitable to such approaches. According to the didactical methods that are used in “philosophy for children” (google it J), I strive to establish and teach teachers how to build a community of inquiry with children in their classrooms.

On a more conceptual level, I have e.g. written about the question whether a teacher is allowed to take a stand in different ethical questions, or about human rights in vocational education and training.

Tell us something about your latest/current research?

One of my recent texts is a chapter that I wrote together with a colleague from the University in Oslo, about the Means and Meanings of Research Collaboration in the Face of a Suffering Earth. We elaborate on the difficult balance between the need for academics to physically meet, i.e. to frequently fly, in order to collaborate, exchange and develop thoughts, while this is at the same time one of the most obvious threats to our environment. Digital tools (video-calls, online-conferences) are developing in a promising way. However, technology can neither bridge every aspect of presence that is at work in a face-to-face-meeting nor is technology “neutral” in its ways how it is framing and shaping communication and collaboration.

I have also worked on articles that critically analyse the notion of competence. During the last 30 years “competence” has taken the place of other notions, such as Bildung, knowledge, or qualification, which had been used in educational theory to discuss the aims of education. My main critique is that the notion of competence has very different and broad etymological meanings, which makes it complicated to communicate about competence in theory and policy. At first sight, everyone is able to find their own ontological understanding captured. But in the long run communication about competence is confusing. The problem is that in confusing situations, it will be powerful actors and structures that set the agenda of what competence is and should be about.

Another, long-lasting project is a book, that I am currently writing in Swedish for a broader public about the risk of instrumentalising teachers, students and educational institutions. I try to point out a certain rhetorical structure that tries to convince us that we should adapt to seemingly unchangeable necessities, developments and global trends. I argue that as educators, we should not accept such a rhetoric of adaptation when it comes to structures that are human-made. Education is an endeavor that strives to enable people to critically analyse their situation in order to liberate them - us! Education enables us to gain knowledge, skills and wisdom to address urgent issues and to make active use of our possibilities to change things.

What kind of discussion would you like to initiate with your research?

For me it is important to not only discuss with my academic colleagues in many different places in the world. I frequently publish for and give presentations to the general public and to educational professionals. Education raises questions that are necessary to discuss both in order to understand ourselves as individuals, as members of communities and as citizens of democratic societies.

Published 14.4.2021