Social Justice Issues in Education: An Examination of François Bégaudeau’s ‘Entre les Murs’

The film ‘Entre Les Murs’(English Translation: “the class”) is a poignant visualization of social justice issues evident in education. Based on the novel by François Bégaudeau, the film tells the story of a young, white, male, French teacher (François Marin) who has been entrusted with a multicultural class with students of varying cultural, national and intellectual backgrounds. The school itself is situated in a working class, residential district on the outskirts of Paris and is not one to be new to ‘difficult’ students. The storyline introduces conflict between teacher-student relationships, the school curriculum and the student’s cultural capital and illustrates a number of social justice issues. Conflict within the class setting brings about the idea that actions different from the dominant norm of the institution’s hidden curriculum are considered subversive, disruptive and unvalued while the failure to recognize the cultural capital of students results in their oppression and permanent exclusion from the school setting. Poor teacher-student relationships also prevent student agency and power while a ridged curriculum helps to cement students’ disengagement during class. The events and situations within the film’s storyline will be deconstructed in this report, showing stark examples of social justice issues and their implications on schooling.

Throughout the film, issues of student’s behavior and ability are continuously addressed, bringing issues such as cultural capital and the hidden curriculum to attention. Souleymane, a student in Marin’s class, whose bad reputation precedes him, constantly struggles to achieve what is expected of him. Consequently, this rejection of school results in his permanent expulsion. However, this inability to reach the expectations of the school is rather a matter of how the institutional system recognizes and engages the skills and knowledge of its students, or more formally known as their cultural capital. Defined as the cultural knowledge, skills and experiences that people acquire through their lives, a student’s cultural capital can be either recognized or ignored by the school, and is often deemed important by the hegemonic beliefs of society (Densmore & Gale, 2000). It should be remembered that students do not enter the education system with the same knowledge and experiences. This, their virtual schoolbags (that is the culmination of a student’s beliefs, values, ethnicity and knowledge base) may also differ from what is privileged in schools (Thomson, 2002). This results in the marginalization and oppression of students. In this case, Souleymane’s bilingualism (a sign of considerable intellectual ability) is disregarded and goes unnoticed while his difficulty in learning about the ‘imperfect indicative’ is focused and judged upon. As McLaren mentions, a student’s inherited cultural capital can either hold very little value or be reflective of that of the school’s. “Academic performance represents, therefore, not individual competence or the lack of ability on the part of disadvantages students but the school’s depreciation of their cultural capital” (McLaren, 2009, pg. 81).

The control that the education system has on the dominant paradigm of knowledge and behavior is also seen through the existence of the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum is used in schools to promote social control and acceptance of society’s hegemonic values and in turn, the school’s (Densmore et al., 2000). Throughout the film, students are constantly being told to “ask before standing up” “take off your hat” and a number of other actions which reflect the dominant norm. When they refuse to answer a question or sit quietly in class, school teachers believe it to be a behavioral problem and that they have an inability to follow authority. As a result, students are considered subversive and disrespectful and therefore should be controlled. However, this hidden curriculum can unintentionally disadvantage students whose upbringing is different from the social norms and high status knowledge considered by society as important (Groundwater-Smith, 2009). If students see themselves as not being suited to this environment (where their social norms are different from the school’s) they may consequently disengage from the education system and “resign themselves to being less successful…” (Groundwater-Smith, 2009, pg. 81). It is for this reason that teachers should recognize difference in their student’s inherited cultural capital and implement a number of pedagogical practices to help avoid educational alienation of those students whose cultural backgrounds are not particularly valued by the school. Through establishing quality teacher-student relationships, encouraging students to excel at new experiences, setting high expectations and maintaining classroom engagement, teachers will improve their classroom practices to suit students with varying cultural backgrounds (Groundwater-Smith, 2009). It is also important for educators to recognize this different and modify their teaching and be able to integrate this background knowledge into their lessons (Hayes, Lingard & Mills, 2000).

In addition to the school’s limited ability to embrace the cultural capital of its students, the issue of teacher-student relationships is also one which points outs concerns of social injustice in the education system. There is one particularly poignant event within ‘Entre Les Murs’ which makes issues of teacher-student relationships evident. The denunciation of Souleymane by Marin when he states that he has reached his academic limit, strongly shows the teacher as the oppressor and as compliant with the education system’s institutional values. In suggesting that there is no hope, the teacher has ultimately framed Souleymane as the source of the problem and sealed his fate with exclusion. This suggestion by Marin also makes clear that he is unprepared to recognize or follow the spark of Souleymane’s interest as a possible route his future success. In failing to mention the promise the student had shown in the self-portrait project, where the teacher had harnessed Souleymane’s interest in photography to encourage him to achieve, Marin has consequently positioned himself as unable to improve the academic achievement of this student. A teacher’s expectations of what a student can or cannot achieve drastically impedes on their ability to succeed (Groundwater-Smith, 2009). This is amplified when the student is directly aware of their teacher’s inability to see any potential in them and thus believes it of themselves to be a failure. Bernstein-Yamashiro & Noam, considers quality teacher-student relationships to overcome this issue and that they “provide a foundation for many teacher’ pedagogies, and enable students to feel comfortable in their learning environments and motivated to perform well” (Bernstein-Yamashiro & Noam, 2013, pg. 4). While Marin’s classroom is informal and promotes whole-class discussion, similar to that described by Bernstein-Yamashiro et al as a personalized classroom, he is not always successful at validating students as individuals and merely teaches the curriculum as it stands. There are many occasions within the film where the students question Marin’s genuine interest and support for them. Often this results in their reluctance to share their personal stories with him and they consequently become disengaged in both class and assessment tasks. It is clear that within this schooling system, the teacher is dominant and that students are left with a lack of power and agency.

According to Groundwater-Smith, positive and genuine teacher-student relationships can effectively be used to support students and develop the skills and attitudes needed to achieve academic success (Ground-Water Smith, 2009). In order for the teacher to be a change agent and successfully engage their students through such quality relationships, their impressions of what a student can or cannot achieve needs to be disregarded. In essentializing students and placing a ‘limit’ on their ability, their progression through school is likely to be impacted. Therefore it is important for educators to set high expectations for students while providing positive support and guidance. As Debra Haynes states, “students from marginalized backgrounds will often not engage with classroom expectations through fear of failure. Thus teachers need to create classroom environments that take into account ways in which student learning can be supported” (Hayes, 2006, pg. 38). Research by Melissa Newberry also supports this and mentions the importance of quality and caring relationships especially with students whose behavior and ability proves difficult to manage (Newberry, 2010).

In addition to the previous issues of social justice, ‘Entre Les Murs’ acknowledged the existence of an irrelevant curriculum in the education system where predetermined content is taught to all students regardless of their cultural capital. Within the film, students were seen questioning the highly formal and tedious grammar they were being taught. Conflict arose when the students began to argue the usefulness of this metalanguage and consequently began to question hierarchies of cultural authority when they stated that no one uses such vocabulary in their day to day conversations. In response to his students’ obvious distaste to the lesson, Marin simply defended the curriculum and enforced that it be learnt anyway. This oppositional student response to the curriculum clearly shows how students can easily become disengaged with content resulting in the teacher’s view that they simply don’t understand. This then raises the question: Is one ridged curriculum appropriate for all students? According to Burnett, Meadmore & Tait, curriculum and pedagogy must be inclusive of all students regardless of gender, race, or socio-economic status (Burnett, Meadmore & Tait, 2004). By adjusting the curriculum to meet the needs and interest of all students, the teacher may be more able to raise their achievement and engagement levels (Groundwater-Smith, 2009). Within the film there was one successful example of this when Marin encouraged Souleymane to create his self-portrait using images he had taken rather than lengthy paragraphs. In tapping into his interests Marin was able to use assessment as a tool for self-empowerment and to encourage student agency. However, according to many educational researchers, this curricular reform should not be one of agenda change but rather one of continual development in order to lead a more equitable and inclusive education for all students (Connell, 2002; Pudsey, Wadham & Boyde, 2007).

‘Entre Les Murs’ is filled with haunting social justice issues where culturally diverse students rarely receive the support they need to overcome prejudicial pedagogical and curriculum practices. The harsh reality of the implications these practices have on student success, indicate that a number of changes would need to be made in order to provide an inclusive and quality education for all. Through a deconstruction of the film it is clear that the failure of the school to recognixe the different cultural capital of students, strained teacher-student relationships as well as poor curriculum integration have consequent implications on all parties. However, it is important to remember that it is schools and educators who ultimately have the control and are able to make meaningful contributions to student outcomes, helping to rid social justice from the institutional system.

Works Cited

Bernstein-Yamashiro, B., Noam, G. G., & Ebooks Corporation. (2013). Teacher-student relationships: Toward personalized education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

Burnett, B., Meadmore, D., & Tait, G. (2004). New questions for contemporary teachers: Taking a socio-cultural approach to education. Frenchs Forest, N.S.W: Pearson Education.

Connell, R. (2002). Gender. Cambridge, U.K: Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers.

Densmore, K. M., & Gale, T. (2000). Just schooling : Explorations in the cultural politics of teaching. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Groundwater-Smith, S. (2009).Secondary schooling in a changing world. South Melbourne, Vic: Cengage Learning.

Hayes, D., Lingard, B., Mills, M. (2000) Productive Pedagogies. Education Links,60(_), 10-13.

Hayes, D. N. A. (2006). Teachers & schooling making a difference: Productive pedagogies, assessment and performance. Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.

McLaren, P. (2009). Critical pedagogy: a look at the major concepts. In A. Darder, M.P. Baltodano, & R. D. Torres (Ed.), The Critical Pedagogy Reader (pp. 61-83) New York, NY: Routledge.

Newberry, M. (2010). Identified phases in the building and maintaining of positive teacher–student relationships.Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(8), 1695-1703. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2010.06.022

Pudsey, J., Wadham, B. A., & Boyd, R. (2007). Culture and education. Frenchs Forest, N.S.W: Pearson Education Australia.

Thomson, P. (2002). Schooling the rustbelt kids: Making the difference in changing times. Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.