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Thesis Format



Master of Arts




Clark, Kim.


This thesis examines how K-12 teachers in Ontario navigate the complexities of teaching "difficult knowledge"—topics such as racial and ethnic injustices, Indigenous perspectives, immigration experiences, and gender issues—within the parameters of the school and the curriculum. Utilizing an institutional ethnography approach, the study examines the curriculum as an institutional text that coordinates and shapes teachers’ practices. Working with and against the curriculum, teachers find innovative ways to engage their students on difficult knowledge topics. Based on interviews with 12 K-12 teachers, this research explores teachers’ work and pedagogical approaches. They employ diverse teaching methods like storytelling, open dialogues, and collaborative exercises to explore sensitive subjects. Despite facing challenges such as time limitations and emotional labour, teachers make creative efforts to foster dynamic, open, and inclusive classrooms. The study enriches our understanding of the complex landscape within which teachers operate, influenced by multiple discourses, texts, pedagogies, and lived experiences.

Summary for Lay Audience

This master's thesis explores the experiences of teachers in Ontario in their pedagogical process engaging with “difficult knowledge” within the parameters of the school and the curriculum. In the study, difficult knowledge pertains to the teaching and discussion of painful histories and experiences rooted in historical and social injustices and traumas. Based on interviews with 12 K-12 teachers, predominantly from the elementary level (Grades 1-8), these include topics related to the broader categories of race and ethnicity, Indigenous perspectives and knowledge, immigration experiences, and gender identity and sexual orientation. Using institutional ethnography as a combined theoretical and methodological approach, the study offers an examination of the discursive complexity of the curriculum as an institutional text that coordinates, shapes, and informs teachers’ work. The research concentrates on three primary areas: the types of difficult knowledge discussed, the resources and methodologies employed by teachers, and the institutional tensions they encounter. The study finds that teachers often go beyond the parameters set by the official curriculum to creatively adapt and foster collaborative educational spaces that are inclusive and equitable. They use a variety of teaching methods – from storytelling to open dialogues and varied collaboration – to address difficult knowledge topics within the parameters of the school and the curriculum. The thesis further explores how teachers navigate institutional tensions to address difficult knowledge topics, including time constraints, work dynamics and emotional labour, and the politicization of the school environment. Despite the limitations imposed by institutional processes, the study concludes that teachers engage in creative and collaborative efforts to foster inclusive, open, and dynamic classrooms to confront and integrate difficult knowledge topics. This research contributes to our understanding of teachers’ work experiences as a complex landscape shaped by intersecting pedagogies, discourses, texts, and lived experiences.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.