Teaching for social justice
Teaching for social justice is an educational philosophy designed to promote socioeconomic equality in the learning environment and instill these values in students. Educators may employ social justice instruction to promote unity on campus, as well as mitigate boundaries to the general curriculum. These boundaries often include race, class, ability, language, appearance, sexuality, and gender. Critics' arguments are twofold: there is a lack of evidence supporting the philosophy's effectiveness as either a behavioral or instructional strategy, and secondly, values cannot be explicitly taught, nor should they.


Herbert Kohl
Herbert Kohl (education)
Herbert R. Kohl is an educator best known for his advocacy of progressive alternative education and as the author of more than thirty books on education....

 argues that teachers may be inclined to teach against their conscience
Conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment of the intellect that distinguishes right from wrong. Moral judgement may derive from values or norms...

, limit their methodology, and focus heavily on being good teachers without placing similar emphasis on being good citizens. Overcoming these inclinations is the crux of what he and many other educators call "teaching for social justice".

Other popular educators who have explored the practice of teaching for social justice include John Dewey
John Dewey
John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. Dewey was an important early developer of the philosophy of pragmatism and one of the founders of functional psychology...

, who may have been the first advocate for teaching for social justice when he developed the first theories about technical education and student engagement in the classroom in Democracy and Education.

Following him were George Counts
George Counts
George Sylvester Counts was an American educator and influential education theorist.An early proponent of the progressive education movement of John Dewey, Counts became its leading critic affiliated with the school of Social Reconstructionism in education. Counts is credited for influencing...

, who focused on a democratically-inclusive, socialistic educational model, while Charles A. Beard
Charles A. Beard
Charles Austin Beard was, with Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the most influential American historians of the first half of the 20th century. He published hundreds of monographs, textbooks and interpretive studies in both history and political science...

 and Myles Horton
Myles Horton
Myles Horton was an American educator, socialist and cofounder of the Highlander Folk School, famous for its role in the Civil Rights Movement . Horton taught and heavily influenced most of the era's leaders. They included Dr...

 both provided more individualistic lenses which emphasized teaching for social justice. A variety of social and political theories and backgrounds inform the practice of teaching for social justice. Starting as early as the work of W. E. B. Du Bois in the early 1900s, social activists and educators have called for the realignment of educative practices towards a conscious, deliberative practice of engaging society in fostering justice for all.

After the publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the most widely known of educator Paulo Freire's works. It proposes a pedagogy with a new relationship between teacher, student, and society...

in 1971, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire
Paulo Freire
Paulo Reglus Neves Freire was a Brazilian educator and influential theorist of critical pedagogy.-Biography:...

 became closely associated with teaching for social justice. Freire expounded the belief that teaching is a political act that is never neutral. Over the course of dozens of books, Freire proposed that educators focus on creating equity and changing systems of oppression
Oppression is the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner. It can also be defined as an act or instance of oppressing, the state of being oppressed, and the feeling of being heavily burdened, mentally or physically, by troubles, adverse conditions, and...

 within public schools and society.

The main goal of engaging in social justice through education is to fight oppression by giving all groups the opportunity to receive resources more equally. Esposito and Swain studied urban teachers that promote social justice in their teaching by using culturally relevant pedagogy. Esposito and Swain found that these teachers that engage in social justice through their teaching have to ensure that their students not only thrive academically, but also socially, which can create a burden on educators . By promoting social justice pedagogy, students can increase a sociopolitical consciousness, have a sense of agency, and help students develop a positive social and cultural identity .

Recently teaching for social justice has been built on ethnographic
Ethnography is a qualitative method aimed to learn and understand cultural phenomena which reflect the knowledge and system of meanings guiding the life of a cultural group...

 and discourse research on the complex work of educators, including works by bell hooks
Bell hooks
Gloria Jean Watkins , better known by her pen name bell hooks, is an American author, feminist, and social activist....

, who pioneered a culturally-relevant, critical classroom theory strongly informing teaching for social justice. Ira Shor
Ira Shor
Ira Shor is a professor at the City University of New York, where he teaches composition and rhetoric. In collaboration with Paulo Freire, he has been one of the leading exponents of critical pedagogy.-Biography:...

, Peter McLaren
Peter McLaren
Peter McLaren is a Professor in the Division of Urban Schooling, the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles . He is the author and editor of forty-five books and hundreds of scholarly articles and chapters...

, Henry Giroux
Henry Giroux
Henry Giroux, born September 18, 1943, in Providence, Rhode Island, is an American cultural critic. One of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy in the United States, he is best known for his pioneering work in public pedagogy, cultural studies, youth studies, higher education, media studies,...

, Joe L. Kincheloe
Joe L. Kincheloe
Joe Lyons Kincheloe, , was a professor and Canada Research Chair at the Faculty of Education, McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He wrote more than 45 books, numerous book-chapters, and hundreds of journal articles on issues including critical pedagogy, educational research, urban...

, and Stanley Aronowitz
Stanley Aronowitz
Stanley Aronowitz is professor of sociology, cultural studies, and urban education at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is also a veteran political activist and cultural critic and an advocate for organized labor.-Social Text:...

 have each built upon the contributions of Freire to develop uniquely American critical examinations of culture and society. Michael Apple
Michael Apple
Michael W. Apple is a leading critical educational theorist, recognized for numerous books and scholarly interests, which center on education and power, cultural politics, curriculum theory and research, critical teaching, and the development of democratic schools.He is currently the , at the...

 is remarkable for his democracy-focused project which reinforces the tenets of teaching for social justice. Jonathan Kozol
Jonathan Kozol
Jonathan Kozol is a non-fiction writer, educator, and activist, best known for his books on public education in the United States. Kozol graduated from Noble and Greenough School in 1954, and Harvard University summa cum laude in 1958 with a degree in English Literature. He was awarded a Rhodes...

, Alfie Kohn
Alfie Kohn
Alfie Kohn is an American author and lecturer who has explored a number of topics in education, parenting, and human behavior...

, Susan Searls Giroux, Khen Lampert
Khen Lampert
Khen Lampert is an educator and a philosopher who teaches Philosophy, History, Cultural Studies and Education. He has extensive experience working with children in underprivileged neighborhoods in Israel, both Jewish and Arab....

 and Lisa Delpit
Lisa Delpit
Lisa D. Delpit is an American educationalist and author. She is also an Eminent Scholar and Executive Director of the Center for Urban Educational Excellence at in Miami, Florida and Felton G...

 are among the growing body of modern educational theorists who have also contributed greatly to this practice.

Attention to social justice issues incorporates a broad range of sociological dimensions in teaching, and education more generally, including attention to fairness and equity with regard to gender, race, class, disability, sexual orientation, etc.

Teaching for social justice has a common goal of preparing teachers to recognize, name, and combat inequality in schools and society through culturally relevant pedagogy, anti-racist pedagogy, and intercultural teaching among others . A number of subject specific fields of practice and enquiry in education, including science education
Science education
Science education is the field concerned with sharing science content and process with individuals not traditionally considered part of the scientific community. The target individuals may be children, college students, or adults within the general public. The field of science education comprises...

 and mathematics education
Mathematics education
In contemporary education, mathematics education is the practice of teaching and learning mathematics, along with the associated scholarly research....

 have sub-communities of teachers and scholars working on social justice issues. For example the 2007 special issue no. 20 of Philosophy of Mathematics Education Journal
Philosophy of Mathematics Education Journal
The Philosophy of Mathematics Education Journal is a peer-reviewed open-access academic journal published and edited by Paul Ernest . It publishes articles relevant to the philosophy of mathematics education, a subfield of mathematics education that often draws in issues from the philosophy of...

 is devoted to social justice issues in mathematics education.

Peer relationships

Peer relationships among learners are largely determinant of the outcomes of schools. Methods including cooperative group work
Cooperation or co-operation is the process of working or acting together. In its simplest form it involves things working in harmony, side by side, while in its more complicated forms, it can involve something as complex as the inner workings of a human being or even the social patterns of a...

, and diverse
Multiculturalism is the appreciation, acceptance or promotion of multiple cultures, applied to the demographic make-up of a specific place, usually at the organizational level, e.g...

 group interactions. In the modern educational realm of teaching and learning, students are now seen as active participants in the learning process. Lev Vygotsky
Lev Vygotsky
Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist, the founder of cultural-historical psychology, and the leader of the Vygotsky Circle.-Biography:...

's (1978) social development theory requires students to play untraditional roles as they collaborate with one another. The physical environment of the classroom also plays a role in peer relationships. Based on Vygotsky’s (1978) theory, clustered desks would enable peer collaboration as well as small group instruction. Therefore, the instructional design of material being learned would encourage peer-to-peer interaction. To that effect, the classroom serves as a community of learning.

Teacher relationships

The relationships teachers have with students also affect teaching for social justice. In this sense, parent/teacher relationships are central, as are access to information and resources for all students, understanding the role of youth/adult partnerships in the classroom, and teachers actually learning about students. It is also important for students to understand equity issues in their classrooms. The role of the teacher is to promote learning through facilitation, which can aid in the production of knowledge. Helping students understand how they learn helps students identify their strengths and weaknesses as learners. Through this metacognitive approach to learning, students can also develop new ways to use their strengths in order to improve their weaknesses.


The number of specific classroom issues that affect teaching for social justice are almost countless. Understanding the effects of teachers on student learning is vital, and a teacher cannot teach under the assumption that “equal means the same.” Students come from numerous cultures, languages, lifestyles and values and a monocultural framework will not suit all student needs.

Additionally, teachers need to be critically conscious
Critical consciousness
Critical consciousness, conscientization, or conscientização , is a popular education and social concept developed by Brazilian pedagogue and educational theorist Paulo Freire, grounded in Marxist critical theory...

 and offer students well-planned units and lessons that develop knowledge of a wide range of groups. Curriculum
See also Syllabus.In formal education, a curriculum is the set of courses, and their content, offered at a school or university. As an idea, curriculum stems from the Latin word for race course, referring to the course of deeds and experiences through which children grow to become mature adults...

 building on acknowledgment rather than neglect the experiences of students. Educators can also match students’ cultures to the curriculum
See also Syllabus.In formal education, a curriculum is the set of courses, and their content, offered at a school or university. As an idea, curriculum stems from the Latin word for race course, referring to the course of deeds and experiences through which children grow to become mature adults...

 and instructional practices

In essence, monocultural education creates a context in which schools do not embrace minority students’ cultural knowledge, which includes historical, social, and cultural background experiences. Oftentimes, there is also cultural and linguistic bias factors in the education of minority students. To allude, insufficient teacher awareness of culturally diverse students can create a few misunderstandings in the area of teaching minority students. For example, whenever a mainstream teacher thinks minority student’s behavior is bizarre, rude, or unexpected, it can be a sign of cultural misunderstanding. According to Harper de Jong, “Students who speak a language other than English at home and whose proficiency in English is limited are the fastest growing group of k-12 students in the United States. Unfortunately, well-intentioned efforts to include diverse learners in general education reforms are often based on misconceptions about effective instruction for ELLs. The misconceptions stem from two basic assumptions that guide much current teacher preparation for diversity.” As a result, a teacher may be unaware of the background knowledge of minority students. To this effect, the teacher is unable to help minority students solve daily learning tasks, which can cause any lesson to become meaningless.

Many school districts call for teachers to become critically conscious of diversity in education by offering students well-planned units and lessons that develop knowledge of a wide range of groups. It is also hopeful for teachers’ to understand that culture is a significant driving force in the lives of their student’s learning the English language. Educators can also match students’ cultures to the curriculum and instructional practices. Culturally responsive teaching is a very important element in regards to embracing a diverse students background. The ethnic background of culturally diverse students should not be dishonored in the classroom. Instead, it should be embraced and recognized as an important aspect of ones ethnic identity. There are a variety of learning materials that would aid in the assistance of educating other students to appreciate various ethnic perspectives (i.e. multicultural literature, diverse learning styles and techniques of other cultures, etc.). Geneva Gay draws on the importance that “literature in the classroom would reflect multiple ethnic perspectives and literary genres. Math instruction would incorporate everyday-life concepts, such as economics, employment, and consumer habits of various ethnic groups. In order to teach to the different learning styles of students, activities would reflect a variety of sensory opportunities-visual, auditory, tactile.” With this in mind, it is important for teachers encourage the use of multicultural materials that will not only enhance the learning capacity of minority learners but also mainstream learners.

In actuality, the importance of the nature and role of culture and cultural groups in students’ language and literacy development will help increase student self-esteem. Therefore, it is imperative that teachers incorporate the culture of a student and relate it to the class work. If culture is not incorporated, then minority students will ultimately feel apprehensive and subjugated to a dull educational atmosphere. For example, teachers should dedicate a day out of each month to celebrate the culture of a particular minority student’s heritage. Not only will learning occur, but also a time where heritage speakers can explore communicative activities such as experience sharing from his or her own native country. In essence, this celebration and storytelling will encourage communication, which is a key element to the process of teaching and learning.

Also, the use of multicultural literature books can be used as an essential component to each student’s heritage, which can also be implemented into the curriculum. This is a fascinating method to educate others in the class about their peer’s native background. There are various multicultural trade books on the market that not only educate students, but also strengthen their ability to read and comprehend each student’s heritage background. With a greater appreciation, teachers could design lesson plans for students to understand a traditional custom or event through the use of the following strategies: timelines, dioramas, creative costumes, story reenactment, poster boards, pictures depicting an event, or re-write an ending to a story. Any of these interactive approaches to learning about one’s culture will make the lesson more interesting for minority learners. Some children’s literature, such as historical fiction or stories related to social issues can also be used effectively with older or advanced proficient learners. According to H. Douglas Brown, “Your own language classroom is an excellent place to begin the quest for a more humane world. Our classroom can themselves become models of mutual respect across cultural, political, and religious boundaries.” Therefore, it is noted that educators should not teach based on mistaken belief systems in the teaching of minority learners, but on student ability, needs, and cultural values that will foster a lasting educational foundation on all learners

Relevant organizations

Many universities and colleges have programs focused on teaching for social justice, including the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, The University of South Carolina, the University of Regina
University of Regina
The University of Regina is a public research university located in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Founded in 1911 as a private denominational high school of the Methodist Church of Canada, it began an association with the University of Saskatchewan as a junior college in 1925, and was disaffiliated...

, The Evergreen State College
The Evergreen State College
The Evergreen State College is an accredited public liberal arts college and a member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. It is located in Olympia, Washington, USA. Founded in 1967, Evergreen was formed to be an experimental and non-traditional college...

, State University of New York at Oswego
State University of New York at Oswego
State University of New York at Oswego, also known as SUNY Oswego and Oswego State, is a public university in the City of Oswego and Town of Oswego, New York, on the shore of Lake Ontario...

, Pennsylvania State University
Pennsylvania State University
The Pennsylvania State University, commonly referred to as Penn State or PSU, is a public research university with campuses and facilities throughout the state of Pennsylvania, United States. Founded in 1855, the university has a threefold mission of teaching, research, and public service...

, Swarthmore College
Swarthmore College
Swarthmore College is a private, independent, liberal arts college in the United States with an enrollment of about 1,500 students. The college is located in the borough of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, 11 miles southwest of Philadelphia....

, the University of California, Los Angeles
University of California, Los Angeles
The University of California, Los Angeles is a public research university located in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, USA. It was founded in 1919 as the "Southern Branch" of the University of California and is the second oldest of the ten campuses...

 and the University of Washington
University of Washington
University of Washington is a public research university, founded in 1861 in Seattle, Washington, United States. The UW is the largest university in the Northwest and the oldest public university on the West Coast. The university has three campuses, with its largest campus in the University...

. A number of nonprofit organizations also support the practice in schools, including Mosaic, the Institute for Community Leadership and the Freechild Project
Freechild Project
The Freechild Project is a nonprofit organization focused on creating connections between adults and young people through programs, technical assistance, publications, training, and curriculum. Adam Fletcher is the director, and the project is located in Olympia, Washington...



Sudbury model of democratic education schools maintain that values, social justice
Social justice
Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating a society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being. The term and modern concept of "social justice" was coined by...

 included, must be learned through experience
Experiential learning
Experiential learning is the process of making meaning from direct experience. Simply put, Experiential Learning is learning from experience. The experience can be staged or left open. Aristotle once said, "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them." David A...

 as Aristotle said: "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them." They adduce that for this purpose schools must encourage ethical behavior and personal responsibility. In order to achieve these goals schools must allow students the three great freedoms—freedom of choice, freedom of action and freedom to bear the results of action—that constitute personal responsibility.

In addition, critics contest that the political and ideological priorities of the Teaching for Social Justice movement have little or nothing to do with the actual problems that struggling students face and in spirit harms the quality of the teachers of these students.

See also

  • Anti-oppressive education
    Anti-Oppressive Education
    Anti-oppressive education encompasses multiple approaches to learning that actively challenge different forms of what proponents describe as oppression.-About:...

  • Anti-racist mathematics
    Anti-racist mathematics
    Anti-racist mathematics is a branch of education reform theory that sees a need to form a curriculum to counter a perceived bias in mathematics...

  • Christian theological praxis
    Christian Theological Praxis
    Christian theological praxis is a term used by most liberation theologians to express how the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to be lived in the world.-Description:...

  • Critical pedagogy
    Critical pedagogy
    Critical pedagogy is a philosophy of education described by Henry Giroux as an "educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive...

  • Critical theory
    Critical theory
    Critical theory is an examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. The term has two different meanings with different origins and histories: one originating in sociology and the other in literary criticism...

  • Critical thinking
    Critical thinking
    Critical thinking is the process or method of thinking that questions assumptions. It is a way of deciding whether a claim is true, false, or sometimes true and sometimes false, or partly true and partly false. The origins of critical thinking can be traced in Western thought to the Socratic...

  • Intergenerational equity
    Intergenerational equity
    Intergenerational equity in economic, psychological, and sociological contexts, is the concept or idea of fairness or justice in relationships between children, youth, adults and seniors, particularly in terms of treatment and interactions. It has been studied in environmental and sociological...

  • Reflection
    Introspection is the self-observation and reporting of conscious inner thoughts, desires and sensations. It is a conscious and purposive process relying on thinking, reasoning, and examining one's own thoughts, feelings, and, in more spiritual cases, one's soul...

  • Left-wing politics
    Left-wing politics
    In politics, Left, left-wing and leftist generally refer to support for social change to create a more egalitarian society...

  • Radical Teacher
    Radical Teacher
    Radical Teacher is a socialist, feminist, and anti-racist magazine dedicated to issues of education. It is published triannually by the Center for Critical Education, Inc., a nonprofit organization. It is edited by a collective of nearly 50 individuals....

  • Rouge Forum
    Rouge Forum
    The Rouge Forum is an organization of educational activists, which focuses on issues of equality, democracy, and social justice.- Origins :The Rouge Forum emerged from a series of political controversies within the National Council for the Social Studies during the 1990s...

  • Rule of law
    Rule of law
    The rule of law, sometimes called supremacy of law, is a legal maxim that says that governmental decisions should be made by applying known principles or laws with minimal discretion in their application...

  • Rule According to Higher Law
    Rule according to higher law
    The rule according to a higher law means that no written law may be enforced by the government unless it conforms with certain unwritten, universal principles of fairness, morality, and justice...

  • Service learning
  • Social progressivism
  • Student voice
    Student voice
    Student voice describes the distinct perspectives and actions of young people throughout schools focused on education."Student voice is giving students the ability to influence learning to include policies, programs, contexts and principles."...

  • Student activism
    Student activism
    Student activism is work done by students to effect political, environmental, economic, or social change. It has often focused on making changes in schools, such as increasing student influence over curriculum or improving educational funding...

  • Youth empowerment
    Youth empowerment
    Youth empowerment is an attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including youth and adults....

  • Youth/adult partnerships
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