Teaching for social justice

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Teaching for social justice is a philosophy of education centered on the promotion of social justice, and the instillation of such values in students. Its overarching aims are to equip learners with the skills and experiences necessary to promote social change and to increase equality among individuals. Rather than a distinct subject with a set of objectives and standards, teaching for social justice is a way of teaching that, when done correctly, should weave into all subject areas. Critical thinking, open-mindedness and exposure to different perspectives are the three skills paramount to the successful teaching of social justice (Nieto, 2004). 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.

When effectively implemented, social justice should provide equal learning opportunities for all students, help foster respect among individuals, and create individuals who are empowered to not only notice, but challenge the inequalities and injustices in society (Levinson, 2009).

While enjoying some popularity in teacher training programs, teaching for social justice has also provoked criticism. 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 be.[1][2]


Early educators who influenced teaching for social justice include John Dewey, George Counts, who focused on a democratically inclusive, socialistic educational model, Charles A. Beard and Myles Horton, and W. E. B. Du Bois. A variety of social and political theories and backgrounds inform the practice of teaching for social justice. The writings of John Rawls, Friedrich von Hayek, and Robert Nozick have also had some influence.


After the publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1971, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire 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 within public schools and society.[3]

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.[4] 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.[4]

An important component of teaching for social justice is learning to recognize the difference in people and their backgrounds. Merely trying to become more equal is not enough. While fighting oppression is important, it is crucial to not treat everyone exactly the same, or to respond as if those differences are only individualistic. As soon as that happens we run the risk of losing sight of “institutional inequities and historical power imbalances.[5] In fact seeing diversity and difference in our students can be a valuable resource. As long as it is accompanied by an “acknowledgment of the continuing and painful legacy of colonialism and other forms of oppression.[5] Embracing our diversity is the real way to equity. It is important to not pretend that we are all the same, because that is simply not true.

Recently teaching for social justice has been built on ethnographic and discourse research on the complex work of educators, including works by bell hooks, who pioneered a culturally relevant, critical classroom theory strongly informing teaching for social justice. Ira Shor, Peter McLaren, Henry Giroux, Joe L. Kincheloe, and Stanley Aronowitz have each built upon the contributions of Freire to develop uniquely American critical examinations of culture and society. Michael Apple is remarkable for his democracy-focused project which reinforces the tenets of teaching for social justice. Jonathan Kozol, Alfie Kohn, Susan Searls Giroux, Khen Lampert, Michelle Rosser, and Lisa Delpit 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.[citation needed]

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 ([6]). A number of subject specific fields of practice and enquiry in education, including science education and mathematics education 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 is devoted to social justice issues in mathematics education.[citation needed]

Herbert Kohl argues that teachers may be inclined to teach against their conscience, 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".[7]

Teaching for Social Justice vs. Multicultural Education[edit]

Teaching for social justice and multicultural education are often used interchangeably. Though closely aligned in their aims, teaching for social justice and multicultural education are not one in the same. Rather, multicultural education is a way in which an individual can foster social justice. Multicultural education’s goal is to make sure that all students have an equal opportunity to learn, regardless of their race, ethnicity, culture, social class, gender or sexual orientation. Its aims are to teach individual differences, foster respect among individuals, build relationships with and among students, make learning meaningful to different groups of individuals, and teach individuals about other’s perspectives (Kaur, 2012). Social justice, on the contrary, is much broader. Social justice aims at teaching individuals how to challenge and advocate for injustices and inequalities in society, and those against individuals. In order to notice the injustices and inequalities that are natural in society, individuals need to be provided the multiple perspectives, exposure and experiences that multicultural education fosters. Therefore, the education that multicultural education instills in individuals helps to support the teaching of social justice. The difference between the two is important to know, as one can teach social justice without directly teaching multicultural education and vice versa.

Application of teaching with social justice in the classroom[edit]

To teach with social justice in the classroom, a teacher must develop curriculum and techniques that address educational inequalities for students, while also teaching students about the social inequalities in their society and how to proactively address them. To teach with social justice in regards to the diverse population of students in one’s classroom, a teacher can include diverse cultures into the curriculum. This provides opportunities for students to learn about their own cultural identities as well as their classmate’s. This also creates pride in their heritage, respect for each other’s cultures, and deconstructs negative stereotypes associated with the student’s identities. Incorporating different cultures into the curriculum also contributes to a positive classroom culture. This is an important aspect of addressing social injustices because it gives students an opportunity to recognize the value of others in the classroom. One way to help students interact with each other is through group work. This allows students to learn from their peers by hearing and discussing ideas different from their own. This encourages students to advance to a more sophisticated level of social and academic skills. Through communication and relationships with their classmates, children can clarify their own values and attitudes and, in the process, develop a healthy frame of reference for their own identity (Johnson and Johnson, 1990). Teachers can also develop differentiated lesson plans for their students. All classrooms are composed of diverse student populations with specific academic, social, and emotional needs. By developing differentiated lesson plans, teachers not only show their students that they are all unique and important, but also provides all students with an opportunity to learn. For example, teachers can develop differentiated lesson plans by incorporating different learning styles such as audio, visual, or kinesthetic. They can also address outside student needs such as limited English proficiency by incorporating native languages or translation tools.

Another classroom application of teaching with social justice is incorporating social justice issues into the curriculum. Using their Words is a website that showcases social justice education projects. Their 6 elements of incorporating social justice issues into the classroom explicitly detail how teachers can create lesson plans that proactively and responsibly teach students about social justice issues in their communities. To start, teachers should help students learn and accept themselves and each other. Next, teachers should incorporate concepts such as racism, sexism, classism, religious intolerance etc. into the curriculum so that students learn how to recognize inequalities in their society. Teacher’s can also incorporate historical examples of social movements and social change. By sharing movements that have brought about social change, students are able to see hope for social change as well as construct methods for addressing social change. Possible social movements that can be taught include the civil rights movement, various labor movements, and the 1968 and 2006 Chicano student walkouts. Once students are able to identify social injustices, and proactive approaches to address the issues, teachers can provide opportunities for students to work together as advocates. Students can create newsletters, public service announcements, letter writing campaigns, and blog about the issues. Once students raise awareness, teachers can provide opportunities to take action on the issues.

Peer relationships[edit]

Peer relationships among learners are largely determinant of the outcomes of schools.[8][9] Methods including cooperative group work,[10][11] and diverse group interactions.[12] In the modern educational realm of teaching and learning, students are now seen as active participants in the learning process. Lev Vygotsky'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[edit]

The relationships teachers have with students also affect teaching for social justice. If the student does not like the teacher, a student will not want to listen to what they have to say. In this sense, parent/teacher relationships are central,[13] as is access to information and resources for every student appointing at a desk,[13] understanding the role of youth-adult partnerships in the classroom,[14] and teachers literally learning about their students. Teachers should not only teach, they should learn. Helping students understand how they learn helps students identify their strengths and weaknesses as learners.[15] It is also important for students to note equity issues in their classrooms.[16] The purpose of the teacher is to propose learning through facilitation, which can aid in the production of knowledge. 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.[17] Understanding the effects of teachers on student learning is vital,[13] 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.[13][18][19]

Additionally, teachers need to be critically conscious[20] and offer students well-planned units and lessons that develop knowledge of a wide range of groups.[21][22] Curriculum building on acknowledgment rather than neglect the experiences of students.[13] Educators can also match students’ cultures to the curriculum and instructional practices[23]

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. Often, 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.[24] 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.

While it is important to understand and tastefully incorporate multicultural education within the curriculum if one is to successfully teach for social justice, it is also equally imperative to understand the different stances a teacher might take in terms of approaching issues of justice in the classroom. According to Amy Gutmann, “When parental, political, and professional authorities honor the principles of democratic education, which protect children against repression of ideas and discrimination on the basis of ascriptive characteristics (such as gender, race, religion, and ethnicity), they act responsibly in furthering the most justifiable aim of education in a democratic society: the education of free and equal persons”.[25] Gutmann maintains that multicultural and democratic education should “work actively to support respect of individuals and their equal rights as citizen, rather than support the survival rights of traditional cultures or defend the dictates of any single authority - whether it be the state, parents, or professionals - simply because they possess decision-making authority”[25] She recognizes that students are exposed to multiple views on how they should be educated, but ultimately it is the choice of the student that truly matters, and an unbiased education is the only way to do so.

Relevant organizations[edit]

Many universities and colleges have programs focused on teaching for social justice, including the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mills College, The University of South Carolina, The University of San Francisco, the University of Regina, The Evergreen State College, State University of New York at Oswego, Pennsylvania State University, Swarthmore College, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Washington. A number of nonprofit organizations also support the practice in schools, including Mosaic, the Institute for Community Leadership and the Freechild Project.


Sudbury model of democratic education schools maintain that values, social justice included, must be learned through experience[26][27][28][29] as Aristotle said: "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them."[30] They adduce that for this reason schools must relatively encourage ethical behavior and personal responsibility. In order to achieve this ambition, schools must profound students the three great freedoms: freedom of choice, freedom of action, and freedom to bear the results of action. That constitutes personal responsibility.[31]

In reference, critics contour that the political and ideological practices 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 teacher that knows proper etiquette and grammar.[32]

In addition, according to Marilyn Cochran-Smith et al. (2009) there are three major criticisms for the teaching of social justice in the classroom. The first is that the term “social justice” is vague in nature and thus controversial as to what it constitutes. This is shown with the various philosophers (see above) who dispute what the term implies. Another critique is that in teaching for social justice, regular academic curriculum gets neglected. The belief is that a neglect in academics can lead to a decrease in student learning. Finally, various other critics feel as though teaching for social justice is instilling specific political ideologies.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Russo, P. (1994). "What does it mean to teach for social justice?" SUNY Oswego. Retrieved 5/20/07.
  2. ^ Sol Stern "Pedagogy of the Oppressor" City Journal, Spring 2009
  3. ^ Freire, P. (1971) Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
  4. ^ a b Esposito, J. and Swain, A. N. (2009) Pathways to social justice: Urban teachers' uses of culturally relevant pedagogy as a conduit for teaching for social justice. Perspectives on Urban Education, 1, 38-48.
  5. ^ a b Kelly, D. (2012). Teaching for social justice: Translating an anti-oppression approach into practice. Our Schools/Our Selves, 21(2), 135-154. Available: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2012/02/osos106_Teaching_Social_Justice.pdf
  6. ^ Spalding, E., Klecka, C. L., Lin, E., Odell, S. J., and Wang, J. (2010). Social justice and teacher education: A hammer, a bell, and a song. Journal of Teacher Education, 61, 191-196.
  7. ^ Kohl, H. Teaching for Social Justice. Rethinking Schools. Volume 15, No. 2 - Winter 2000/01. Retrieved 5/20/07.
  8. ^ Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
  9. ^ Boykin, A.W., Tyler, K.m., & Miller, O. (2005). In search of cultural themes and their expressions in the dynamics of classroom life. Urban Education, 40(5), 521-547.
  10. ^ Cohen, E.G. 1994. Designing groupwork. New York: Teachers College Press.
  11. ^ Costantino, M. (1999). Reading and Second Language Learners. Olympia, WA: The Evergreen Center for Education Improvement.
  12. ^ Johnson, A. (2001). Privilege, power and difference. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
  13. ^ a b c d e Nieto, S.
  14. ^ Lewis,A.(2004) Race in the school yard. Rutgers University Press.
  15. ^ Nieto, Sonia (2004). Affirming Diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. 4th ed. Pearson Education, Inc.
  16. ^ Lewis,A.
  17. ^ Ayers, W., Hunt, J.A., and Quinn, T. (1998). Teaching for Social Justice: A Democracy and Education Reader. New Press.
  19. ^ Rosser & Massey (2013). Educational Leadership. The Power of Oneself. Peter Lang. 
  20. ^ The Evergreen State College Student Teaching Assessment Rubric. Retrieved February 27, 2007
  21. ^ Vaughn,S., Bos, C.S., & Schumm, J.S.(2007) Teaching Students, who are exceptional diverse, and at risk, in the general education classroom. Pearson Education.
  23. ^ Vaughn,S., Bos, C.S., & Schumm, J.S.(2007) Teaching Students, who are exceptional diverse, and at risk, in the general education classroom. Pearson Education.
  24. ^ Rosser& Massey (2013). Educational Leadership: The Power of Oneself. Peter Lang. 
  25. ^ a b Gutmann, A. (2003). The Authority and Responsibility to Educate, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Education (ed R. Curren). Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK.
  26. ^ Greenberg, D. (1992), Education in America - A View from Sudbury Valley, "'Ethics' is a Course Taught By Life Experience." Retrieved October 21, 2009.
  27. ^ Greenberg, D. (1987), The Sudbury Valley School Experience, "Teaching Justice Through Experience." Retrieved October 21, 2009.
  28. ^ Greenberg, D. (1992), Education in America - A View from Sudbury Valley, "Democracy Must be Experienced to be Learned." Retrieved October 21, 2009.
  29. ^ Greenberg, D. (1987) Chapter 35, "With Liberty and Justice for All," Free at Last — The Sudbury Valley School. Retrieved October 21, 2009.
  30. ^ Bynum, W.F. and Porter, R. (eds) (2005) Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations. Oxford University Press. 21:9.
  31. ^ Greenberg, D. (1987) The Sudbury Valley School Experience "Back to Basics." Retrieved October 27, 2008. 10/27/08.
  32. ^ Sol Stern "Pedagogy of the Oppressor," City Journal, Spring 2009. Retrieved October 21, 2009.


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