Teaching for Social Justice

Teaching for social justice is a philosophy of education centered on the promotion of social justice, and the instillation of such 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.

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.[1][2]


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".[3]

Other popular educators who have explored the practice of teaching for social justice include Democracy and Education.

Following him were George Counts, who focused on a democratically-inclusive, socialistic educational model, while Charles A. Beard and Myles Horton 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 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.[4]

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 ([5]). 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 ([5]).

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.

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.

Peer relationships

Peer relationships among learners are largely determinant of the outcomes of schools.[7][8] Methods including cooperative group work,[9][10] and diverse group interactions.[11] 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

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,[12] as is access to information and resources for every student appointing at a desk,[12] understanding the role of youth-adult partnerships in the classroom,[13] and teachers literally learning about their students. A teacher should not only teach, they should learn. Helping students understand how they learn helps students identify their strengths and weaknesses as learners.[14] It is also important for students to note equity issues in their classrooms.[15] 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.[16] Understanding the effects of teachers on student learning is vital,[12] 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.[12][17][18]

Additionally, teachers need to be critically conscious[19] and offer students well-planned units and lessons that develop knowledge of a wide range of groups.[20][21] Curriculum building on acknowledgment rather than neglect the experiences of students.[12] Educators can also match students’ cultures to the curriculum and instructional practices[22]

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.[23] 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 .

Relevant organizations

Many universities and colleges have programs focused on teaching for social justice, including the Freechild Project.


Sudbury model of democratic education schools maintain that values, social justice included, must be learned through experience[24][25][26][27] as Aristotle said: "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them."[28] 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, freedom to bear the results of action. That constitutes personal responsibility.[29]

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.[30]

See also



  • Bigelow, B., & Peterson, B. (Eds.). (1998). Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools Ltd.
  • Bigelow, B., Christensen, L., Karp, S., Miner, B., & Peterson, B. (Eds.). (1994). Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice. (Vol. 1). Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools Ltd.
  • Brown, H.D. (2007). Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy (3rd Ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.
  • Garry, P., (2006) Cultural whiplash: The Unforeseen Consequences of America's Crusade against Racial Discrimmination. Nashville: Cumberland House.
  • Gay, G. (2000). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, & Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Grant, C.A., & Sleeter, C.E. (2006). Turning on Learning: Five Approaches for Multicultural Teaching Plans for Race, Class, Gender, and Disability (4th ed.). Indianapolis: Jossey-Bass, An Imprint of Wiley.
  • Haberman, M. (1995). STAR Teachers of Children in Poverty. Indianapolis: Kappa Delta Pi.
  • Harper, C.; de Jong, E. (2004). Misconceptions about teaching English-language learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.
  • Ladson-Billings, G. (1997). The Dreamkeepers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Lampert, k. (2003). Compassionate Education: Erolegomena for Radical Schooling MD USA, Romman&Littlefield.
  • Lampert, K. (2012). Meritocratic Education and Social Worthlessness; Palgrave-Macmillan;
  • North, Connie. (2006) "More Than Words? Delving Into the Substantive Meaning(s) of 'Social Justice' in Education." Review of Educational Research, 76(4), 507-535.
  • Schutz, Aaron. Social Class, Social Action, and Education: The Failure of Progressive Democracy introduction
  • Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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