Early Childhood Education

Pedagogy, Social Justice/Equity


Social justice/equity pedagogy is a multifaceted approach to teaching and learning that seeks to identify, resist, and transform various forms of oppression (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) in schools and society. Social justice/equity pedagogy is based on two premises about the relationship between schools and society. First, schools have both a social responsibility and obligation to produce citizens who are able to participate meaningfully and substantively within an ever-changing, technological, multicultural and global democracy. Second, what occurs daily in classrooms between teachers and students both shapes and is shaped by social, cultural, historical, and current political contexts. As such, social justice/equity pedagogy serves as an education reform effort that is rooted in the everyday classroom interactions between students, teachers, parents, and administrators. The ultimate and additional goal of social justice/equity pedagogy is to ignite social reform and change within other institutions throughout society. Within this framework, the purpose of teaching and education is more than achieving traditional academic and social outcomes. Rather, the ultimate purpose of teaching (and education) is to identify and scrutinize current inequitable practices within schools and society while simultaneously creating socially just, democratic, and liberatory alternatives for tomorrow’s society. Furthermore, educators pursuant of this approach labor to employ a pedagogical praxis that is as follows:

• Critical/reflective: Students are encouraged and taught to closely interrogate all knowledge for various forms of bias. Students learn to ask critical questions such as, “Who benefits and who suffers?” “Was that fair or unfair?” “Whose knowledge is this?” “What perspective(s) is/are missing?” Social justice/equity educators approach and present no information or knowledge as objective, value-free, and uncontested truth. In contrast, teachers acknowledge that all knowledge presented in school contexts is subjective and engage students in activities that encourage them to critically analyze and problematize the curriculum. In addition, to help students develop an understanding that no particular form of knowledge is more significant than any other form or source of knowledge, teachers encourage and include critiques of real-life events, situations, movies, structures, among others. Through these processes of critical analysis and reflection, students ultimately develop a sense of critical consciousness needed to identify and combat oppression within their localized school contexts and the larger society. Young children are especially eager to discuss their interpretations of what is fair.

• Culturally Relevant and Responsive: Social justice/equity teachers do not see student’s native/home culture as an impediment to school success as was traditionally the case with the most deficit-oriented models of school reform; instead, they use students’ home culture as an important and useful tool in helping students develop and acquire school knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Teachers construct lessons in ways that learning will be meaningful and relevant to cultural and lived experiences of the students involved. In this process, students are not required to shed their home or native cultures while working to acquire the school culture. Instead, socially just/equitable educators work to maintain and build upon students’ home/native cultures while aiding students in acquiring the skills, dispositions, language, and knowledge base necessary to be successful in school settings and beyond. Teachers frame curriculum and teaching around issues that are naturally important to the students’ everyday needs and interests. In this sense, teachers create a curriculum that is tentative and ever-emergent based on what interests, questions, and or challenges students are involved in from moment to moment. It is important to note that this does not mean that socially just/equitable teachers don’t adhere to specific and rigorous standards in their teaching. What this does mean is that, compared to other pedagogical strategies frequently used in settings with a significant population of students of color (e.g., direct instruction, teaching to the test), students’ interests and needs are used as the basis by which curricula content is taught. Finally, a core theme in culturally relevant and responsive teaching is the notion of education as a project of social activism and social justice. Teachers not only encourage students to ‘trouble’ oppressive structures in society, but they also make spaces for them to work toward developing solutions to these problems. The teacher’s role, within this tenet, is to provide support, encouragement, insight, and resources for children to take social action toward resisting and eradicating many of these troubling structures. Moreover, teachers work to help students connect with their current acts toward social change and historical legacies of social justice. In early childhood setting with young children, this sort of endeavor resonates with principles of an antibias multicultural curriculum.

• Multicultural and Antioppressive: In an attempt to address the changing demographics in public schools, socially just teachers use action-oriented measures in identifying, combating, and deconstructing injustice within localized learning contexts. First, teachers labor to identify, resist, and transform deep-seated and overarching oppressive pedagogical structures (i.e., tracking, ability grouping, etc.) within their immediate classroom and school contexts. Next, teachers work to transform the curriculum to become more inclusive and respectful of the histories, knowledges, and ways of seeing and knowing that their students bring to school. Lastly, teachers work to incorporate multiple and culture/race-specific pedagogical strategies for teaching and assessment. In this sense, teachers work to construct pedagogical practices that are both equitable (fair in terms of the needs of the individual student) and equal (fair in terms of what is accessible/available to all students).

• Active/participatory: Socially just/equitable teachers believe that learning is a social process that requires active participation and engagement in learning activities. Therefore, as contrasted with more traditional and passive models of teaching and learning, where students are perceived as empty receptacles awaiting deposits of knowledge from teachers, social justice/equity pedagogy encourages teachers to create learning opportunities in which students can actively construct/create their own meanings. In this sense, learning is a matter of doing or being and not simply recitation or memorization. Therefore, teachers frequently use teaching strategies, for example, role playing, mock trials, and voting—a strategy that young children can learn to understand and utilize in their own democratic decision making.

• Democratic: Socially just/equitable educators work to create classroom environments that are democratic in nature. That is, at its core, teachers work to create classroom settings where students are encouraged to challenge, question, and solve problems collectively and collaboratively. Students are urged to think about and make decisions in terms of “what is best” for the majority or group and the individual students within the class. Social justice/equity educators believe that democracy is a concept that students must experience in order to understand it. They frequently utilize pedagogical strategies like inquiry and experimentation to convey themes and concepts related to social justice/equity. The social studies curriculum for young children emphasizes similar goals.

• Caring/Loving/Passionate: Social justice/equity teachers work to create classroom and learning environments in which students feel cared about and in which care for others in the classroom and the world is promoted.

• Academic Achievement: Social justice/equity pedagogy not only strives to aid students in making social changes in tomorrow’s society, but it also works to teach students how to be successful within the current society. Through its use of critical and activist curriculum and teaching experiences, social justice/equity pedagogy aims to inspire higher levels of academic performance than more traditional forms of teaching and assessment. The basic premise is that when students write, discuss, reflect, and think about “real” ideas, content, and issues, they are more likely to exhibit higher levels of engagement, motivation, investment, and ultimately achievement than when students are disengaged and disconnected from the content being taught. See also Curriculum, Emergent; Curriculum, Social Studies; Multicultural and Antibias Education.

Further Readings: Banks, Cherry A. McGee, and James A. Banks (1995). Equity pedagogy: An essential component of multicultural education. Theory into Practice 34, 152158. Bigelow, B., B. Harvey, S. Karp, and L. Miller (2001). Rethinking our classrooms: Teaching for equity and justice. Burlington, VT: Rethinking Schools. Dewey, J. (1966). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press. Freire, P. (1997). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum. Gay, Geneva (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education 53(2), 106-116. Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). Dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African-American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Noddings, N. (2003). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press. Vygotsky, S. L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Terry Husband and Adrienne Dixon