Teaching Critical Consciousness

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Read the full article on Phi Delta Kappan by Aaliyah El-Amin, Scott Seider, Daren Graves, Jalene Tamerat, Shelby Clark, Madora Soutter, Jamie Johannsen, and Saira Malhotra.

Black students can achieve at higher levels when schools teach them how to see, name, and challenge racial oppression.

Research has suggested that critical consciousness — the ability to recognize and analyze systems of inequality and the commitment to take action against these systems — can be a gateway to academic motivation and achievement for marginalized students.

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1970) conceived of critical consciousness while working with adult laborers in Brazil. Freire realized that inequality is sustained when the people most affected by it are unable to decode their social conditions. Freire proposed a cycle of critical consciousness development that involved gaining knowledge about the systems and structures that create and sustain inequity (critical analysis), developing a sense of power or capability (sense of agency), and ultimately committing to take action against oppressive conditions (critical action).

Contemporary research has found that critical consciousness not only expands young people’s commitment to challenging pervasive injustice (Ginwright, 2010; Watts, Diemer, & Voight, 2011) but also increases academic achievement and engagement (Carter, 2008; O’Connor, 1997).

#1. Teach the language of inequality.

A key component of critical consciousness is the ability to recognize inequality and injustice (Watts, Griffith, & Abdul-Adil, 1999). For black students to successfully work against the conditions that create barriers to their learning, they need to notice when these barriers are at play and be able to communicate and explain what they notice.

#2. Create space to interrogate racism.

In addition to being able to recognize inequity and describe it, students need to understand the depths of inequality and the myriad forces that sustain it. Terrence described his new understanding of the long history of police brutality in the lives of black people as powerful learning. It provided him with the motivation to persist and excel academically.

#3. Teach students how to take action.

When people understand the social, economic, and political forces threatening their communities, they’re more likely to engage in activities that challenge those forces (Ginwright, 2010). In a third school in our study, Community Academy, the humanities curriculum introduced students to historical and contemporary methods for resistance.

Empowered to achieve

A robust body of scholarship makes clear that disparities in academic learning outcomes between black students and peers from other racial groups are directly linked to a wide array of structural injustices in the United States against the black community. These include biased housing policies, gaps in economic opportunities, the over-incarceration of black men and women, rampant police brutality, and the unequal allocation of resources to schools (Carter & Welner, 2013). As educators, we cannot claim to be concerned with closing academic gaps without taking seriously the question of how to give black students the language and skills they need to understand the social conditions working against them.