Understanding Social Justice Education

Silicon Valley International School's Head of School Angie Bergeson has been a passionate advocate for social justice throughout her long career in international education. In this blog, Angie reflects on how learning through a social justice lens can promote critical thinking, agency, and responsible international consciousness.


To understand social justice education, a great place to start is with a working knowledge 
of the field of humanities, the academic disciplines that study human culture. For example, sociologists and anthropologists study the development, structure, and functioning of human society. Anthropologists focus on comparing human societies and cultures and their development over time.

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In the 1930s, a group of scholars created the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany and developed the framework of “Critical Theory.” The term “critical” in this context means deep intellectual analysis and thinking with complexity. Their work offered a new critique of society, specifically focusing on questions about social change, directly responding to the presumed scientific principles that govern society. This type of critique of society’s status quo attempts to deconstruct the social stratification that puts groups in a hierarchy of power and unequal value. Simply put, women, people of color, religious groups, LGBTQ community members, indigenous peoples, and other social justice movements assert that societal structures are built in such a way to keep certain groups marginalized.

Critical Theory, as an ideology, has continued to evolve over time and social justice education expands on, and borrows from, some of the principles. This includes a higher-level intellectual inquiry and involves the ability to engage in complex dialogue and debate. Students devise strategies and questions that help them explore issues of power and justice, including the intersection of race, class, gender, ability, religion, and more. For example, the idea that society is structured in such a way that it benefits some and marginalizes others is core to social justice.

This type of education promotes human agency and self-determination.

For students to engage in social justice education, they must be critical thinkers. By critically analyzing history, society, and the individual, students make sense of their world, even the parts often invisible to individuals or groups. For example, while I personally do not experience the world as a person of color, I must listen to the informed knowledge and the lived experiences and perspectives of groups I do not identify with in order to develop understanding, construct knowledge, form opinions, and take action.

If we review history for such errors in human reasoning, then we determine not to repeat mistakes made by “common sense” beliefs and “rational thought.” Deconstructing the ideology behind historical events such as slavery, the Holocaust, and the Trail of Tears allows students to reflect, think critically, and gain insight.

DSC_0080-1For example, there is a difference between personal opinions, which are based on social mores, versus critical thinking, which is based on actual informed criteria. This allows students to recognize that their positionality might not encompass the whole view. This is like the parable of the five wise people and the elephant. Each is blindfolded but touching a different part of an elephant; trunk, tail, ear, tusk, side, leg. Each then describes the part they are feeling (snake, rope, fan, spear, wall, tree-trunk) and argues very strongly that their own description must be the only truth because it is all that they know. Their opinions are built on truth, but only on the truth as they individually experience it. Only when we are willing to listen to others with different perspectives will we construct the whole picture.

When approached from a social justice lens, or Critical Theory, humanities instruction can encompass a complexity that ensures students become true global citizens and upstanders for a just society. Looking at history from different perspectives to improve society includes integrating all the major social sciences. This type of education is not limited to humanities, however. Critical theory can be incorporated into all subject matter. For instance, English Language Arts naturally allows for an exploration of complex perspectives through literature and analytical research.

It is important to realize that making learning meaningful, profound, and real for our students is empowering. By developing a deep knowledge base, strong identity, and knowledge of one’s positionality, students will be better prepared to live in an ever changing global society - and hopefully, create positive change themselves.