Cultivating Critical Consciousness in the Classroom

Posted by Kaitlin Smith on September 24, 2020

A stack of books, an open book, and a globeAt Facing History’s inaugural Teaching for Equity and Justice summit in 2020, we had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Scott Seider and Dr. Daren Gravestwo developmental psychologists committed to deepening communities’ capacities to educate and care for Black and brown youth. Co-authors of Schooling for Critical Consciousness: Engaging Black and Latinx Youth in Analyzing, Navigating, and Challenging Racial Injustice, Seider and Graves shared a wealth of insights from their research on the importance of cultivating critical consciousness in the classroom and how to get started. Below are some excerpts from their presentation:

DG: We are building on the definition of critical consciousness that was laid out by Paulo Freire in his famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed… For those who may not know, he was a Brazilian educational philosopher who worked with poor, rural Brazilians to help in a schooling process that was focused on helping disempowered, if not oppressed, folks use schooling as a means to become...change agents over their own condition and transform their own communities... And so in this highly politicized way of thinking about schooling and education, Freire defines critical consciousness as the ability to recognize oppressive social forces shaping society and to take action against them… In this famous quotation that people know from Freire, “we read the word to read the world.” In other words... we gain functional literacy as a means to gain transformative literacy...

Critical consciousness is not a diversion from the outcomes many of us who are educators are interested in. There is a lot of empirical research that shows that higher critical consciousness is associated with higher self-esteem, higher political engagement, higher professional aspirations, academic engagement, even higher academic achievement. When they develop critical consciousness, young folks develop a resilience to forces whether they’re institutional or personal... a protective armor against the things that would [lead us to] blame ourselves and not [see] that the systems that are in place are causing these things. And so being able to recognize these systems and be able to do something about it gives us resilience in the face of racism in general and then, of course, the psychosocial outcomes we’re interested in as educators.

In terms of how Dr. Seider and I are conceptualizing critical consciousness, we are building off the work of Watts, Diemer and Voight who saw critical consciousness as having three components:

  1. Social analysis: the ability to name and analyze social, political, and economic forces that contribute to inequity and inequality
  2. Political agency: the belief that one has the capacity to affect social and political change, the feeling that if one wanted to make a change, they could do it
  3. Social action: the wide range of activities that individuals engage in to challenge oppressive forces

So what does this mean? How do we study this? Our research question was what role can teachers and educators play in critical consciousness? We went to five different high schools in the Northeast [that were actively engaged in this work] explore a variety of pedagogical approaches. It was a longitudinal study and we collected both quantitative and qualitative data…

SS and DG: The book we wrote reports on each of these five different schools and the ways they foster young pupils’ critical consciousness over the students’ four years of high school. We would like to talk to you about four key practices that we observed and were found to have effects on different dimensions of young pupils’ critical consciousness.

  1. The young people were finishing high school with a greater and deeper understanding of systemic racism than their peers across the other schools… Every single ninth grader took a course in their ninth grade year called Social Engagement [where] the young people are introduced to a framework that was referred to as “the three eyes of oppression.”

  2. Students learning from students builds a culture in which the projects become more and more profound as more and more students are brought into the culture...

  3. Schools that gave students opportunities to affect change within the school building…[fostered] feelings of political agency… Opportunities to affect change within your school community unequivocally impact your feelings of agency to affect changes in other communities...

  4. Real-world assignments were another type of tool that coincides with developing students’ capacity to be involved in social action… There are a lot of real-world assignments, opportunities for students to think about our country or their community and then take those issues and put them into action. 


Facing History and Ourselves invites educators to access the rest of this conversation by viewing our on-demand webinar with Dr. Scott Seider and Dr. Darren Graves.

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Topics: Equity in Education

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Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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