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Experience, Knowledge Construction, and Ideology: Dilemmas in Critical Thinking and Social Justice Education

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At present, there are two priorities within social justice education that have taken center stage. The first is the task of ending oppression, and the second is the task of affirming the individuality and freedom of the child. Social justice educators advocate a non-hierarchical approach to learning that centers students’ self-directed construction of knowledge from their experiences, while at the same time expecting students to develop an explicit critique of the social order (Freire, 1998; Shor, 1992). These pedagogical practices can considered progressive or constructivist. Though both “progressive education” and “constructivist education” have been used to refer to a range of philosophical assumptions and practices (Labaree, 2005; Phillips, 1995), they generally refer to “a set of theories that hold that knowledge is not a body of facts, skills, and interpretations to be transmitted to students, but rather is actively constructed by learners as they interact with their environment” (Perlstein, 2002, p. 270). However, the use of progressive or constructivist pedagogical approaches for the pursuit of explicit ideological goals leaves critical educators with a dilemma: what happens when students’ reflections don’t lead them to conclusions that challenge oppression? In other words, how should educators respond when “critical” thinking does not lead to the “critical” conclusions that social justice teachers advocate (ie, ones that challenge systems of oppression)?

This study draws from ethnography (LeCompte & Schensul, 2010), autoethnography (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011), action research (Herr & Anderson, 2005), and social design experimentation (Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016) to examine the tensions involved in using constructivist pedagogical approaches to cultivate students’ critique of oppression and commitment to social justice values. Data included video recordings of classroom dialogues, field notes, student written assignments, and teacher and student interviews collected from three sections of an undergraduate teacher education class at an elite public university during the Spring of 2017. Drawing from critical and feminist pedagogies, the course (ED280) used a constructivist approach that privileged students’ self-directed learning, the construction of knowledge from experience, and the creation of a democratic classroom within a formal school setting. At the same time, ED280 also aimed to cultivate students’ critique of oppression and commitment to social justice through social action. Taught by three instructors of differing racial backgrounds (myself, an Asian American woman; Sarah, a white woman; and Tiana, a Black woman), the course also attracted students from multiple, contradicting, positionalities.

There are three major findings from this study. The first stems from the fact that social justice educators in formal school settings are contradictorily positioned as agents of institutional power, even while they seek to critique such power (and thus undermine their own authority). This paradox led social justice educators like Sarah to send mixed messages to her students regarding both the nature of her authority and the seriousness of the social justice objectives of the course. At times, Sarah leveraged her authority to advance social justice ideals, and at other times, she undermined her own authority at the expense of those ideals. However, in prioritizing the development of students’ social justice critique over the creation of a “democratic” classroom space, Tiana was still able to use constructivist pedagogical practices and create a largely democratic classroom. These findings illustrate the importance of first grounding constructivist pedagogical practices in an explicit critique of oppression, particularly in formal school settings where hierarchical relationships of power and authority are inherent to the educational space.

This study also finds that because students construct knowledge from an environment already imbued with oppression, the experiences from which they construct knowledge are often complex and contradictory, leading them to take up and critique dominant ideologies in complex and contradictory ways. While a constructivist pedagogical approach supported some students in making sense of their own experiences of oppression, at times, it also served to justify students’ pre-existing ideologies, rather than to support them in constructing new knowledges. This occurred in part because students occupied multiple, contradicting positionalities – thus, their experiences (and interpretations of those experiences) at times reflected the critique of oppression that ED280 aimed to cultivate, and at other times, contradicted it.

Finally, this study examines how critical and feminist pedagogies can become conflated because they draw on similar constructivist roots. In particular, I examine the tensions involved in using a Freirean framework to teach students about their positionalities. In analyzing two pedagogical events that aimed to teach students about their positionalities – the Privilege Walk and the Identity Wheel – I find that students developed essentialized notions of identity within an “oppressed/oppressor” framework, even when their own experiences contradicted such binary understandings of experience. As a result, students came to conflate positionality with identity, understanding it as static and fixed, rather than socially constructed and malleable. This led students, particularly students from positionalities of relative privilege, to reject the instructor’s call for students to participate in social action, as they understood themselves to be defined by their identities, rather than by their actions.

Within education, progressive and constructivist pedagogical practices have become dominant in the field (Phillips, 1995) as a means for addressing an array of social, educational, and economic problems. This study illustrates some of the contradictions that arise in relying on progressive pedagogical practices to address such structural inequalities, as well as how teachers and students navigated these challenges in practice. In so doing, this research encourages scholars, educators, and activists to prioritize the development of students’ critique of oppression over progressive pedagogical practices, and thus contributes to scholarship in social justice education, teacher education, and curriculum theory.

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