“Critical consciousness” is the ability to recognize and resist oppressive social forces such as racism. It is a critical tool for young people of color – often acting as a form of “psychological armor” that can act as a buffer against the harmful effects of racism. In helping your students of color cultivate critical consciousness, you can increase the likelihood that they will experience more positive outcomes, including resilience, self-esteem, mental health, academic achievement, and political engagement.
The scenes we witness each day demonstrate examples of the racial, religious and gender oppression in the world. Those acts of violence, hatred and ignorance affect us all. As school-aged children grapple with their own identities, learn about the societal norms, these images can be confusing and even damaging to their outlook on the world and their place in it.
Many schools choose to completely avoid topics of bias and oppression, instead of offering guidance and discussing practical lessons for students to find their voices and challenge oppression. Teachers who may wish to address these issues in the classroom, often feel unprepared to do so and lead these discussions.
Before teachers can lead these discussions and explore oppression and identify forms of resistance with their students, they must first explore it among themselves, with one another. Spaces must be created where teachers, administrators and other leaders can have important, but sometimes difficult, conversations about issues facing their students. Learn ways to equip young people with the knowledge, skills and mindsets to act against systems of inequality.
Such demonstrations of critical consciousness can be seen in the nation-wide protests against police injustice as supported by the Black Lives Matter cause. Young people are advocating, and thus fighting back against oppression and inequality by rallying for and demanding the removal of certain monuments in our public spaces, as well. With this current trend spreading fast and far, in the increasingly loud, and now heard, voices against inequality in the larger society, it will not be long before this fight targets our public schools systems.
In theory, the evidence of continued inequality existing on the bigger ‘life’ landscape, is a direct result of what occurs in the education system. The ways we educate or mis-educate children in school, contributes to the perpetuation of inequality, discrimination, oppression and the racist landscape in society at large.
It makes total sense that, in school, it is expected that children acquire the skills, tools and the critical thinking abilities to not just prepare to enter the workforce as adults, but to shape the world of work. Via the voices they develop, and the encouragement they receive to think critically, ask questions and engage in meaningful discussion, in school settings is where students are empowered as change makers. Schools are where the change agents are to be found.
Changing the ways we interact with students, and re-framing the content we teach, depends on our willingness to accept that we have been equipping children with information, feeding mindsets of inequality to some and empowering others- all based on false pretense. Educators themselves are required to revisit every subject they thought they knew and understand as factual. With a critical lens, the purpose has to be to reflect on the messages sent and stories told to us first, then think critically about that which is told to children.
Education will be called to fill in the blanks, and insert that missing information. The understanding that it is that which we have omitted, thereby deemed unimportant or insignificant, which has allowed inequity to persist. Critical consciousness implies the use of the conscious mind in critical examination of that which we present to children in school settings. The phrase ‘caveat emptor'[buyer beware] should not apply to education or instructional content. However, until a new framework of teaching and learning emerges, supported by instructional materials and supplemental resources, educators must teach children to approach all they are asked to learn in this way.
Children must learn to question everything- every fact, every story, and acquire the skills and tools to do so. In fact, students must be encouraged to do so. They must learn to look for more information in all they are taught, in order to obtain a complete accounting-the whole story, the whole truth. This novel approach to pedagogy is not to be confused with a child’s insubordination, or perceived as questioning the authority of a teacher, an adult. The child is to be taught to question the full authority and authenticity of the sources of information presented. The child is encouraged to ascertain the ‘backstory’ and acknowledge the existence of inconsistency or the absence of logic.
School children must be taught the language of inequality. They will be required to recognize injustice and inequality, truth from fiction, fact from opinion or the absence thereof. They must understand intent and impact. Children need to act as investigative reporters. By identifying forms of oppression with language and labels, it becomes more visible and students are better able to challenge the constructs which created the inequality.
Spaces must be created in order to discuss and create a sense of efficacy, helping students believe that they can do something to bring about change and act against oppression. They will learn that they can stand up to inequality. We must educate them on ways to take action. We have to support their role in this democracy from within a democratic classroom environment first. Help them understand the possible implications of different forms of resistance and help them to think about it in strategic ways.
Inside the safety and supports in the classroom, we can teach students how to resist oppression and how to recognize injustice or inequality in rather simplistic ways. For example, in Science class, the subject is the invention of the light bulb. Discussing what the invention did to change everyday life for people is important, along with the science that went into its creation. To teach about its implications more fully, the discussion can also examine the lifestyle of enslaved black people, and explore the ways it changed their lives, as well. If not directly, then indirectly. Encourage conversations about the real and possible/probable roles that black people played in its development. It is verifiable fact that it was a black person who perfected the bulb itself, and enhanced its ability to be sustained for longer periods than originally designed. It has been those types of historical omissions that demonstrate oppression and inequity.
If the electric light bulb helped to light up rooms at night and made reading bedtime stories to children easier, what did that mean for black children. Were their homes/cabins/living spaces lit, as well? Why or why not? Was this new invention a necessity or a luxury? If it were a luxury, most likely black people did not have access to lighted homes. Exploring reading to their children, or writing letters at night, discuss the fact that black people were strictly forbidden from learning to read or write. They would be physically punished, severely, if found out that they could read.
Critical consciousness means that, not only do we receive information as given, but we are taught to look for and identify the impact upon ALL lives. We teach children to spot those omissions of information that may highlight or support inequality and oppression and help them label it. In Social Studies class, the lesson covers the U.S. Civil War. The textbooks tell them about the armies and the soldiers fighting on both sides of the fight. Ask students to point out where black people were in that fight. Discuss the role of black people in the war and why they entered the fight. What happened after the war?
Provide examples of resistance efforts, previously unaddressed in classroom settings, outside of the Civil Rights Movement. That movement, widely taught, offers but broadly stated highlights about the purpose, process and outcome of such resistance at that time. Using a critical lens, educators should, when teaching lessons surrounding this era, provide historical references which led to the movement itself. They must examine and explore the policies and practices in place at the time, the impact on black lives and previously before attempted resistance efforts.
In every era in history, it is resistance which leads to change. Students need to learn what they looked like, how they came to be, and what the realities were before they were found necessary to spark and demand sweeping changes. There are many examples of change that came about and students can learn about, and there are things that students, as children, can do to encourage and be a part of change. School-wide, classroom-based and community-wide changes can be made today, by children, and sparked by the information they receive in school.
Bringing a Critical Consciousness lens to their work, educators can ensure students recognize that oppression is constructed by people, can be changed and they can be a part of making that change. Candid conversations among adults and with students drive home the message that we are all responsible for acknowledging oppression and creating change. And most importantly, it offers a safe space for students, educators, and mentors to have conversations that help prepare students to shape the society we strive to live in tomorrow.
This is not just theory, reserved for adults, but practical awareness taught to children-and useful knowledge for being solution-focused today. It is far too late to fear the awakening of the people, young people in particular, to a critical consciousness, a personal and socio-political awareness. We must accept it, teach and encourage it or remain on the list of systems and institutions targeted for resistance movements due to the refusal to actively foster the mindsets of equity and social justice in American society.
As they say, “The handwriting is on the wall.” Read between the lines and serve the best interests of ALL children, now and for their future. History will either blame us for being parts of the problems or applaud us for recognizing that education is meant to be the most critical part of creating and designing solutions. That is called teaching for change!