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Schooling for Critical Consciousness

How educators and school leaders can help young people better understand — and challenge — racial injustices.
Daren Graves and Scott Seider
Daren Graves (left) and Scott Seider recording the Harvard EdCast

What is the role of schools in teaching students, especially students of color, how to face oppression and develop political agency? Are there ways that some educators succeed in doing this in one school but not in another school? Daren Graves, Ed.D.'06, and Scott Seider, Ed.M.'04, Ed.D.'08, authors of Schooling for Critical Consciousness, were eager to find the answers and set out to research five mission-driven high schools over four years. In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, they share the ways that educators and school leaders can help young people better understand and challenge racial injustices.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. The nation reacted to the shooting of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in 2012 with protest rallies and marches. Since then, issues of racial inequality and oppression have taken center stage making Professors Daren Graves and Scott Seider wonder just how schools were helping young people make sense of it all. They followed students in five mission-driven urban high schools over four years to get some understanding on how education can foster critical consciousness. What they discovered was there's a lot of different ways educators can create this space for students and that it can even change their outcomes. I asked them what they mean when they say schooling for critical consciousness.

Daren Graves: When we say schooling for critical consciousness, we're asking how are schools facilitating the process to help students analyze, navigate, and challenge oppression.

Scott Seider: And I think our central research question as we began this project together was, well, what role can schools and educators play in supporting the critical consciousness development of youth of color. We assume that this work was taking place in various ways in different types of schools, and our goal was to think a little bit more systematically about it and look for schools that had practices related to helping kids analyze forces of oppression like racism, schools that had practices and programming in place to engage young people in thinking about how to navigate issues of racism and racial injustice, and schools that were explicitly engaged in helping young people learn how to challenge racism and racial injustice.

Daren Graves: We assume there were going to be different ways this could look because we know that there's lots of reasonable debate about what this should look like, how it can happen, can it happen in schools. And so we pretty much assume that there's going to be a variety of ways this could look. And we definitely didn't go in there thinking that we were going to find the way to do this.

Scott mentioned before that we were very aware that teachers are going to be in many different types of contexts. And so we were very interested in seeing those different kinds of contexts and assuming that there was going to be different kinds of success in those contexts.

Scott Seider: And to even push that even further, we explicitly sought out schools that took different pedagogical approaches to doing their work. One of the schools in our project was an expeditionary learning school. Another had named itself after Paulo Freire and was explicitly utilizing Freire's problem-posing approach to education. Another school on our study belonged to the Coalition of Essential Schools and used habits-of-mind approach.

And our goal, as Daren had said, was not to identify the school that was doing the best job at fostering youth critical consciousness, but rather to see what types of practices were happening in these different contexts that educators could benefit from.

Jill Anderson: What really struck you as, wow, this is really amazing and can be transferable outside of here. We want to talk about a few of those examples.

Scott Seider: Sure, and I should say that our goal in this project was to follow the young people at these five schools from their first day of freshman year to their last day of senior year with the goal of understanding how their critical consciousness changed over four years of high school, and then sort of identifying schooling practices that contributed to that.

Daren talked a little bit before about this idea that critical consciousnesses is your ability to analyze oppressive social forces, your feelings of political agency, to make change, and your commitment to engaging in action that actually makes change.

To give just one example, and this is a political agency example, one of the schools in our study had a civics class in the 11th grade, and as part of this 11th grade civics class, the students were assigned to look at the school handbook and identify a policy that they perceive to be unjust or unfair. So the students in the class of 2017 that we were following, they chose the school's technology policy. They felt like the school's technology policy was outdated and wasn't allowing students to make use of technology to support their learning.

And so what the students then did over the course of several weeks as part of the civics class was to engage in research to support their contention that this was an unjust policy. And then they used the research that they did to propose a new policy. They developed the language for a new policy for technology that might guide the school.

Then as a group, they put that research and that new policy proposal together into a presentation, which they then made to the school's faculty. The faculty listened very seriously to the proposal and actually then responded with a formal letter to their students saying, "Hey, we think this was a very compelling presentation. Here are some additional questions that we have about the proposal you're putting forth." The students had to go back into the research to respond to those questions.

And ultimately, and I think this was a really important move by the faculty at this school, the faculty ultimately voted to change their technology policy for the remainder of the school year to this proposal that the students had put forth with the idea that if it goes smoothly, this will become our permanent policy, and if not, we'll go back to the drawing board.

And I can tell you that the students in this school, from our interviews with them, from our observations, felt incredibly empowered by this opportunity to make a change within their school community. I think that when we started the project, Daren and I were not sure that the opportunity to make a change within your school community would feel meaningful to young people. And I think that one of our learnings as we went along was that for young people, your school community is as real a community as any other community that you're a part of. And the opportunity to sort of make a change within that community absolutely felt transferrable to them in terms of their feelings of agency to make a change. So that's one example and I think... Let me turn to Daren to offer another one.

Daren Graves: I'm going to choose an out-of-school change example. One of the schools that we were working at, a European country had essentially created a travel ban to the neighborhood in which the school was located because it was deemed to be dangerous or whatever. Right?

And so the school and the students found out about this and the school organized the opportunity to both do research about how they came to these conclusions. Right? And then ultimately and more importantly, then actually physically went to that consul and met with the head consul person of that country and persuaded them or tried to persuade... I can't even remember if they were successful. It almost doesn't matter to me... to change this policy and to get that person to re-imagine how they would think about that community. So I thought that was a really great one.

Another one just real quick that was similar was in a different school that did year-long senior projects where they were supposed to be very community engaged. At this particular school, the community was going through gentrification. It had a long history of being a hotbed of culture for folks of color and was going through some changes. It was a real issue for that community in which the school was embedded. And so for the student senior project in which they spend the whole year basically doing research about the topic and then organizing some form of action to do around the research.

So the student was doing research on gentrification and integration in that community and then ultimately facilitated a gentrification community panel out in the community with community members, with leaders from the community who she was facilitating this conversation with. And so those examples where students were able to take the things that they learned, that the knowledge, the behaviors, the dispositions and move it outside the walls of their schools were also very exciting to us. Especially because it requires a disposition as a school, as school culture, as school leaders to just think of schools that situated within communities, not separate from them, and giving students the skills to be able to walk outside the walls of the school and still be doing important learning that's scaffold in a way that will help them develop both the skills and the will to do this work.

Scott Seider: And maybe I would just add just because I think a couple of the examples we offered might feel like really big examples, examples that are part of a whole unit or part of a whole senior project. I also think that we saw this work taking place in much smaller ways.

So, in fact, at the school that Daren was talking about that engaged with the consul general of a European country to push back against the travel warning, we also saw in a ninth grade humanities class in that same school, the students were studying colonialism. And the final assessment was to write a letter to one of your elected representatives expressing your opinion about what the United States relationship to Puerto Rico should be, what would be a just relationship. And the students wrote their letters and engaged in that process, sent them off.

And, of course, when you write to an elected representative, you get a response and somebody in that elected representative's office really does take the time to respond and to pay attention to this outreach. And I think the students also felt really empowered by that much smaller example of social action where they now knew who their elected representatives were. How do you reach out to them? If you reach out to them, you will get some interaction from that representative. And I think even a smaller example like that was an example of ways in which schools in our project were actively working to develop the skills and mindsets to do critical consciousness work with their students.

Jill Anderson: What were the students' reactions to this? Because hearing this, I think, gosh, this should just be happening everywhere, which I know it's not.

Daren Graves: Yeah, that's a great question. I think we were really trying to take a student-centered approach to this work and so we were really interested in trying to understand this through the eyes and the perceptions of the students.

What's really interesting about this work is that it was longitude and we did watch it. We started watching these scenes from ninth grade through 12th grade. And so some of the students we got to... We had subsets of students that we interviewed and watched and observed over time. So we would see change, some of which we would see students who maybe early on in their school careers didn't think there was a lot of injustice or unfairness in the world.

And then by the end they had like complex ways of understanding the ways that there was. And so some of this was about just seeing change. In terms of how they were reacting to, how they felt about doing this kind of schooling, some students loved it. It gave them language for things that they were experiencing and it affirmed, right? Their experience.

But some students might be like, "This is just something I got to do." Right? And so for some students the senior projects were like, yes, this is a chance. Right? For other students it's like, "I have to do a senior project because I have to do a senior project." Right? And I would think that really speaks to some of the different approaches and focus that the schools had. I'll let Scott say a little bit more about that, that I think that's part of the story of the research.

Scott Seider: One thing that jumps out at me right away is that at one of the schools, the school that we were talking about that had those senior projects where over the course of senior year, every single senior had to plan and then execute a social action project.

One of the fascinating things about watching that was that because every single senior in the school was doing it, they basically needed to enlist younger students to help them carry out the projects. And so what was really fascinating to us, and as Daren mentioned, we interviewed young people in each year of high school and as they went along. Yes, the senior year project was meaningful to a high percentage of students. Just as often we heard them tell us about their participation in an older students project as something that was really impactful and meaningful.

So it was really interesting to us to A, see that this senior year project had this ripple effect that permeated the entire school culture to the point that ninth graders would be telling us, "Oh, I'm already thinking about..." They called these projects the Change the World projects, and ninth graders would be telling you, "So I'm already thinking about a good Change the World project." And it was because they were watching the older students in their school carry out these projects and they were, in fact, participating alongside them.

So opportunities for students to teach other students is very, very, very powerful. And we saw that play out in different school in a number of different ways.

Daren Graves: I would say another really fascinating way in which students responded to this was when students started to take the skills and the dispositions, they were learning about resisting oppressive forces or racism and other things, and then applying that to the school itself. Right?

Scott gave great example where one school really created that space which we would advocate for, created a space for students to critique the school, make reasonable suggestions for change. But oftentimes what would happen a lot is that students would be like, "Well, hey, like this school, like let's look at all the teachers in this school," or looking at their racial demographics.

We had one particular class where they had an African-American literature class. The school was doing this on purpose as part of its mission and this class, which was predominantly black students named that we have a white male teacher teaching this African-American lit class and just named that dynamic is like that... Let's talk about that? Is this okay?

In that particular case, the teacher leader of that school, rather than squashing that and saying, "No, no, we are the teacher. We are the authority. We know what we're doing here." Right? "Don't worry about racism." Right? They said, "Okay, look. Let's think about this." And we saw that teacher's practice, who was very well-intentioned and a great teacher to start with, wasn't doing anything horribly wrong, but the intentionality of reaching out to the students, right? Letting them critique the space and then watch how the teacher changed his approach moving forward, trying to be more sensitive to that, naming his own positionality, naming the student's positional... Right? Was really powerful to see because part of the story is that some of these schools were just doing this, right? And we were just there to see how they were doing it. But some schools moved and changed.

Scott Seider: If we look at that specific African-American literature course and that specific school taught by a white teacher to a predominantly African-American group of students, watching the dialogue that the students asked for and the teacher made space for was really powerful. The students were reading James Baldwin in the class and the students, as a group, felt like the teacher's take on Baldwin and Baldwin's outlook on racial dynamics in the United States was too optimistic and they pushed for a different reading of Baldwin. So really watching this type of dialogue take place between the teachers and students, it felt like some of the richest learning that we watched take place.

Jill Anderson: That was a great example of being open to just stating the obvious and working through the challenges in that and uncomfortableness of it really, I guess.

Daren Graves: Right, and I think it's also a great example of the dispositions of being a reciprocal teacher. So, in other words, seeing your students as reciprocal teachers and learners. Even well-intentioned teachers, if they see themselves as the authority, can be threatened by the notion of students starting to say, "Hey, let's do things differently in here." For all teachers and especially, I think, for white teachers, having a reasonably reciprocal relationship with your students as teachers and learners will help just in the way of becoming a learner of your students so that you can better teach them.

Scott Seider: Another sort of fertile moment for critical consciousness work was when teachers got personal with their students. And for teachers of color, we observed examples where an African-American male teacher in one of the schools we were studying talk to his students about being pulled over by police officers one evening while he was picking up take out food, for no particular reason. And he talked to the students about that experience in a really straightforward way.

Another teacher of color in our study, the students were in her class were doing narrative writing and the teacher had put together her own narrative writing example about an important moment in her life. And she wrote about this moment in her first weeks of graduate school where she, a teacher of color, asked to join a study group and the white students in the study group said, "No, because no one here thinks you're going to graduate."

And she talked about the sting of that experience and her response to that experience. And those were really powerful, fraught but powerful, moments in the classroom where it felt like a lot of learning was taking place. And so it underscored for us that teachers of color have a powerful opportunity to do critical consciousness work around issues of race with their students, but as we've been talking about, we also think that there are opportunities for white teachers to be also personal with their students about their own experiences of whiteness and to be reflective about their whiteness and how that impacts their teaching and learning and their lives and their movement through the world.

That teacher leading the African-American literature class was a really terrific example of that kind of reflective teacher open to really engaging in dialogue about what his whiteness meant for himself and his students.

Jill Anderson: Were there things that you saw that just didn't seem to work?

Daren Graves: We had one school, predominantly African-American school, actually help students practice certain activism skills as they brought these students to one or two rallies that were about funding for state education and making it more equitable so that their school and other schools could get more funding. And so this was a school that definitely let them practice those skills in that way.

And this predominantly black school had predominantly white teachers and predominantly white leadership. After the firing of a particular staff member, the students just had enough and they were saying that the teacher staff was way too white and we want to make a statement about this. So they essentially planned a walkout of the school.

You know from our perspective, again, we are excited about opportunities for students to reasonably practice skills to navigate and challenge oppression. So what basically happened is the students organized a walkout, and the school reacted very punitively. In other words, students were going to be marked absent, and, therefore, students who were marked absent weren't going to get access to bathrooms. They weren't going to get school lunch. They weren't going to get a ride home. They were locked out. They weren't going to be able to participate in sports that afternoon. It was just a complete shutdown of this process which could have been handled really, really differently.

We were in other schools, and one other school, in particular, that the students wanted to do a walkout and it was controversial. I think it was around our current administration's policies, around immigration, and other things. Right? And parents were worried, either because they had their own different political views or just because they were worried about the safety of the students, and this school reacted very differently.

They took many, many different measures to ensure the safety of the students, to make it optional, to not punish students for being involved in this work. Quite the contrary, they were very happy to help, at least facilitate it as a teachable moment without necessarily advocating any particular political views.

And so yes, I think we have to understand that when we're doing this schooling for critical consciousness work, because racism is so pervasive and pernicious, students are going to see it happening in their schools, we need not take it personally because it's not necessarily reflection on our intentions or things like that. It's just the way that this system goes and we need to think of an outcome of schooling as having students to be civically engaged, and to shut down opportunities for students to be civically engaged in ways that are reasonable, in ways that protect their safety and other things, is countered to the purpose of schooling for us.

Jill Anderson: That's a big one because I know there was a lot of walkouts planned and it was controversial. What do you do when your students want to plan a walkout? Do you shut it down or do you allow it to happen? So sounds like from your work you allow it to happen in a smart, responsive, constructed way where there's something to learn from it.

Scott Seider: We don't want to sound naive in the sense that we absolutely recognize that when students are planning a walkout that is stressful for school leaders and educators in the sense that there are safety concerns, there are academic learning concerns, and so on and so forth. And so it's not our contention that this is not a challenging moment for a school leader or an educator. We would hope that school leaders would also recognize that this is a learning moment, and that students are doing something that's meaningful and important to them, and it certainly seems worthwhile to us to engage the students as mature civic agents in responding to this.

Daren referenced that there was one school that seemed to blow it in responding purely punitively and not recognizing there was opportunities for learning and dialogue and discussion on everybody's parts.

And then we watched another school have a really, really different response to a student walkout where the school leaders, first and foremost, made sure that this was going to be safe, and they really engaged in negotiation and discussion with the students to ensure safety in terms of where the walkout was taking place, and when it was going to happen, and so on and so forth, and then engaged with the students as responsible community members. And again, I think that was a school where the students came away from the experience feeling really empowered about the experience and really excited about the opportunity to be a civic actor in a community they cared about.

Daren Graves: And it definitely doesn't need to be successful either. I find that when it's not successful, that's actually even better because then the teaching continues and the real lifeness of it is there. And so I would also hope that educators earnestly trying to do this, don't see it as and, therefore, and they must, and the students also must get what they want too, right? Because that's part of it might be, as we saw in one of these schools, part of it might be they might get it, they might not, it's a negotiation. The real life is the process.

Jill Anderson: It sounds like a lot of this is really about embracing everything as a learning moment and being open to it for educators and school leaders.

Scott Seider: I think sometimes folks think about this critical conscious work as extra or even potentially a distraction from students' academic development. But I think I would say two things about that. So one, one of the principals of the schools we were studying, she explained that one of the reasons critical consciousness work was so important to her is that she herself was a woman of color. She was a black woman. And she explained that she needed this sort of critical conscious messaging to be a part of her own schooling in high school and college for the work itself to feel meaningful for her and to be able to contend with the racism that she was experiencing in the various communities in which she was learning. She felt like her students needed that critical consciousness work in order to have the resilience to continue to move forward with their academics and with their learning and with their striving.

And then our research actually supports that. By virtue of studying students over four years of high school, we collected data on their critical consciousness development from the beginning of ninth grade to the end of 12th grade. And then when we asked the schools for students' academic achievement data at the end of high school, and what we found was that students who demonstrated the steepest growth in their critical consciousness over four years of high school, that correlated with their cumulative grade point average. So in other words, the students who demonstrated the biggest gains in critical consciousness over four years of high school were also the students who finished high school with the highest grade point averages.

There's a lot of potential explanations about why that might be, and this wasn't a causal study, but I think that that principal I just referenced before was getting it right when she explained that the young people who were more critically conscious, or becoming more critically conscious, felt an additional sense of purpose and meaning in their academic striving because they had a sense of what they wanted to do with this academic learning and with this education they were obtaining.

Daren actually, I think, has done a good all the way through this project of reminding our research team and reminding educators with whom we're working that this critical consciousness work is not something that's separate from students' academic lives, but rather it's something that's enriching and informing student's academic lives.

Jill Anderson: So for people listening who might be educators, they're thinking, I don't do any of this, or I don't really know how to get started, but I'd like to incorporate some of this into my classroom. Where do you get started with something?

Scott Seider: Of course, it depends on what you teach, but I think you can think about small ways to begin. Quite a number of the schools that we were studying had their students in ninth or 10th grade reading Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. And The Bluest Eye is this book that, in a really interesting and engaging way, helps students understand the way in which the dominant standards of beauty influence the world in which we live in and influence the ways in which we move through the world. Those messages about dominant standards of beauty are racialized, there's gender implications, and it was really powerful to watch ninth and 10th graders be offered through this novel, this framework for making sense of a force in the world that they experience and that they recognize, but maybe they didn't have a name for.

Even in just the reading of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, you could see students' critical consciousness developing. That work wasn't taking place separate and apart from developing students' analytic skills, it was students applying those analytic skills to this issue of dominant standards of beauty.

The English teachers out there who are familiar with the Common Core know that there are all these opportunities within the Common Core to engage students in learning to take one text to make sense of another text. And quite a number of the schools that we were looking at would have students read a text like The Bluest Eye, but then they would give them an informational text like Peggy McIntosh's Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and students would use that text to make sense of what was happening in the novel.

That's a really small example of how critical consciousness work can take root, but I think it was a really powerful example.

Daren Graves: To the educators who were starting to do this work, I would start in one of those domains that you feel you're most comfortable teaching yourself or is most relevant to your class or your discipline. And for some of us, it might lend itself towards a Toni Morrison or something that's textual, something that's like, "Let's read something to flex our analytic skills," right?

For other classes, it's going to be about like, "Okay, yes, we recognize that there's different forms of racism. What does that mean for how we position ourselves, comport ourselves, in a space to help navigate those pitfalls?" Others people are going to feel really comfortable getting their students doing something, projects action, right? So I would start with the place that I think you feel you're the most comfortable doing yourself and that your school culture allows.

Jill Anderson: Scott Seider is an associate professor at Boston College. Daren Graves is an associate professor at Simmons University. They are the authors of Schooling for Critical Consciousness: Engaging Black and Latinx Youth in Analyzing, Navigating, and Challenging Racial Injustice. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. Please subscribe.

About the Harvard EdCast

In the complex world of education, we keep the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and our communities.

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly podcast about the ideas that shape education, from early learning through college and career. We talk to teachers, researchers, policymakers, and leaders of schools and systems in the US and around the world — looking for positive approaches to the challenges and inequties in education. One of the driving questions we explore: How can the transformative power of education reach every learner? Through authentic conversation, we work to lower the barriers of education’s complexities so that everyone can understand.


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

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