Applied Psychology OPUS

Mechanisms of Liberation: Towards an Inclusive Pedagogy

Alfredo Novoa, Andrew Greene & Rosa Hwang

We didn’t land on Plymouth rock, Plymouth rock landed on us.”

- Malcolm X

Marginalization of the peoples of North America dates back to the first landing of European colonists, when indigenous peoples lost the rights to natural, political, economic, and educational resources. History is littered with examples of how a population’s ability to thrive is dramatically stunted when it is denied access to basic resources (Bell, 1992). Particularly for children in urban communities, these inequitable circumstances have a greater presence in the educational system (Blanchett, 2006). Indeed, some social scientists hypothesize that schools replicate principles and ideologies of the dominant culture. The reinforcement of Eurocentric societal norms limits children’s capacities for self-expression (Wynter, 1990) and cultural exploration.

Through what has been termed “generations of consent,” schools transmit ideologies of a Eurocentric culture through generations of teaching (Bordieu & Passeron, 1977). Such covert pedagogical practices are considered divergent from history’s unconcealed forms of force and coercion to instill the values and beliefs of the dominant group into non-dominant groups (Fairclough, 1995; Mason & Ernst-Slavit, 2010; Swartz, 1992). An example of covert indoctrination appears early on in the educational system with expectations for preschool children to adhere to or adopt Euro-American narrative styles (Schick & Melzi, 2010). Narrative styles are but a single example of classroom generations of consent that inculcate Eurocentric ideologies. Exemplar privileging of the dominant culture highlights the neglect of non-Eurocentric students. Shirking non-Eurocentric identities may also have adverse effects on psychological development beyond academic achievement. Educators and researchers have raised various concerns about preventing and combating the problematic psychological development of non-Eurocentric students in America’s educational system with limited success. The challenge of improving psychological health might prove more surmountable if approached from a holistic perspective that considers overall well-being through the implementation of emancipatory curricula.

Theoretical Frameworks

In an effort to explore emancipatory factors of Black and Latino students influenced by traditional education curricula, the current paper will draw upon three frameworks: (1) critical social theory, (2) standpoint theory, and (3) critical consciousness. A complex set of ideas must intersect with one another in order to analyze the importance of relevant cultural history. A balanced viewpoint is possible by placing the students in the role of researchers, and thus assuming an emic approach to the development of emancipatory curricula. The main component of critical social theory (CST) is the idea that criticism is the defining aspect of a quality education (Leonardo, 2004). By maintaining an overarching stance on critical thinking, the educational content becomes contingent upon how deeply students can dig into the analysis based on their resources. CST emphasizes liberating students from the barriers of common sense by critiquing dominant societal norms, providing students the opportunity to produce novel understandings (Freire, 1970; Leonardo, 2003). Enabling students to critique cultural or structural resources beckons a shift from a position of inferiority and orients them as active participants whose experiences are actively incorporated into the learning process.

Standpoint theory as a pedagogical approach enriches the phenomenon of liberation that CST targets by placing a primary emphasis on student perspectives. Two major components of standpoint theory inform a pedagogical application. The first tenet holds that a person’s life experiences influence his/her social world (Littlejohn & Foss, 2005). Additionally, life experiences can inform the reciprocal relationship between the individual and society, whereby each entity possesses the power to influence the other in powerful ways (Hallstein, 1999). Second, to advance knowledge in an objective way, standpoint theory consistently privileges the local wisdom and narratives of marginalized groups, equating local knowledge with the academic knowledge of the researcher (Harding, 1997; Harding, 1998; Rodriguez, 2011). In socially reconstructing value from a group perspective, standpoint theory provides a framework for increasing the knowledge-base of students’ developing perspectives and viewpoints of society’s educational structure (Littlejohn & Foss, 2005; Hallstein, 1999; Hallstein, 2000; Harding, 1998). To create the contextualized knowledge of standpoint ideologies, however, researchers must adapt the critical consciousness framework to incorporate the historical, political, and socioeconomic inequalities of those most marginalized.

Local knowledge privileged through standpoint theory, together with a critical consciousness orientation, teaches oppressed or marginalized people to critically scrutinize their social conditions (Freire, 1970; Watts, Diemer, & Voight, 2011). In doing so, they effectively empower themselves in their abilities to act and effect social and political changes. Critical consciousness aims to build one’s view of oneself in societal context. Societal context is constructed through a process of historical reflection, political and social efficacy, and personal or group action toward discriminatory or inequitable social features (Martin-Baro, Aron, & Corne, 1994; Watts et al., 2011). Historical reflection refers to the in-depth analysis of historical structures, policies, and biases that promote socioeconomic and educational disparities. Political efficacy, in turn, refers to individual or group-level beliefs in one’s ability to effect change in society. Critical action, the final component of critical consciousness, posits that individuals will take personal or group action to change features of society that they consider to be discriminatory or inequitable (Watts et al., 2011). These components of critical consciousness can provide an in-depth process to recognize and expose oppressive mechanisms of society such as master scripting, or Eurocentric education that leads to the devaluing of other cultures (Swartz, 1992). At an institutional level, master scripting manifests in the pedagogy, practices, and theoretical patterns that confirm voices of the dominant group while simultaneously attenuating the voices of non-dominant groups (Swartz, 1992). Applying critical social theory, standpoint theory, and critical consciousness to create a foundational concept of “for the students, by the students” enables the potential for liberation from practices of master scripted pedagogy (Freire, 1970; Leonardo, 2004; Martin-Baro et al., 1994; Watts et al., 2011).

Drawing upon critical social theory, standpoint theory, and critical consciousness, the current project implemented a social justice curriculum in the participating New York City urban middle school. University undergraduate and 8th grade students assumed the role of co-researchers, examining historical events leading to outcomes affecting today’s educational systems. Together they examined fundamental economic, cultural, and political issues as they relate to education for Blacks and Latinos. As a launching point, we will enumerate a historical connection between the participating middle school and civil rights movement in order to establish local knowledge and build upon the foundation set forth by the students’ predecessors. The present study asked the question: How does the current social justice curriculum influence the development of liberation ideologies in Black and Latino students? We hypothesized that the Black and Latino students exposed to a social justice curriculum would critically scrutinize the education, incorporate their lived in experiences into the learning process, and act collectively and/or individually to address the inequitable factors in their school.

Revisiting Barriers for Blacks and Latinos in Education

Traditional pedagogical perspectives in American schools struggle to incorporate multicultural and equitable principles and content in curricula and policy (Fuller, 2003). By privileging historical content crediting European or White accomplishments, the system reproduces power dynamics between different cultures, particularly between European children and Black and Latino children (Blanchett, 2006; Swartz, 1992). Latino and Black children together are projected to make up forty four percent of the American student population by 2030 (Hernandez, Denton, & Blanchard, 2011), outnumbering the percentage of White children. Due to the racial/ethnic heterogeneity of students in America’s future educational system, educators and policy makers should place greater consideration on factors such as self-efficacy, student personal experience, and classroom diversity when implementing new curricula in an era of globalization.  

            Much of the emerging research on Black and Latino students focuses on educational disengagement and/or school drop out, as well as an array of adverse risk factors (Fine, 1991; Finn, 1989; Suaréz-Orozco, Pimentel & Martin, 2009). Many current educational and research approaches to promoting school achievement, however, tend to overshadow a deeper conversation in education. The focus for many working in the field of education on Black and Latino students has been on increasing test scores through increased discipline. A number of others, however, have focused on the education system as a mechanism for liberation and equity (Banks, 1996; Blanchett, 2006; Freire, 1970; Leonardo, 2004; Martin-Baro et al., 1994; Swartz, 1992; Wills, 2001; Wynter, 1990). Educational discussions such as these have prompted attempts to integrate historical perspectives of inaccurately represented groups (Bolgatz, 2007), yet its myopic extension of history positions students as cultural “tourists,” or distant outsiders, to their own roots (Banks, 1996). In school, Blacks and Latinos learn about specific historical events (e.g., sitting in the front of the bus, “I Have a Dream” speech) and selected individuals of their cultures, who are cast as heroes (e.g., Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr.). This practice often separates the events and individuals from the historical struggle of the entire group. Such historically selective education conveys both an implicit and explicit message of isolated heroism rather than courage and resilience as collective group traits. The censoring of multicultural perspectives into singular “exceptions” also blurs Black and Latino students’ capabilities for critically understanding social circumstances and historical inequalities (Wills, 2001; Wynter, 1990). Shirking historical contributions of other cultures is one of the strategies the current education system embraces to create master scripted Eurocentric perspectives (Swartz, 1992).

Master scripting often decontextualizes and misrepresents the narratives of minority groups’ historical leaders in education (Banks, 1996; Wills, 2001). Rather, historical minority narratives are often framed as “ethnic” contributions by exceptional individuals, which further marginalizes their significance by portraying them as exceptions and not elements of an entire group’s struggle for equality (Blanchett, 2006; Swartz, 1992). The phenomenon of master scripting obscures the positive effects of cultural affirmation and liberation ideologies in Black and Latino school experiences, thus limiting students’ abilities to scrutinize and challenge ingrained cultural misrepresentations and inaccurate accounts within existing power structures (Nieto, 2000). Embedding hegemonic ideologies of a dominant culture in the intellectual schemata of marginalized students hinders their ability to fully believe in or grow from their own personal experiences (Freire, 1970; Martin-Baro et al., 1994; Woodson, 1977). The effects of such practices disconnects students from their ancestral struggle for equality.

In order to counteract this disconnection and foster a strong sense of efficacy within marginalized groups, researchers must understand the ways that members of these groups communicate and interact with the world (Harding & Wood, 2003). Black and Latino students are socialized to internalize the lens of the dominant culture’s worldview, which hinders them from critiquing and challenging the systems that discourage academic and social progress for less privileged groups (Blanchett, 2006). Therefore, developing liberation ideologies is a necessary first step in promoting social justice and inclusion among members of our society. Teachers must also highlight the importance of encouraging Black and Latino students to confront and reevaluate the pedagogy of master scripting (Freire, 1970; Martin-Baro et al., 1994; Watts et al., 2011).

Critical Social Studies and its Liberating Influence on Black and Latino Students

The effort to restore life into a marginalized group calls for a strategic approach and application of liberating principles (Grant, Finkelstein, & Lyons, 2003; Freire, 1970; Martin-Baro et al., 1994; Moane, 2003; Watts & Serrano-Garcia, 2003). Latin American social scientists, educators, and revolutionaries (e.g., Paulo Freire, Orlando Fals Borda, and Ignacio Martin-Baro) are credited with defining liberation as a construct. A liberation curriculum provides three essential elements in constructing meaning: (1) practices implemented must speak to the population majority while co-constructor(s) simultaneously sacrifice their own personal gains and social status, (2) a grounded theory approach favoring ideologies of the oppressed population while re-creating a new truth through participatory action research, and (3) the process sheds subjectivity by collaborating and empathizing with the perspectives of the marginalized group (Luque-Ribelles, Garcia-Ramirez, & Portillo, 2009; Martin-Baro et al., 1994; Moane, 2003; Watts & Serrano-Garcia, 2003). The principles of liberation place particular emphasis on underlying the oppressed groups’ innate resiliency to survive tyrannical and traumatic events (Martin-Baro et al., 1994).

When implementing practices of liberation, the marginalized group must recover a comprehensive historical knowledge detailing all perspectives of experience. Black and Latino students can gain historical knowledge through exposure to multiple perspectives and interpretations of historical events (e.g., Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the “New World”). Including the indigenous people’s and captives’ narrative to the already established dominant narratives of the very same story might produce a different, richer understanding of history. Including the standpoint knowledge of marginalized students often leads students to de-ideologize the dominant culture’s traditional doctrines. Revisiting history in a holistic form provides a foundation for “counter-scripting,” the process of empowering oppressed populations to re-create new meanings and societal norms. Furthermore, historical understanding of society’s infrastructure and its institutions affords insight on why and how many of today’s injustices and inequalities persist (Freire, 1970; Malcolm X, 1967). Dialogues of historical events from such a perspective ultimately redirect accountability back onto the educational system for its historical exclusion of Black and Latino bodies, experiences, and narratives in the learning process. (Fine et al., 2004). Maintaining this perspective might reduce the blame that Black and Latino students subconsciously or consciously have placed on themselves.

Building on the fundamental aspects of liberation, educators of social justice education must render some of their traditional power as instructors (Freire, 1970; Martin-Baro et al., 1994). Under this orientation, a teacher’s role is interchangeable with that of the student, and the teacher often privileges student perspectives. This kind of reflexive learning cognitively engages students, making them masters of their own thoughts (Freire, 1970). Autonomy and agency in the learning process self-implicitly reinforces students’ self-confidence as they become stakeholders in their own education (i.e., through their alternate role as the educator, where they have a say in lesson plans and class structure).

A curriculum that is cognizant of students’ various experiences, realities and cultures creates a platform for critical dialogue (Woodson, 1977; Freire, 1970). A liberating framework encourages radical inclusion, where students facilitate dialogues about their development (e.g., school dropout and engagement) and the relation to academic achievement and liberation. This inclusiveness integrates students into dialogues usually reserved for social scientists, educators, politicians, and other societal elites (Torre & Fine, 2011). Through active dialogue, students’ standpoints and experiences are privileged in the process. Constructing curriculum from the standpoint ideologies of oppressed students allows them to more effectively facilitate liberation (Fine, 2006) re-shapes education as a totally democratic process (Torre, Fine, Stoudt, & Fox, 2012). Education promoting dialogue between students and teachers provides students with the voices to rename their worlds, create new meanings, and escape the narrow interpretations of the dominant culture’s perspective.

Curricular Correlates of Social Justice Education

Teachers and theorists have been exploring ways to implement social justice and critical consciousness in the classroom for some time (Freire, 1970; Mason, & Ernst-Slavit, 2010; Quinn, 2006). Driven by the search for equity in our classrooms, the current paper seeks to expand and increase the level of transparency behind master scripting (Swartz, 1992) in order to contribute to the process of democratization in the education system. Researchers have posed various explanations for the achievement gap, namely inadequate curricula (Black, 1998). One area where liberation theories seem to be most relevant and applicable is in social justice programming (Mason & Ernst-Slavit, 2010). Social justice programs aim to incorporate students as active participants in problem solving of their everyday experiences (Gutstein, 2003). Drawing once again from critical consciousness theory as it pertains to liberation, understanding these injustices requires a deep consideration of the condition students currently live in, as well as the social, economical, and political activities of their world (Gutstein, 2003; Mason & Ernst-Slavit, 2010). As such, when students achieve a greater sense of critical consciousness, they will be better prepared to promote equity as it pertains to their local context. A number of scholars have highlighted the need for implementing social justice, cross-cultural education, or multicultural education to understand inequities of the larger society (Beyer & Apple, 1998; Bolgatz, 2007; Gutstein, 2003; Mason & Ernst-Slavit, 2010), with little success in the political structures of educational systems.

The implementation of social justice education beckons a different instructional approach. It would behoove educators to approach social justice education as a form of promoting psychological well-being and positive development for Black and Latino students. It is evident that internalization of societal norms and stereotypes often occurs in Black and Latino students, which increases their susceptibility to pernicious psychological and behavioral consequences (Fine, 1991; Pahl & Way, 2006; Romero & Roberts, 2003; Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Watts & Serrano-Garcia, 2003). Research has linked these internalizing effects to Black and Latino students’ lack of school engagement and mistrust of school personnel (Aronson & Inzlicht, 2004). Being cognizant of the possible negative outcomes and taking steps to prevent them allows educators to focus more on de-ideologizing societal appropriations. Breaking down hidden social norms limits the possibility of recycled oppression or the reification of inequality that currently exists. Social justice education seems to be most effective in classrooms where teachers conceptualize it as something to be conveyed both explicitly and implicitly (Bomer & Bomer, 2001; Pelo, 2008). Teaching social justice explicitly includes creating awareness of the needs of other individuals and the community beyond the classroom (Eisenberg & Mussen, 1989). Through prosocial education, students explicitly develop a greater capacity for empathy, which promotes sensitivity in understanding other students’ social behaviors (Findlay, Girardi, & Coplan, 2006).

In order to establish empathic and sensitive awareness of the greater community and society, teachers must first foster a sense of togetherness within the classroom. Qualities of social justice are transmitted implicitly through subtle alterations to the classroom environment (e.g., debates, socratic discussions, circular seating arrangements). Through implicit teaching, a facilitator focuses on fostering cooperation and safety enhancing the level of trust in the classroom environment (Lickona, 2004). Establishing a sense of community and safety provides a structural foundation to explore liberation ideologies.


Research Setting and Participants

A social justice curriculum was implemented once a week during a 45-minute class period in an urban middle school in New York City. The classroom was arranged in a large circle in which three facilitators, not including the class instructor, led discussions connecting historical educational events in America to the local educational history of the particular school. The facilitators also taught students the basics of research and civic action. The current participants were part of a convenience sample, selected from a classroom in a school that was chosen based on its historical past as the site of a teachers’ strike centered around race and progressive education. The class consisted of approximately thirty 8th grade students ages 12-14, and the class was considered mixed-behavior (public schools in New York City rank and organize their students by level of behavioral competence and academic ability). Attendance fluctuated due to school administrators adding and removing students to and from the class. The majority of the students were Black and a few were Latino (98% black, 2% Latino), which reflects the general makeup of the school.
            The data in this study were obtained from researchers’ field observation notes as well as a mapping activity completed by students. Identity maps provided a qualitative mean for pictorial depictions of the students’ perceptions of a researcher. Students were provided with a brief prompt asking them to draw maps regarding their perceptions of a researcher. The facilitators coded the maps based on the way the students integrated their personal selves with social constructions of researchers and effective teaching and learning.
            Whereas maps provided a structured format, the facilitators’ field notes covered their observations of students’ one-on-one conversations, class feedback, and Socratic discussion, indicating a more fluid approach. The field notes were coded using theoretically anticipated themes, including liberation in education, prosocial behaviors, political efficacy, and critical action. The majority of the criteria were drawn from readings of social justice education, liberation psychology, and standpoint theory.

Results and Discussion

            The current study sought to explore how a social justice curriculum influences liberation ideologies and was organized around common themes based on theoretical assumptions from the qualitative data we collected in the classroom. We collapsed the data from maps and field notes rather than analyzing them separately by methods. It is important to note that this is a preliminary analysis of the current study. Other constructs such as liberation in education, pro-social behaviors, and critical action have not been evaluated, and data is still being collected.

A total of 20 maps were analyzed. An additional ten maps were missing due to absences or student failure to complete the activity. After analyzing mapping data concerning the perceptions of researchers, two themes were identified that encapsulate general perceptions of researchers and illustrated students’ notions of political efficacy. The following coding schemes were also used to develop inter-rater reliability. The first theme, “disconnected-researcher” reflects the degree to which the maps did not portray aspects of the students’ identity in the researcher. The second theme, “integrative-researcher” reflects the degree to which the maps portrayed integrated aspects of the students’ identity in to the researcher. Among the 20 maps, the facilitators discovered 11 “integrative-researchers” and nine “disconnected-researchers”.

 During the “draw a researcher” mapping activity, we also asked students to discuss their maps and a number of conversations arose regarding the students as researchers. Mario, age 12, explained his map, “This is me doing research, while eating chicken because I do my best research while eating chicken.” Another student  – John, age 12 - added, “This is me doing work on my computer because researchers do that, they sit at computers.” Many students later agreed that research could be conducted by anyone with the right tools.

These student narratives suggest an awareness of their self-efficacy to gain knowledge and be a potential resource for social change. We interpreted the eleven “integrative-researcher” maps as students’ self-perceptions of themselves as catalysts enacting social change. Conversely, the nine “disconnected-researcher” maps were interpreted as students’ beliefs of others, not specifically themselves, as catalysts enacting social change. It should also be noted that without the final results from additional measures, we cannot truly gauge each student’s level of liberation and critical action.

Limitations and Future Directions

One of the foremost limitations to the present study is the use of a highly convenient sample, as the nature of the selection criteria affected the level of participation among participants. The presence of the class instructor seemed to hinder the effort to create an equitable atmosphere because the instructor discouraged certain conversations regarding faculty practices. For future directions, facilitators may benefit from limited presence or a complete absence of school personnel. Another factor that might have influenced our outcomes is retention of the learned material over time. The facilitators would administered only one session per week for 45 minutes. A more frequent exposure to the curriculum material may allow for an increased sustainability of liberation and critical action. Understanding or exploring other ways the curriculum can have a continued presence in the classroom would be beneficial for the retention of information among students. A longitudinal design would provide a more in-depth analysis, and future studies should explore the long-term effects of curricula similar to the one used in this study. Another future direction might be the construction of a shared framework between the researchers and the students in order to better understand the process of how they conceptualize and internalize critical consciousness. Overall, the project did show promise in establishing students’ ability to openly and critically identify and discuss issues within the educational system. The students displayed critical thought when participating in curriculum dialogues and embraced their role as both students and facilitators.


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