It is an important part of a democracy for citizens to be critical thinkers who question the status quo. Do we want to live in a world where youth passively accept media propaganda, submit to dictator-style leadership, and accept systems that harm their fellow citizens, or would we rather a world where youth are taught to question why these things are happening?

High school students sitting on desks have a discussion

In schools, various forms of “open” discussion have commonly been used to promote civic education. A few years ago, we studied an elite high school (enrolling privileged, resourced, Ivy League–bound students) that set out to build students’ character by committing to discussion-based learning in every content area. Discussion-based learning can take many forms, such as Socratic discussions, debates, and more; this school emphasized egalitarian relationships between students and teachers, where teachers acted as facilitators and students actively listened to one another and guided the conversation.

After observing 50+ classrooms over the course of a year, we were blown away by the consistent sense of community created between the teachers and students alike. We regularly observed classes where teachers facilitated only occasionally while students’ own initiative drove the class with insightful perspectives, questions, and encouragement of one another. When two students spoke at once, they would often respectfully cede the floor to each other; when a student hadn’t spoken in a while but seemed primed to speak, classmates would gently invite them into the discussion; peers regularly challenged each other to consider alternate interpretations and approaches, and students readily experimented with these suggestions.

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With this form of civic education, students exhibited initiative, risk taking, care for one another’s thoughts and opinions, authentic open-mindedness, the ability to advocate for themselves and each other, and genuine curiosity and love of learning.

But through our research, we noticed a missed opportunity: Although youth were developing a profound sense of obligation to one another (to other youth of privilege), they were falling short of extending this commitment to others beyond their elite institution. In other words, they weren’t showing a true orientation toward justice.

It took such thoughtful and reflective teaching to create this kind of environment, which already isn’t easy to achieve. How do we go even further and help students foster compassion for others and commitment to the greater good in the world?

Three types of citizens

Researchers Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne posit that there are three types of citizens:

  • Personally responsible: Citizens who act responsibly in their community (like contributing to a food drive).
  • Participatory: Citizens who actively organize ways to make their community better (like organizing a food drive)
  • Justice-oriented: Citizens who critically analyze social and political forces and address injustice through collective strategies (like thinking critically about inequity, investigating the root causes of hunger, and working to alleviate the problem).

At the elite high school, we observed classrooms full of personally responsible citizens. Students exhibited upstanding behavior, had a commitment to learning and problem solving, and even talked about feeling that they had a “moral obligation” to participate in order to move classroom discussions forward on more than one occasion. Again, this is absolutely something to be celebrated and appreciated. Anyone who teaches knows that creating that kind of community is no small feat, and one that takes time, patience, trust, relationship-building, and thoughtfulness to achieve.

But here is where we can push this classroom further.

In his book, What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good, Westheimer points out that while personally responsible citizens may be kind and law-abiding people, they will not move a democracy forward and could instead exacerbate current inequalities. The students we observed exhibited excellent examples of care and concern, but they did not yet show signs of justice-oriented citizenship. In fact, we documented only two examples of participatory citizens (students participating in a feminist club) and just one example that could be categorized as justice-oriented citizenship (one student shared how she spoke up against a prejudiced stereotype when visiting a family friend).

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We see discussion-based, student-driven teaching as having incredible potential—but also falling short—of what is needed to foster justice-oriented democratic citizens who are prepared to tackle an increasingly complex and ever-changing world.

Four strategies for justice-oriented citizenship

So what can we do as educators to foster justice-oriented citizens? Below, we outline four approaches for consideration. As you read, keep in mind that while personally responsible citizenship can be a first step toward participatory and then justice-oriented citizenship, this process is not necessarily linear; the suggestions below can also be an important place to start in order to engage students and build a cohesive classroom community.

1. Define your goal.

  • First, you need to be clear on what type of citizen you are trying to foster. Westheimer and Kahne’s framework above is a useful place to delineate the different citizenship goals we have for our students. What is your endgame? Just like a good lesson plan, we need to have a clear objective in mind in terms of our overarching goals.
  • With that in mind, set clear expectations for how to engage in classroom discussions while also upholding clear moral principles for the kind of ethical care you expect in class. For example, you might draw on guidance from different civil discourse groups, such as The Better Arguments Project or the Greater Good Science Center’s own Bridging Differences Playbook.

2. Infuse discussions with real-world topics.

  • Allow students to generate the topics of discussion. For example, perhaps they want to talk about what violence in their country means for their development. Others might want to consider the impact of climate change on their lives. Consider how these topics can be an avenue for engaging class content, rather than a distraction.
  • Bring in what critical pedagogue Luis Moll called students’ “funds of knowledge” by allowing them to draw on their expertise from outside the classroom in their in-class discussions. For example, students might compare their own community or cultural traditions with those being studied in class.
  • Allow students to explore their burgeoning curiosity about their sociopolitical world through focusing on their local community, their own identities, and the contextual identities and topics students see arising in their communities. Researcher Gholdy Muhammad, for example, suggests having students create letters to future generations about real-world sociopolitical issues that they find important. Although this could be done independently, students could also pen this letter jointly as a class.

3. Teach students via discussion how to analyze the world around them.

  • Consider giving students different frameworks to understand forms of inequality and oppression, such as the “Three I’s of Oppression” (interpersonal racism, internalized racism, and institutional racism). This can serve as a foundation for students to begin to talk about and understand the ways in which structural racism and classism impact society and individuals. The Zinn Education Project has a great example of how one school in San Francisco used math class (partnering with other disciplines) to engage students in understanding the inequalities in their neighborhoods.
  • Alternatively, particularly in humanities classes, historical events of structural inequality can be woven into the curriculum. For example, one school we observed in another research project chose to study the Haitian Revolution in 1791, apartheid in 20th-century South Africa, and the colonization of Puerto Rico by Spain and the United States and specifically focused on how citizens of those countries responded as a way for students to see examples to learn from. This allows students the chance to deploy their critical thinking skills toward understanding how structural forces shape historical and present-day society.
  • Finally, one particular discussion protocol dedicated to helping students analyze social structures is the idea of a Freirean Culture Circle. In this format, students are given a “code”—some form of artifact, text, music, etc., that represents a social problem—and then asked to discuss their own experiences with this problem, why they think the problem exists, and what they think can be done to address it. For example, in other research we observed a classroom culture circle where students watched a brief clip from Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke to look at the root causes of Hurricane Katrina.

4. Move beyond the classroom by encouraging students toward action.

  • Researchers Paul Gorski and Katy Swalwell have noted: “There comes a time when social justice awareness in the absence of justice-oriented action looks like plain old complicity.” School-required service projects, or “capstone” projects, that ask students to put their social analysis to good use in their communities are one way to help move students from analysis to action. Moreover, discussion learning remains an important way for students to strategize how to best make use of these capstone projects and how to work together to put them into place. For example, you might consider using small professional learning discussions for students to meet regularly to give feedback to one another on their ongoing action projects.
  • Beyond just creating opportunities for students to engage in action, students also need to build their agency in doing so. Feeling agentic—confident in your ability to take action—does not develop in a single lesson, of course, but instead is the result of layers and layers of discussions of real-world topics, chances to practice advocating for justice (in both small and large ways), and learning concrete skills for taking action (letter writing, public speaking, research, learning from feedback).

Navigating barriers to justice-oriented citizenship

Using these teaching strategies to nurture justice-oriented citizenship is all well and good if your school administration and community are on board, but what if they’re not? What if you get pushback, or if your state doesn’t allow critical pedagogies? This is such a challenging spot to be in, but here are a few suggestions as a place to start:

  • Focus on creating alignment around your school’s goals for students’ civic and citizenship learning. What do different stakeholders want? Consider referencing research such as the Fordham Institute’s “Parents and the Politics of Social-Emotional Learning” to understand how different groups understand academic-adjacent education in the classroom today.
  • Reflect on your educational philosophy. What is it that you are willing to advocate for? Character educator Marvin Berkowitz utilizes the phrase, “Dream big, think small, act now.” When big changes feel insurmountable, take whatever small steps you can toward your goals in your school.
  • Attend to belonging and critical thinking. As Christina L. Dobbs noted in a 2017 workshop, a foundational goal for us as educators must be to both create a sense of belonging and also develop our students’ skills as critical thinkers; make space to share a counter-narrative; honor and celebrate students’ funds of knowledge; and allow students to challenge accepted understandings.

As teachers, we need to continually challenge ourselves to reflect on the topics we engage with, the perspectives we bring into the classroom, the voices we respect, and the opportunities we present. By drawing on a variety of strategies, we can continue to push students beyond their classroom bonds, to be equipped with the skills and dispositions to identify inequality—and to do something about it.

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