Rejecting Face Value: Critical Consciousness in the Classroom

In the fall of 2015, Roni Dean-Burren’s son texted her a picture of this caption in his world geography textbook: “The Atlantic slave trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”

Dean-Burren posted a video on Facebook addressing the misleading caption. It went viral, garnering more than 2 million views and sparking a national conversation about how we teach race and history in American classrooms. 
Dean-Burren and her son could have simply accepted the description offered by the textbook, or they could have ignored it. They did neither. Instead, they recognized that the text had elevated one perspective or “reading” of history and silenced another. Their actions reflect a strong critical consciousness.

Critical Consciousness is the ability to identify, critique, and challenge the social forces that produce inequity and oppression.

Dr. Neal Lester, the founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, describes critical consciousness as “approaching any text, approaching anything we can understand and perceive, with a sense of the why, how, who, when, what.” Over the course of his career as a literacy teacher, Dr. Lester recognized that students are more concerned with what happens than why something happens, and so the “why” and the “how” become fundamental to connecting literature with human experiences.

Dr. Neal Lester Speaks with Students at a Clothing Drive

Teachers can incorporate crucial consciousness into their curriculum effectively by making the familiar seem strange and helping students develop a language of critique.

To make the familiar seem strange, teachers can position students to identify and critically analyze hidden assumptions, values, or power structures within familiar things such as school policies, movies, music, advertising, and current events.

To help students develop a language of critique, teachers can encourage them to ask questions such as:

  • Whose perspectives are reflected in this text? Whose are absent?
  • Whose interests are served? Whose are not?
  • What assumptions are being made?
  • Whose values are being transmitted?
  • Who has power in this situation and where does it come from?
  • How might this look from the perspective of…?

Integrating critical consciousness into curriculum helps students conceptualize citizenship as the action of using one’s knowledge to diminish the suffering of others on an individual and societal level. Teachers, however, should be aware of imposing their own perspective on students and should frequently engage in analytical introspection to combat that inclination.

For more teaching strategies and resources, check out the Sanford Inspire Program’s free, online professional development module Using Critical Consciousness to Challenge Inequity.