Social Justice in the Elementary Classroom

Todd E. Jennings, Sam M. Crowell, Phyllis F. Fernlund

One of the unique characteristics of the elementary school classroom is that a teacher and a group of children are together all day for an entire school year. This school experience can provide a long-term, supportive, cohesive environment, and much of social studies can become absorbed into the life of the classroom in a far more powerful way than in a 15-minute time block twice a week devoted to reading and memorizing content. Social studies concepts, values, and democratic principles can become part of the lived experience in the classroom. It is in this context that issues of social justice become significant. This article will examine the concept of social justice in relation to our classroom communities and provide a transformational view of social studies instruction.

Social Justice and Community

Classrooms which embody social justice are environments in which individuals and groups have equal access to resources and opportunities. They also entail the discovery and honoring of “voice.” Social justice, as a goal of democratic societies, embraces the individual expression of ideas and perspectives as inalienable rights to be protected at all costs. This requires an atmosphere of respect and dialogue that is both encouraging and safeguarding.

When students create environments where they have opportunities to discover and explore
questions rooted in their social experiences, they will inevitably raise issues concerning social inequities and problems. These concerns arise from their daily lives in the classroom, the school, and beyond; they may range from student concerns about safety, the environment, and the humane treatment of animals to how disputes are settled during recess, or who gets certain privileges at school. Sometimes these issues are in the form of questions; at other times they come as complaints, conflicts, and acts of resistance. How we deal with them significantly impacts the degree to which a classroom culture is inclusive, students are empowered, and social justice is modeled.

An active learning atmosphere where children participate, create, and interact provides a foundation for a social studies curriculum which embodies justice. Learners need to work with others, to try out new ideas on others, to receive and give help, to talk about experiences, and to create something new with another. We also know that a child’s voice is an important part of learning and builds a sense of efficacy. For example, children who are creating books with their
own stories and illustrations have a “voice” in the classroom; they become authors in their own right to be read alongside those adult writers whose books fill the classroom and library. Since classroom participation is strongly associated with learning and achievement (Cohen, 1987), cooperative learning has a strong appeal. We know that learning does not occur in isolation. But even beyond this, social participation is rooted in early community experiences. Children learn how to participate in, benefit from, and contribute to civic and international communities based upon their early experiences in classroom communities.

The Transmission Model and Group Process

Although useful in certain instances, didactic, transmissional instruction does not lead to community, expressions of student voice, or opportunities to explore social injustice. Even social studies programs that are more active— incorporating units, simulations, and cooperative grouping, may utilize the transmissional model more than we realize. Transmission models of education focus on the teacher and texts transmitting other people’s knowledge, often without sensitivity to the student’s own knowledge building. In our rush to cover the district’s curriculum guide or the state framework, learners may come to feel that their own views are unimportant or that their own growth is not what school is all about. Often a teacher may only emphasize students deficits.

Research on the task group level (Cohen, 1987) reveals that low status children often do not participate in the group task. Low status children may be those designated by peers as unpopular, unattractive, of lower social class, or otherwise different from the dominant group’s ideal. They may be English language learners, poor readers, or children of non-dominant races, ethnicities, or religious backgrounds. As a result, they are often silent or perhaps excluded, and the participation and achievement is allotted to high status children.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is created within the group context itself, and low status children are silenced and treated as if they have nothing to offer. The point is that status represents a kind of power that is given and taken away by social groups. Hence, cooperative learning groups may, if left unchecked, fail to be cooperative at all and may further reinforce social inequality.

Transformational Social Studies

The transformational model as an alternative to the transmission model does not seek to simply have students mirror the thinking of teachers and texts. Rather, it asserts that the construction of knowledge (particularly knowledge of society and one’s role in it) is related to self-concept and develops only within lived social experience. Concerns for social justice follow students’ understanding of themselves in relation to societal structures and the groups who make up the society. Consequently, transformational social studies focuses on complex learning experiences and learning communities which impact students’ self-understandings relative to society and provides students with opportunities to see themselves as individuals and group members who can make a difference.

How can teachers create transformational learning communities in which social justice is modeled and lived? The teacher must be able to analyze the social context of the classroom. A teacher, who can critically assess what is happening to low and high status children as a result of curricular and classroom management choices, is able to reverse the processes that work against equal access to resources, fair rules, participation opportunities for all, civility, cooperation, individual growth, and feelings of efficacy.

The transformational classroom focuses on the meaningful and purposeful application of learning, not on the demonstration of skills for their own sake. Erich Jantsch (1980) suggests that for too long we have concentrated on “knowing what” and “knowing how” without a deep understanding of ourselves in relation to others and to our environment. A transformational orientation asks: Can the teacher as well as the children in this learning community use their knowledge to create something that changes life for the better? Does the classroom community permit and encourage the teacher and the students to ask what kind of people they want to be and what kind of world they want to live in (Harste, 1994)? These questions form the basis of the transformational model.

Ideas for Implementation

Transformational classrooms and schools perceive themselves to be micro-reflections of society. They work to counteract the social inequities of contemporary society and to generate a more just and humane vision of the future. Some brief suggestions to consider when implementing a transformational model of education are:

• First, elementary social studies for social justice begins by understanding the classroom as a socio-political community: helping children to understand social relationships, reciprocity, power, and community. As Dewey claimed, “We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment” (1966, p. 19). In this process, teachers need to identify and counteract ways in which classrooms replicate the social injustices (e.g., racism, sexism, classism) present in the larger society. Children need opportunities to engage in social critique, addressing both their classroom and their society.

• Second, transformational social studies uses problem-solving situations in which dilemmas of justice are presented in their historical contexts. For example, students might confront the question of fighting against tyranny versus maintaining loyalty to England that many early pre-American revolutionaries faced. They might consider the case of those who risked their lives to oppose either slavery or aggression against the Native Americans or the plights of workers—particularly child factory laborers—in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These stories not only bring social studies to life, but they allow students to come face-to-face with questions of
justice and to engage in social critique. Transformational learning can occur as these situations are expanded to encourage reflection upon the students’ own power relationships, lives, and the complex world in which they live.

• Third, dialogue and opportunities to interpret text help students to discover their own “voices” and may help them to relate their own experience to what is being studied. It is important that students have the opportunity for subjective and emotional responses to learning. This is not to ignore rational analysis or conclusion, but rather to understand that social injustice requires a more multi-dimensional response. How can students feel deeply connected to others and show concern and compassion in light of oppression, if we pursue knowledge only with dispassionate objectivity? We may actually encourage students to become dispassionate observers of oppression, apathetic and impotent to redress injustice through an inadequate curriculum.

• Fourth, classroom cultures can recognize the importance of rights, respect, and responsibility, and encourage interaction whereby oppression and conflict are dealt with justly and constructively. These values and constitutional principles provide a process by which pluralism and unity are in dynamic equilibrium. Using these principles in constructive dialogue promotes the value of diverse perspectives and allows for the critical examination of issues affecting us.

• Fifth, student involvement in social action projects models active citizenship and creates an experience of solidarity with others who have similar concerns. Joining with other classes, schools, and community organizations suggests to students that they are a part of something larger than themselves and convinces them of the power inherent within cooperative efforts against injustice.

The social studies for social justice curriculum is multi-layered and necessitates a transformational learning process. It is a curriculum of possibilities both for individuals, groups of students, and for the future of society. As Maxine Green so eloquently states, it is a vision of education that brings together the need for wide-awakeness with the hunger for community, the desire to know with the wish to understand, the desire to feel with the passion to see. We may have reached a moment in our history when teaching and learning, if they are to happen meaningfully, must happen on the verge...empowering the young to create and recreate a common world—and, in cherishing it, in renewing it, discover what it signifies to be free. (Green, 1990, p. 23)

Cohen, E. (1987). Groupwork. New York: Teachers College Press.
Dewey, J. (1966). Democracy and education. New York: The Free Press.
Green, M. (1990). The dialectic of freedom. New York: Teachers College Press.
Harste, J. (1994). Whole language video conference. Symposium conducted at the School of Education, California State University, San Bernardino.
Jantsch, E. (1980). The self-organizing universe: Scientific and human implications of the emerging paradigm of evolution. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

About the Authors
Todd E. Jennings is Assistant Professor in the Department of Elementary and Bilingual Education at California State University, San Bernadino. He teaches courses in developmental psychology and research methods. His research focuses primarily on the psychological and educational foundations of human rights advocacy.

Sam M. Crowell is Associate Professor of Education at California State University, San Bernadino and Executive Director of the Center for Research in Integrative Learning and Teaching. He teaches courses in educational foundations, social studies, and curriculum. Sam consults throughout the country on brain-based learning, school restructuring, integrative curricula, and experiential learning. His research involves translating the implications of new paradigms and new ways of thinking into educational practice.

Phyllis F. Fernlund is Chair of the Department of Secondary Education at California State University, San Bernadino. Her research and teaching focus is in social studies education and instructional technology. Phyllis is the co-author of a text, Civics, by Addison-Wesley.