Using Inquiry to Teach Social Justice in the Classroom

A big part of our role as educators is helping students understand the world around them and their role in it. Not only does this mean teaching students about the world itself, but it also means teaching students about the underlying issues – slavery, inequality, discrimination, sexism, and other social justice issues – that have persisted throughout the history of the world.

Through traditional subject-isolated learning, students learn the different components of their “education”. For example, they learn about historical events and the subsequent lessons learned in social studies. They learn about the literary contributions of POC and Indigenous people in their language lessons. However, they don’t always see how these subjects are interconnected. In these cases, cross-curricular learning can help students connect the dots and grasp the meaning of the content they’re learning about. But their learning needs to extend beyond simply connecting the dots. 

The Importance of Teaching Social Justice Issues

Now more than ever (particularly in our current climate), it is crucial that students find meaning in their learning. Students who stop at simply “connecting the dots” miss out on opportunities to act and create positive change in their communities. They miss out on chances to apply critical thinking skills to real-world issues that they and people around them experience. Finding ways to teach social justice issues to students is important for a few reasons:

Helps bring awareness to and an appreciation for the diversity in our society

By acknowledging the differences that exist in our communities (both visible and less visible ones), students learn about achieving a just and equitable society. They learn about fairness, empathy, and understanding. Recognizing the differences that exist in their communities helps them understand diversity and growth. Furthermore, students should be taught to recognize ignorance and injustices and approach others with knowledge and empathy. In doing so, they will gain the skills and confidence to make formidable change.

Encourages students to support the achievement of social justice for all

Bringing awareness to the diversity that exists in our society is the seed from which support and action can grow. Encouraging students to share their stories and experiences creates a safe space to connect and contribute to the goals of social justice movements. It helps students be a part of the achievement of these goals. As a result, this encourages them to become active and engaged members of their community.

Social Justice Starts in the Classroom

When thinking about beginning a social justice inquiry unit in your classroom, remember that the planning begins with a shift in attitude and habits. To start, social justice should not be viewed as simply an “add-on” in classrooms. Teachers need to work to create a classroom that is inclusive, supportive, and accepting even before students enter the room. Infusing your classroom with ideas about social justice is more than a shift in language or habit; it is a way of teaching that supports the critical thinking and social skill development that is necessary in a 21st century classroom.

Before heading back to the classroom in September, consider making decisions about the way the physicality of your classroom is set up.

Things to Consider:

Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) – Cropped for size
  • Choosing texts that address themes related to social justice, oppression, human rights, and the experiences of individuals throughout history

  • Hang artwork centred around social issues and created by artists who predominantly use their artwork for social change (for example, Emory Douglas)

  • Display different world maps that feature language distinctions, political borders, government types, and other information that helps to highlight issues around the world

  • Use a word wall to showcase important and relevant terminology so that it becomes part of students’ everyday vocabulary

  • Showcase lyrics of popular music and songs with social justice themes to identify their message and impact on a display board

  • Hang posters, photographs, and prints from a wide variety of artists, musicians, politicians, social activists, authors, and other prominent figures (here are some great lessons to help with this)

  • Pin newspaper articles or photos of events taking place currently and leave them up to provoke questions, the sharing of opinions, and discussion in general

  • Place a “student voice/student choice” box or folder in a prominent place in the classroom; encourage students to contribute by writing down experiences they want to share, questions they have about social justice, or positive messages to a friend

  • Consider whether the books, photos, poems, and stories in your classroom present one narrative – if they do, add some new material in the classroom that present different viewpoints

Social Justice and Inquiry Learning

Download our Social Justice Inquiry Questions (PDF) here

Social justice issues are strongly linked to inquiry learning. The emphasis in inquiry learning to explore and bring awareness to interest-specific topics is similar to the aims of social justice activists. Just as activists find a cause they are passionate about and advocate for it, students during inquiry learning operate in a similar way.

With social justice at the centre of an inquiry unit, teachers must first ensure that a few things are in order. First, that they are considering the diverse learning experiences of students. Showing students that you value what they already know is important for bringing social justice to the forefront. Second, ensuring that you have taken steps to encourage student voice and choice. This helps students become both actors and facilitators of change. Finally, it is important to teach students how to spot the difference between fact and opinion, how to consider others’ points of view, and how to make decisions based on all the information available. Students need to be able to use critical thinking skills and make independent and informed decisions. This does not include simply echoing the opinions of their teachers, friends, or parents. A great self-checklist can help you achieve these aims:

Creating a Classroom of Community

In addition to providing student voice and choice in the classroom, teachers can establish a sense of community by creating and enforcing rules that teach fairness and inclusion. Furthermore, teachers can use lessons as opportunities to weave in discussions about these topics. Teaching students to share their ideas and respond respectfully to others is a powerful way to teach civil discussion. Facilitating discussions that allow for respectful disagreement while still valuing the contributions of everyone is an important step. Also, providing model responses to student opinions and using empathetic language provides them with an accessible framework to use in their own conversations. Some discussions may revolve around:

  • racism and otherism
  • bullying and friendship issues
  • relationships and dating
  • intrapersonal relationships and mental health

Ideas for Social Justice Inquiry Projects

Download our Personal Development Inquiry Questions (PDF) here

Beginning a social justice inquiry that allows for freedom of choice but still provides some parameters can be a bit tricky. Once the groundwork is laid, you can explore meaningful topics for your students to pursue.

Projects That Are Close to Home:

  • Students choose a problem or event in their neighbourhood or larger community (such as racism, poverty, homelessness, inequality, or another topic) and create a documentary. Alternatively, they could create a project that explores the problem from their perspective and offers solutions to fix it.
  • Encourage students to interview people who have made a difference in their community. They can compile their responses, research events that their subject took part in, collect photos and memorabilia, and ask other members of the community how they were impacted by the subject. Students can create an iBook, digital portfolio, or a visual presentation that centres on their chosen subject. Perhaps they might be able to bring that person in to talk to the class or school.
  • Students may also reflect on a recent trip they took (in their own city, country, or abroad) and put together a documentary that outlines the social injustices that they witnessed there. Including historical facts, present-day views, as well as their perspective can produce a thorough and enriching project that is both meaningful and empowering for the student.
  • Students could choose to bring awareness to a new initiative being implemented in their city or neighbourhood and give thanks and praise for that. Alternatively, students could bring light to a positive aspect of their neighbourhood that others may not know about yet. For example, a new community clean-up initiative, refurbished community spaces, or the construction of shelters for homeless people.

Global Issues:

  • Introducing blogs to students can open doors to many opportunities for students to explore their creative writing. Students can create online posts around a specific theme, taking the form of a photo essay, daily reflections, or a large-scale project that the student is passionate about. Creating a safe social media platform for students to share their projects allows them to share their views with prominent people. For example, they could reach out to celebrities, politicians, or high-ranking members of their community to raise awareness.
  • Choose a global event and help students to create a project that shows how that event is impacting their family or community. Students have the opportunity to research, interview, and engage with members of their family or community and compile the facts and views into a powerful video or presentation.
  • Write letters to politicians, corporations, or organizations to change policies or encourage them to take a more active role in the communities they serve. They may also decide to raise money for a cause that is special to them, organize a food drive, or put together a volunteer initiative, for example.
  • Students choose a POC or Indigenous writer, artist, author, activist, or musician and create an exposé featuring that particular person. Students can choose to create a digital presentation, a physical display, or create a poem, rap, or dance to communicate their findings.

A list of some great social justice resources can be found here and here.

Putting it All Together

The aim of social justice is to achieve a just and equitable society. An increasingly important task that educators have is helping students understand what a just and equitable society looks like, and how students can make that happen. Not only does this mean teaching students about the world itself, but it also means teaching students about the underlying issues that have persisted throughout the history of the world. Working to create change in the classroom begins with a teacher who is willing to get knee-deep in the tangles of these issues and work to create a classroom of learners who are respectful, inclusive, and confident to drive change. 

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