Harvard Educational Review
  1. Against Common Sense

    Teaching and Learning toward Social Justice

    By Kevin Kumashiro

    New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004. 121 pp. $21.95

    Full Text:

    In Against Common Sense: Teaching and Learning toward Social Justice, Kevin Kumashiro calls on educators to critically examine the everyday decisions of teaching and learning in an effort to design education that is anti-oppressive and affirms social justice. Against the backdrop of his rich teaching experiences, Kumashiro presents a clear and compelling vision for anti-oppressive education, offers a fresh and creative model for understanding teacher development, and provides readers with practical pedagogical insights for applying this understanding.

    Kumashiro defines anti-oppressive teaching as a process wherein teachers work “paradoxically with knowledge, that is, to simultaneously use knowledge to see what different insights, identities, practices, and changes it makes possible while critically examining that knowledge (and how it came to be known) to see what insights and the like it closes off.” Central to Kumashiro’s tenets of anti-oppressive teaching is the understanding that the “actual practice of anti-oppressive teaching is always in need of being problematized.” The fluid, context-specific, and highly subjective nature of teaching and learning makes it clear that anti-oppressive teaching is not an accomplishment or achievement as much as it is a process that requires constant reflection, a critical outlook, and a willingness to problematize how “any approach to teaching is partial.”

    In the first of two parts of the book, Movements toward Anti-Oppressive Teacher Education, Kumashiro conceptualizes anti-oppressive teacher education by examining the images of “teacher” as presented by teacher-education programs focusing on social justice. By conducting research on eighty teacher-education programs in the United States, including document analysis and interviews with students and faculty from forty of those programs, Kumashiro finds that these programs reflect three common teacher images: the teacher as learned practitioner, as researcher, and as professional. From these images, Kumashiro builds a compelling argument that these conceptualizations of the teacher may reflect oppressive tendencies of education. For example, while it is important for teachers to build a practitioner knowledge base — on their students, the curriculum, and the craft of teaching — Kumashiro also notes the necessity of acknowledging the limits of teacher knowledge. Teachers can never fully know their students, and there are numerous ways and frameworks teachers can use to help understand them. Using such examples, Kumashiro challenges us to unearth the limits and the possibilities of building practitioner knowledge, the inevitable subjectivity of teacher research, and the need to trouble the “commonsensical notion that increasing the professionalization of teaching will help to address oppressions in schools and society.”

    Kumashiro then builds four alternative images of teachers as individuals dealing with crisis, uncertainty, healing, and activism, and suggests ways these images “can make possible new advances in the movement toward social justice.” By crisis, Kumashiro means “a state of emotional discomfort and disorientation that calls on students to make some change.” Part of preparing teachers for crisis, however, is training them to structure experiences that help students navigate through it. In preparing teachers for uncertainty, teacher educators must challenge teachers to understand both intentional and unintentional ways of teaching how students might perceive such teaching. Influenced by “an activist strand of Buddhism known as ‘socially-engaged Buddhism,’” Kumashiro’s thoughts on preparing teachers for healing rests upon the premise that we must treat knowledge paradoxically — that is, to “use it in ways that help us improve our lives, but constantly interrupt the suffering that results from how we learn and what we think.” Lastly, informed by queer activism, Kumashiro argues that teachers must continually “ask how our practices contribute to oppression” and address the resistance and discomfort within schools in acknowledging those oppressive practices.

    Kumashiro, who believes that the most important implications for anti-oppressive education lie in teaching and learning inside classrooms, provides practical insights to educators in the second part of his book, Preparing Anti-Oppressive Teachers in Six Disciplines. He offers lessons in the disciplines of social studies, English literature, music, foreign languages, the natural sciences, and mathematics. Through these lessons, Kumashiro grounds his compelling theoretical insights from the first part of the book in the daily struggles and decisions of teaching. Lessons are developed for all six disciplines, thus dispelling the notion that anti-oppressive teaching is limited to areas such as social studies, which focus on the social aspects of humans’ lives. Each lesson focuses on one topic within the discipline and draws from Kumashiro’s experience with elementary, middle, and secondary students. Rather than providing a blueprint for best teaching practices, the lessons provide the reader with an understanding of how the theories of anti-oppressive teaching, detailed in the first part of the book, can be practically applied in the classroom.

    Central to each lesson is the honest, critical, and self-reflective stance that Kumashiro argues is necessary for anti-oppressive teaching. Kumashiro presents the strengths and weaknesses of the lessons, many of which are gleaned from the candid conversations he engages in with his students. In a lesson on Native Hawaiian music and its influences from Christianity, Kumashiro describes some of the hidden messages that can permeate teaching. During a discussion with students on the lesson’s strengths and weaknesses, Kumashiro realizes the contradiction that his “lesson on the colonialist nature of what we want students to sing and what we tell students about music’s cultural context can simultaneously reinforce the colonialist nature of how we want students to sing.” For the teacher engaged in anti-oppressive education, continual reflection and a willingness to confront hard truths are both liberating and necessary.

    The volume is grounded in Kumashiro’s varied teaching experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, a high school math teacher, a teacher educator, a summer singing instructor, and a middle school English teacher. From these accounts, Kumashiro presents us with the impossibilities of defining “good teaching,” the subtle oppression that lays beneath the best of intentions, and the limits of common sense. As a result, Against Common Sense reads more like an open conversation among Kumashiro and his students that involves complex reflection on the puzzles and paradoxes of teaching for social justice than an authoritative claim that defines the boundaries of anti-oppressive teaching. Rarely does a book have the ability to capture the wide audience within the field of education; however, teachers, teacher educators, and researchers alike will find Against Common Sense a thoughtful and applicable volume.

    S.H.
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