Harvard Educational Review
  1. Schooling for Critical Consciousness

    Engaging Black and Latinx Youth in Analyzing, Navigating, and Challenging Racial Injustice

    Scott Seider and Daren Graves

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2020. 248 pp. $32.00 (paper).

    As the COVID-19 pandemic and the Movement for Black Lives continue to highlight systemic inequalities across the United States and the world, many educators and scholars are interested in using education to promote justice for young people and their communities. One educational outcome that may help us achieve this goal is critical consciousness (CC)—the “ability to recognize and analyze oppressive forces shaping society and to take action against these forces” (Seider & Graves, 2020, p. 2). In recent years, there has been an expansion of research into CC and related concepts in education (e.g., Heberle, Rapa, & Farago, 2020). This research has helped establish the value of CC for adolescents, exploring how it can improve outcomes, including academic achievement (Seider, Clark, & Graves, 2020), social and emotional functioning (Clonan-Roy, Jacobs, & Nakkula, 2016), and civic engagement (Diemer & Li, 2011), particularly for young people with marginalized identities. However, less work has been done to systematically investigate the pedagogical approaches and strategies that best support its development.

    This is the gap that Scott Seider and Daren Graves address in their book Schooling for Critical Consciousness. While the authors provide a brief overview of why CC matters for students, their main purpose is not to justify schooling for critical consciousness but to investigate how that schooling happens across pedagogical contexts, grappling with questions like Are there multiple pedagogical strategies or approaches that can successfully promote CC? Are some strategies more effective than others at promoting certain components of CC? They explore these questions using survey and ethnographic data from a four-year research project at five high schools in the Northeast US, each of which serves primarily Black and/or Latinx students and aims to promote CC using different pedagogical approaches, from Freire’s (1972) “problem-posing” education to the no-excuses charter school model. The result is a book filled with examples of social justice pedagogy in action that is equally useful to scholars hoping to build on Seider and Graves’s research and to educators aiming to put that research into practice in their own contexts.

    Schooling for Critical Consciousness is divided into seven chapters: an introduction, in-depth descriptions of each of the five schools featured in the authors’ research, and a conclusion. In the introduction, Seider and Graves provide an overview of CC, which they conceptualize as consisting of three qualities that youth may develop: social analysis, political agency, and social action. The introduction also provides a justification of the importance of promoting CC in adolescents of color and a description of the four-year research project that the book reports on, which involved annual surveys evaluating the developing CC of more than 300 students, one-time surveys with an additional 300 “comparison” students at schools that did not aim to promote CC, and hundreds of hours of interviews and ethnographic fieldwork. Each of the five central chapters provides a description of a single high school, including information about the trajectory of students’ CC development based on the authors’ surveys and examples of pedagogical strategies and challenges. The authors found that each school was successful at promoting one of the qualities that comprise CC, providing one piece of a larger picture of how we might support CC holistically. Finally, the conclusion highlights pedagogical tools that were consistent across multiple schools—including opportunities for students to effect school change, assignments connected to the real world, and teachers who established personal connections with their students—providing educators with a quick guide to strategies that may be useful regardless of their specific context. Overall, the prevalence of anecdotes and examples from each featured school makes the book engaging to read, and the predictable structure of the five central chapters makes it easy to follow. The only thing that felt notably missing was information about Seider and Graves, whose identities are largely absent from the book. More information about their positionalities would have been welcome to help readers interpret their findings and analyses.

    As a white, female researcher and educator interested in supporting the development of CC in young people, I came to Schooling for Critical Consciousness ready to accept the authors’ assumption that CC is valuable and their argument that understanding how to promote critical consciousness is important for the field of education to explore. Given my positionality, I found that the book not only asked worthwhile questions but offered valuable insights into those questions, especially through the narrative descriptions of the five featured schools. These sections include examples of the strategies that students and teachers identified as most successful during interviews as well as examples of the challenges that the authors noted during their ethnographic fieldwork—both of which will likely raise thought-provoking questions for educators and researchers interested in how justice-oriented pedagogical theories play out in real schools. For example, in chapter 2, which features a school informed by problem-posing education, we hear about how one teacher draws on the “three I’s” framework (institutional, interpersonal, and internalized) to support students’ critical reflection when talking about racism. While this anecdote highlights an effective strategy that other educators might adopt, the same chapter also discusses some of the school’s challenges, including inexperienced teachers and a curriculum that sometimes leaned so heavily on social justice as to overwhelm or exhaust students. Similarly, in chapter 5, which features a school focused on active and agentic learning, we learn about effective pedagogical strategies, including pairing information about oppression with information about resistance in order to avoid feelings of hopelessness and equipping students with practical activism skills like letter writing and research and leveraging social media. However, we also get a glimpse of how the school’s flexible, student centered culture allows students to disengage from their learning by, for example, giving them space to spend class time chatting with friends or looking at their phones. By presenting examples like these together, the authors provide a balanced perspective on both the strengths and weaknesses of each school, avoiding blanket judgments of “good” or “bad” and instead grappling with the trade-offs inherent to any decisions school leaders and educators make.

    While I appreciate the balanced tone, I question whether the authors were too generous in claiming that all five schools promoted the development of CC. For example, the authors found that Harriet Tubman High School was particularly successful at supporting “social intelligence,” or “students’ confidence about their ability to navigate various social situations effectively” (p. 83). While the authors argue that social intelligence contributes to the “social action” component of CC, it represents at best a very narrow element of CC. Further, much of the no excuses philosophy at Tubman directly opposed the inherently transformative aims of CC. By highlighting how the school aligned with one subcomponent of CC, Seider and Graves gloss over the real tension between the school’s philosophy and a more unified notion of CC. More broadly, I wish they had grappled with the challenges inherent to translating a complex, philosophical concept like CC into subcomponents and ultimately into survey questions. While I think there is much to be learned from the surveys of students, acknowledging the limitations of such an approach to evaluating CC would have helped readers engage with the concept more deeply and holistically.

    Overall, Schooling for Critical Consciousness is a needed and valuable book. It is engaging, full of both useful information and illuminating examples, and relevant to a range of educational stakeholders. It is strongest in its rich, generous descriptions of schools and specific social justice–oriented pedagogies. I hope this book will set an example for more scholars to focus not only on why educational outcomes are important but on the details of how we might go about promoting them.

    Anna L. Kirby


    Clonan-Roy, K., Jacobs, C. E., & Nakkula, M. J. (2016). Towards a model of positive youth development specific to girls of color: Perspectives on development, resilience, and empowerment. Gender Issues, 33(2), 96–121.

    Diemer, M. A., & Li, C. H. (2011). Critical consciousness development and political participation among marginalized youth. Child Development, 82(6), 1815–1833.

    Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.

    Heberle, A. E., Rapa, L. J., & Farago, F. (2020). Critical consciousness in children and adolescents: A systematic review, critical assessment, and recommendations for future research. Psychological Bulletin, 146(6), 525–551. doi:10.1037/bul0000230

    Seider, S., Clark, S., & Graves, D. (2020). The development of critical consciousness and its relation to academic achievement in adolescents of color. Child Development, 91(2), e451–e474.
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