Social JusticeDefinition from Oxford Dictionaries

This past week I have been spending a lot of time with some really smart educators from all over the country. While the premise of this convening was the enormous edtech conference, ISTE, I spent less time talking about tech tools and awesome apps and more time talking about equity, school funding, current events and the trajectory of education in the US.

On Monday, I sat on an engrossing panel with some of my colleagues talking about project-based learning (PBL) and my friend, Tom Whitby spoke about how many teachers who are successfully implementing PBL are 6 months ahead of the current conversations in education. For some reason, that comment stuck with me and I began to reflect and think about the attendees at conferences I attend, the people who attend my sessions, the people who organize events I go to and the people who design and sell the flashy tech tools that schools adopt and use.

On both of the panels I was on the conversation moved at some point to specific apps or tools. While we made sure to focus on the whys and the hows that must come before adopting a tool, it seems that, often, people are looking for a tool or a device to be a “silver bullet” (to paraphrase Josh Stumpenhorst’s closing keynote on Wednesday.)

I began to wonder–why is it that some educators are thinking about these bigger ideas and some are not? Amanda Dykes refers to these big thinking educators as “rebels” in her most recent post. Like her, I often find myself in the crowd that asks persistent questions, that offers another side to the argument, that asks the fundamental question of “why” on a regular basis.

I have a couple of thoughts.

Teachers often become teachers because they were good students. Good students sit and listen and follow the rules. Good students trust the adults and the information they are being presented with. Good students ask the right questions, not always the hard questions. Essentially, good students play the game. These good students then enter a system (the teaching profession) that also rewards those who follow the rules and play the game.

From this I conclude that teachers are not often asked to push the envelope, to ask hard questions, to reflect and question their own practices on a regular basis and they may not take that initiative on their own. Specifically, at a conference like ISTE, these teachers often see the potential for tech to enhance, improve, simplify what they are already doing in their classrooms. There are few sessions at ISTE (and I’d argue many other education conferences) that delve into that fundamental question: WHY?

What I have noticed over the last few months as the school year came to a close was a lot of conversation around topics like police brutality, racism and inequality. This has been a Spring full of events that are hard to ignore. They have forced teachers to decide, “Will I address these events with my students? If I choose to, how can I address them without risking backlash from administrators and parents?” Many teachers may not be accustomed to or comfortable with approaching hard topics with their students.

At our Edutopia bloggers summit this past Saturday, we brainstormed future blog post topics and one of the largest groups formed around social justice. Three excellent Ignite presentations on Sunday centered around topics of social justice, including a call to action for all students to be given the opportunity to succeed, for us to listen to our students and for educators to embrace and encourage the diverse students in their classrooms. When asked what the biggest challenges to integrating technology into PBL were I answered, “access.” The sad part is that much of this conversation isn’t new. Back in 1991 Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities compared the schools in Camden, NJ with those only a few miles away to show the inequities that existed in public education. Sadly, those inequities still exist more than two decades later.

So what am I getting at here?

Basically, education inequalities have not changed. Teachers tend to keep their head down and stick to the game plan. Current events involving police brutality, racism, terrorism, marriage equality, the Confederate flag, and a continuing lack of diversity in the huge tech companies that permeate our lives are hard to ignore. It’s easy to just plow through our day, business as usual. It’s harder to take a step back and reflect, to find our place in the world, to face our own prejudices and privilege, to decide where we stand on these issues and events. Once we’ve done that hard work, we must decide how we will ask our students to so. If you know where you stand and you have acknowledged your own shortcomings, misunderstandings and worked through them, then you are ready to lead your students through that same process. You are ready to ask that fundamental question: “Why?”

So why do we need to do this hard work?

When we put technology into the hands of our students we say that we are preparing them for life outside of school, that the world they live in is filled with technology and they need to know how to leverage it. The world they live in now and the world they will live in is also filled with hate, injustice, greed, and violence. How are we preparing our students for that world? More importantly, how can technology be leveraged to make the world a better place?

I have always grappled with activism and the teaching profession. While I believe that it is a teacher’s job to open the world to his or her students and to help students better understand the world, I don’t believe it is my job to judge a student’s beliefs and tell them to change. It is my job, however, to ask hard questions and to guide my students down a reflective path to make their own decisions and form their own opinions based on research and dialogue, not assumptions and hearsay.

A teacher as activist helps students grapple with their own experiences and emotions, to take a stand, to stand up for what they believe in, and to act. As Dr Robert Dillon says in his Ignite presentation, “We have to break the cycle of being shocked, having sympathy and then returning to the privilege that we all experience in our lives.” Schools are often stuck in this cycle. Once the shock has worn off, there are tests to take, units to plan, papers to grade…..

I am still exploring these hard questions for myself. I look at my son, a middle class white male and know that he will be awarded opportunities based on those three qualifiers alone. How will I address privilege with my son? Having taught in Philadelphia public schools for over 10 years I am not blind to the inequities that exist across this city, where zip codes define socio-economic status. How will I avoid accepting the status quo and how will I impart that on my students?

Jose Vilson asked during the bloggers summit about how he can incorporate Social Justice into his Math classes. We should all be asking that question about our own classes. It is becoming more apparent that teachers are seeking resources and avenues to address the issues our students face and see on TV every day. At an edtech conference of over 10,000 people these quests may have flown under the radar. But maybe it’s because we failed to ask the right question: “Why?”

Some social justice resources

Edudemic Social Justice Lessons

Teaching Tolerance website

Open data and Social justice (information justice)

Pernille Ripp— student voice – processing recent events in the classroom

Dr. Robert Dillon — what’s really important? How do we use shiny tools to make big waves?

Rafranz Davis  — where is the diversity in EdTech?



Facebook Diversity Report



  1. Lisa noble


    thanks so much for this. Asking why, and talking about big issues are two things I strive to do in my classroom, and it’s so good to know that other people are wrestling with these issues, too. In Canada, a major report was released in June about our First Nations peoples’ experience at residential schools. It was a big deal, and used the term “cultural genocide”. I teach in a board that encompasses 3 First Nations communities, and I kept waiting for the e-mail from my director (he writes a lot of them) about the report, and how, as educators, we had a key role in educating our students about this history. There was, instead, silence. A deafening silence, and one I heard echoing throughout my #edtech community. I need people to be willing to talk about these issues, with each other and in our classrooms.

    • marybeth


      Wow, those are strong words, Lisa. Sadly, for some it is too scary to approach these kinds of topics. The silence is especially sad since it sounds like many of your students’ families were directly affected by what the report detailed.

  2. JoAnn Jacobs


    You are so right. I teach in an independent school where many have more than they will ever need. What they lack is exposure to their own community and the world. I continually push and expose and make them aware so they will take some kind of action themselves. This is the world they’ve inherited and they need to work hard to make it better. There are eruptions occurring over the lack of social justice and they will continue unless we unite and educate to work towards a solution.

    • marybeth


      JoAnn, I always grapple with how to get kids who “have everything” to be socially conscious and aware without defaulting to pity or “those poor people.” One of the best things I ever did as a teenager was volunteer for “Midnight Run” I grew up in the suburbs of Manhattan. This charity took a van full of volunteers, hot coffee, snacks and blankets to the homeless in NYC. The van went around at midnight, when most of the homeless are more visible and on the street. I’ll never forget the conversations I had with some of them. I realized that being homeless didn’t mean you were crazy or on drugs and I got to hear the sad stories of how some of the people ended up where they were.

  3. Pingback: OTR Links 07/04/2015 | doug — off the record

  4. Reply

    Social justice is perceived as a “hot new education trend?” Really??? For whom???

    I do, however, agree with you on this: You’re right. Nobody is talking about it. At least, not the #edchat/#edutech communities on Twitter. In fact, too many teachers hide behind their privilege, and pretend that things are not happening. To me, this is a dereliction of duty.

    I’ve been doing social justice/anti-racism work for my entire career, and don’t consider it hot, or new, or trendy. Moreover, it oftentimes keeps me up at night, and, from doing lots of other things. But, it’s important to me. I think that many others who do “the work” full-time would probably take issue with your choice of words.

    • marybeth


      teachermrw, the title is definitely tongue in cheek. I’m sorry the sarcasm wasn’t as clear as I had hoped!

      The point was that nothing gets attention unless it’s some hot new trend and sadly, it takes a series of horrific injustices for people to begin to talk about things that have been happening for centuries. I worry that even the events of this Spring will be slowly forgotten or normalized like so many events that have come before.

      Upon reflecting on the title and my choice of words, I now hope that people don’t look at social justice as a trend or think that I was implying it was. Schools should be the front line for teaching equality, justice and democracy. They are often also the front line of where the future of our country is made.

      Thank you for all of the hard work you have done to promote these qualities in others and I’m sorry if the title of the post offended you or anyone else.

      • Reply

        Hi. Thank you for responding to my comment. The fact that you did tells me a lot about your character: sincere, caring, and committed. You are correct: your sarcasm missed me. Especially in that social justice work is something that I do as naturally as eating and breathing. That being said, I do think, sarcasm aside, you make a valid point: Many of our colleagues do, in fact, view social justice as cool, hip, and trendy. Which is most unfortunate, and, which would require another blog post to deconstruct.

        I tweeted this today on my Twitter timeline. Perhaps this is something you would consider sharing with your readers:

  5. Joshua Block


    Thanks for this post MB.

    I agree that Social Justice education has been the reality for some for a long time and is also something that more educators should envision. On some level the process of education (conscientization in Freire’s words,) is and should be a process of becoming aware and taking action in the world. Like you say, I don’t think this means telling students what to think but it does mean design learning that investigates society, students’ realities, and possibilities for change.

    I do notice that the title “social justice” is a hard sell with some populations (for obvious reasons) and wonder about ways to pursue these types of teaching and learning under a different title. Lately I’ve been framing it as the exploration of the connection between democracy and education or education as a practice of democracy.

    Good stuff!

    • marybeth


      Yes, Josh, I think the title “social justice” is a hard sell. I think tying in democracy is definitely a smart alternative, though I wonder if even democracy has its limits since our own Constitution and democratic laws have worked against equality and justice so many times. I guess it depends on who is on the “receiving end.”

      There are also a number of teachers that I have worked with who shy away from politics and don’t see a connection between what they do in the classroom and the world of politics (specifically elementary teachers). I wonder how we can change these kinds of perceptions as well.

    • Joe Montuori


      I wholeheartedly agree, Josh, that teaching should be geared toward awareness of — and taking action in — the world. I’d add “to make it a better place for all” which perhaps gets at “social justice” without freaking people out. Unfortunately, I think our society censors the discussion of anything that contradicts the hegemonic ideology of the U.S: that we are e.g., a free, independent, democratic, and egalitarian society. Anything or anyone that suggests otherwise gets shut down.

      Having said this, I recognize that conversations like these are non-starters for most. And I confess that, as Marybeth wrote, I spent the first 10 years of my career with my head down, ignoring what I saw and believed, being the dutiful teacher who ignored what is happening in the “real” world. But in the past ten years I’ve slowly moved my Social Studies courses toward overt consideration of our values, and the extent to which we fulfill them in our society’s past and present. I now teach a public policy course based on sustainability principles — including social justice. My students — mostly white, wealthy, but conscientious — embrace this approach in this and and in my U.S. history courses.

      This isn’t to brag (though I’m darn proud of how far I’ve come!) but to suggest that small steps are OK; an “old dog” like me can learn new tricks; most students are eager to examine reasons for societal and planetary problems; and any pushback or criticism received is more than offset by the support received for the honesty, relevance, and compassion such a practice demonstrates.

  6. Reply

    Nice article – thanks! There is a silver bullet and, as you suggest, it’s not technology. It is helping young people become better holistic learners – people who can and have the disposition to not only learn from every situation, but to develop themselves as learners from every situation.

    Sounds weird – it’s actually what we do naturally but our ability to do so is often limited by those around us as we grow up – school especially. If we approach education with the fundamental aim (underpinning all others) to help young people become the best holistic learners they can be, we’ll solve a lot of traditional school issues and give you people the best gift we can give them. Can you think of a situation in which it would be better to be a bad learner? We have to build into our lessons opportunities to develop the attributes of great learners ( (!attributes/c1p03 ) and then we have to help young people develop the disposition of being able to identify, create and use opportunities to develop these attributes through their lives. The dispositions of a good learner just happen to be the sort of attributes we’d want in our leaders too – so in creating great learners we are also creating activities and good leaders – in every aspect of that word – leaders of countries, of corporations, of small business, of institutions, of classes of families of themselves.

    I’m an educator and have started up a linkedIn group ( ) for people to share ideas and explore this globally and also a non-profit (also called Developing Real Learners: ) to take action, give courses, provide support and materials for the educators, parents and young learners who want to use that silver bullet and start transformation from within.

    I wrote about this silver bullet idea here also:

    Hope you can join us or join in

  7. Reply

    Your eye can definitely see them as well as the If anything your eyes are better than most consumer cameras in low My image was exposed for 10secs to show this, but I was able to see by eye where the best show was to know where to point it!

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