Examples of the Social Justice Approach

One of the clearest examples of the Social Justice approach I have heard was an incident told to me by Hannah Fingeret. She was teaching an adult literacy class in one of the poorer sections of New York City and noticed how all the learners would group together every coffee break and lunch time at the back the room and get into an impassioned discussion. She learned they were discussing how the family of one of the learners was being evicted from their apartment. The family had less than a month to vacate. The topic was so important to the class that Hannah asked if they would like to investigate the New York laws governing the rights of tenants and help their fellow student and her family? They were eager to do so.

This issue became part of their course of study. They researched the New York bylaws and learned tenants could not be evicted on such short notice. They found tenants can appeal, even bring a restraining order to stop the eviction and give the family another two months, maybe more. They wrote an appeal and a number of the learners took the appeal to city hall. They won!

After that event, adult education and literacy classes took on a new meaning for the learners, Hannah told me. Here was an issue immediately relevant to every learner since virtually all of them were renters in the city.

A final example: I was involved in a consulting project in Saskatchewan where we were training adult literacy educators in the college system on the use of action research (Quigley, 2020). One participant was teaching near La Ronge in northern Saskatchewan. All of her learners were First Nations. The class had been learning about colonialism and Canadian history as part of their curriculum. They were also learning about the rights of First Nations and the traditions of the Cree people. Elders were visitors to the class and, over time, the group wanted to do something to reclaim something of their heritage.

With input from the Elders, they chose to take up the ancient craft of beading. They began making Indigenous moccasins, jackets and handicrafts and ultimately began a co-op store as a result of their literacy program.

Social Justice Learning is Not Without Potential Problems

Much like transformative learning, this approach is not for everyone. The traditional stance for many teachers through time has been “neutrality.” Meaning, not taking a position on topics that might be seen as political or religious issues, for example. The role of practitioners taking the social justice approach might be something needing to be discussed within your organization. Yet, in my view, the very nature of education is not only to build knowledge but to encourage critical thinking and learner empowerment. As with transformative learning and, indeed, with every one of the five teaching approaches discussed in this section as well as the three teaching methods discussed in Section Four, the first principle is: know thy learner.

The following examples might be helpful in thinking about the benefits and potential problems in using the social justice approach.