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Use of Critical Theory Approach in Understanding Social Justice and Education

Over the years, education systems across the globe have been faced with numerous challenges. The question of social justice and education have attracted researchers who utilize numerous approaches in establishing theories and philosophies that define and explain social justice and how they relate to learning and education in general. Critical theorists have widely contributed to the topic of social justice and education, and this has been achieved through various tools and approaches. Some of the n9table approaches that the critical theorist applied in the study of social justice and education include:

Hytten and Bettez 2011, define the ethnography and narrative approach as a technique that utilizes pieces of information that serve as portraits of injustice that are related to schools and education, offers quantitative reflections of educators committed to social justice as well as provides narratives based on individual life experiences on social justice and education. The narratives capture, to a great extent, lived consequences of injustices and offer a rich source of images associated with injustices and educational practices. An example of a researcher utilizing the ethnography approach is Jonathan Kozol (Hytten and Bettez 2011). According to Hytten and Bettez 2011, Kozol utilizes the voices of children, teachers, and other important education stakeholders to provide descriptive images and personal narratives shaped along the social, economic and ethnic, and racial backgrounds.

The second approach that critical theorists utilize in social justice and education studies is critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy perceives education as a tool for bringing about change. The approach perceives education as a tool that equips children and youths with adequate knowledge and skills to question and challenge social injustices, structures and systems, and power. Education is therefore perceived as a tool to bring up thoughtful citizens. Critical pedagogy encourages people to be democratic; it perceives education as a tool for achieving democracy (Tinning 2002). According to existing literature, public education’s primary role revolves around “the development in our children of the habits of heart and mind that make democratic life possible” (Hytten and Bettez 2011). Education, in this regard, is perceived as an approach that instills a sense of responsibility not only to the individuals but also to others and provides an environment that allows each individual to achieve their maximum potential.

Intersectionality is another technique that critical theorists utilize to explore social justice and education matters. Intersectionality focuses on the various forces of oppression and how they interact to influence the well-being of a marginalized society, individual, or group. Some forces of oppression include race, class, gender, and sexuality. According to the existing facts, children from low social and economic status, as well as people from minority communities, suffer significant social injustices, which in turn influence their access to quality education. For example, as featured in Hytten and Bettez 2011, Jonathan Kozo wrote his book, “ The Shame of the Nation (2005), Kozol elaborates on his experiences of more than 600 schools in 11 cities in 5 years. In his observations, Kozol observed that schools, classrooms, teachers as well as students demonstrated significant levels of segregation which tend to be on the rise rather than decreasing, with the poor and minority children increasingly unlikely to access and receive a quality education in the studied countries (Hytten and Bettez 2011). Kozol makes further observations on the US, where he argues that social injustices are widely fueled by pervasive racial segregation, extremely social and institutional poverty, and willful neglect by wealthy societies and those in power. The statement demonstrates how power and wealth are forces that shape the social injustices that face the poor and minority people in the US (Hytten and Bettez, 2011). Additional information further reveals a significant gap in access to education between the poor and the rich (Reay, 2006). While the education gap between the best and the worst public primary schools has decreased over the years, the gap between education achievement between learners from deprived backgrounds and those from affluent families has been on the rise in the recent past (Reay 2006). Importantly, social injustices in the education systems are widely reinforced by individual and social stratification that is grounded on social class alongside disability, race, gender as well as sexuality (Reay 2006). In this regard, the intersectionality approach is used to demonstrate how different forces of oppression contribute to social injustices as well as compare the levels and quality of education among the majority and marginalized communities.

Additionally, although numerous policies protect people living with disability from discrimination, the group of people has suffered social injustices in society and the education sector. According to theories such as gender, race, and queer theory perceive economic and cultural factors as major contributing factors that can be used to facilitate or remedy the existing inequalities in society (Riddell 2009). Individual identity in terms of gender, race, disability, age, religion/ belief, as well as individual sexual orientation have been cited as major contributing factors towards social inequalities as well as challenges of mainstreaming and inclusion (Riddell 2009). Additionally, the marginalized population, which includes children from poor social, and economic backgrounds and children living with disability, are inappropriately segregated in the education system. For example, although the Scottish education system applies the egalitarian idea, significant research demonstrates that the learners’ background widely influences children’s educational experiences and outcomes. These studies demonstrate social justice and how they impact the learners’ access to education.

Narrative or ethnography, critical pedagogy, and intersectionality are some of the key approaches and tools that critical theorists use to address issues related to social justice and education. The narrative and ethnography approach utilizes individuals’ recounts of their experiences with social justice, while the critical pedagogy perceives the education system as an important approach to addressing the social inequalities that exist in societies including in the education system. Last, the intersectionality approach focuses on the various forces of oppression and how they adversely impact the marginalized population’s access to social justice. It also explains how the forces affect the quality and access to education for learners from different backgrounds.

Analysis of the Critical Tools

Critical theory utilizes numerous approaches to understanding the various social philosophies that vary from one society to the other and are influenced by society and people’s way of life. Additionally, the critical theory focuses on establishing an understanding of the role of the power structure and how it shapes the social aspects of life. In this regard, critical theorists utilize approaches such as narrative and ethnography, critical pedagogy, and intersectionality in evaluating the forces that shape social justice as well as education. Narrative and ethnography, critical pedagogy, and intersectionality provide an in-depth understanding of the people being studied, which in turn aids in concluding the role of the different forces within the society that shapes social justice and how the forces affect access and quality of education among learners from different backgrounds this makes the approaches relevant in critical theory.

First critical theory utilizes various approaches in identifying social problems. First, the narrative and ethnography approach to collect information from primary sources. The narrative includes individual people’s experiences in different aspects. For example, the people’s experiences with social justice and education systems. For example, according to the article “The Origins of Critical Theory in Education: Fabian Socialism as Social Reconstructionism In Nineteenth-Century Britain”, the ethnography approach is used to study the social and economic inequalities that existed in Britain (McKernan 2013). The article focuses on evaluating the role of Fabian Socialism which was introduced in Britain in 1884 and aimed at evaluating the social policies in an attempt to understand the social inequalities as well as providing possible solutions to the social ills that existed in the society (McKernan 2013). McKernan 2013 additionally states that the Fabian socialist such as Shaw and Webbs also co-founded the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) which aimed at identifying and addressing the social evils that existed in Britain, such as prostitution, inequalities in education and health sector, eradicating poverty as well as eliminating the Ricardian rent schemes. In this case, the study of society, its beliefs, practices, and ideologies, which are availed through the ethnography approach, aids in establishing the social challenges facing society and hence allows the researchers to develop appropriate interventions to solve the existing challenges (McKernan 2013). The article further highlights that the Fabian socialist was the only approach that succeeded in mitigating the social ills experienced in Britain during the late 1880s and early 1900s (McKernan 2013).

Additionally, the narrative and ethnography approaches are also used to make conclusions based on the provided information. For example, based on the narratives from the teachers on education systems, the researchers were able to identify the teachers’ major challenges. For example, the article highlights that the “pragmatic cast of mind” characteristic of many teachers makes them ‘extremely resistant to the inquiry of a speculative and analytic kind” (Dewhurst and Lamb 2005). In this statement, the researchers have identified the challenge, which is teachers’ pragmatic cast of mind, and concluded that this character is a major challenge as it resists inquiry of speculative and analytical approaches (Dewhurst and Lamb 2005).

In addition to identifying the social injustices in a society or a system, critical theory approaches are also utilized in identifying the relationship between the various forces and the consequences of the forces. This is primarily achieved through the intersectionality approach, which focuses on the various forces of oppression and how they impact a specific individual, society, or group of individuals. The intersectionality approach establishes relationships between the forces and people’s challenges. For example, the reading articles identify poverty, disability, race, and sexual orientation as major contributing factors to the social inequalities that marginalized societies face and the health and education inequalities experienced by such communities. For example, critical race theory (CRT) utilizes the intersectionality theory to demonstrate how numerous dimensions of oppression, such as race, gender, class, sexuality, and well as disability, work relationally and, in some cases, work in unison or in conflict to influence the social structure and function of society which in turn influences social justice and equality (Gillborn 2012). In such a case, the intersectionality approach establishes relationships and consequences. That is, how the various factors such as race and gender work collaboratively, supplement each other, or conflict in shaping social injustices.

Similarly, as recorded in Hytten and Bettez 2011, Jonathan Kozol also makes similar observations which he documents in his book “The Shame of the Nation”, where he demonstrates a significant gap in the access and quality of education acquired by children from low social, economic backgrounds with those from middle and wealthy families. Further, Kozol indicates that these educational injustices are fueled by various forces rooted in political power, wealth, and racial factors (Hytten and Bettez 2011). The use of intersectionality in this example demonstrates how power and wealth work collaboratively to influence the distribution of resources, including the quality of education achieved by children from different backgrounds, and also demonstrates how the social inequalities are fueled by other social structures such as race and gender (Rubin 2018). This allows the readers to establish a relationship as well as the consequences of the various variables.

In addition to establishing the relationship between factors and their consequences, the intersectionality approach also aids in concluding. In this regard, the approach establishes how various forces are connected and therefore provides an informed decision regarding the consequences of such interactions. For example, according to the literature, high poverty levels have been associated with reduced access to quality education, leading to high illiteracy or dropout among poor people (Rubin 2018). Additionally, the intersectionality approach aids in evaluating which actions contribute to social justice and those that contribute to fairer education which in turn allows the researchers and the readers to make an informed decision about the justice effects of an individual or society’s actions (Walker 2003).

Additional information reveals that the intersectionality approach does not only allow the researcher and the readers to make more comparisons and establish the difficulties and the complexities of intersection identities as well as oppression, but it also allows the researchers to provide details of these complexes and provide the various accounts on how categories and inequalities intersect, through what process as well as providing an account of the impact of such interactions and complexes (Gillborn 2012). In this regard, the intersectionality approach is a technique that allows for the establishment of the challenges, providing a relationship of how the challenges or forces are interrelated, what processes they follow, as well as highlighting their impact, which cumulatively allows for a better understanding of the forces and making informed decisions and conclusion regarding the approaches to utilize to minimize their effects.

The critical theory approaches and tools also aid in providing criticism of the existing social, political, cultural, and other systems of society. For example, critical pedagogy provides a critical analysis of how education systems have in the past failed to equip learners with adequate knowledge and skills for promoting equality and proposes a new strategy that can be used to enhance the different systems of society in an attempt to solve the existing challenges (Hart 2019). Education is perceived as a tool for bringing about change. The critical theorist argues that democratic education is an essential tool that can be used to bring about equality to all people and, therefore, aid in eradicating the social injustices that exist in the US. From the definition, critical pedagogy “is in one way or another committed to the imperative of transforming the larger social order in the interest of justice, equality, democracy, and human freedom” (Tinning 2002). In this regard, it evaluates and critic the social disorders in society and establishes approaches that promote justice, democracy as well as human freedom (Hart 2019). Further, the article highlights that other social and political approaches, such as the use of policies, have proved ineffective in the fight against issues such as gender equity, equality of opportunity, and catering for diversity; therefore, the critical theorist uses the critical pedagogy approach to critic these approaches and advocate for the use of physical education in challenging the unjust practices (Tinning 2002). Additional evidence where critical pedagogy is used for a critic is in the article that discusses matters related to Fabian socialism. According to the article, critical pedagogy was used to limit the use of outright conflicts, rhetoric as well as violence which led to dialogues that, in turn, shaped the ‘ Welfare state” in the UK instead of such approaches, the Fabian socialist advocated for strategies of socialist permeation through education (McKernan 2013).

Critical theory approaches such as narrative and ethnography, intersectionality, and critical pedagogy have been used widely to establish social problems, including social injustices and educational challenges, relationships between the various forces, how they work, and their consequences the individuals and societies. The critical theory approaches have also been used to critique and make conclusions about the existing strategies and propose alternatives that have been well-researched and those that will bring about the desired results.

Application of the Critical Tools and Approaches

One of the major challenges facing the education system is the use of multicultural approaches in the teaching and learning processes. Numerous advancements have been achieved in incorporating various cultures in the teaching-learning process in an attempt to incorporate all cultures presented in a classroom in the teaching-learning processes (Rubin 2018). However, this is not easy as it is difficult to have a size fit for all cultures and, therefore, difficult to achieve a multicultural approach in the teaching and learning process. For example, the use of one language, such as English, demonstrates inequality for other indigenous groups and leads to inequality (Rubin 2018). In an attempt to build a multicultural learning approach, as well as promote easy access to quality education for all children in the school-going age and irrespective of their background, it is important to incorporate the various critical theory approaches such as narrative, critical pedagogy, and intersectionality approaches (Rubin 2018).

In an attempt to understand the various needs, tastes, and preferences of the learners, a more engaging approach is required. In this case, using the narrative approach will allow one to collect adequate information on the learners’ various needs, abilities, and preferences, allowing the teacher to develop teaching methods that match the learners’ needs and interests. This will ensure that every learner’s needs and interests are taken care of, and this can be achieved through various scaffolding activities for the learners based on their abilities and interest.

In addition to using the narrative to establish the learners’ needs and interests, critical pedagogy can equip them with skills and knowledge that will help them promote a democratic society. In this regard, teaching the learners the importance of cultural diversity and helping them to understand respect and uphold diversity will ensure that every learner is respected. This will translate from school to society where diversity and individual differences will be respected and appreciated instead of subjecting individuals who identify differently to different forms of oppression. Critical pedagogy will also aid the learners to be focused on bringing about change in the classroom and the society providing equal opportunity to everyone irrespective of their background.

The intersectionality approach effectively establishes a relationship between forces and provides the best alternative solutions to solve the existing challenges. For example, in the case of adopting a multicultural approach, identifying the various cultures, strategizing how each presented culture will be incorporated into the teaching-learning process, and establishing the implementing the strategies will aid in providing a multicultural approach to learning. For example, the language of delivery should represent one culture, the examples used should feature different cultures, and the learning materials, such as audio and images, represent other cultures; this will ensure that the teaching-learning process incorporates different cultures. Additionally, the intersectionality approach can be used to establish how other forces influence the learners’ performance, such as family life, peers, and socialization in school, affect the learners and therefore provide appropriate guidance where necessary to ensure that learners achieve their maximum potential in both academics and co–curriculum activities.


Dewhurst, D. and Lamb, S., 2005. Educational stories: Engaging teachers in educational theory. Educational Philosophy and Theory37(6), pp.907-917.

Gillborn, D., 2012. The white working class, racism, and respectability: Victims, degenerates and interest-convergence. In intersectionality and race in education (pp. 37-64). Routledge.

Hart, C.S., 2019. Education, inequality and social justice: A critical analysis applying the Sen-Bourdieu Analytical Framework. Policy Futures in Education17(5), pp.582-598.

Hytten, K. and Bettez, S.C., 2011. Understanding education for social justice. Educational foundations25, pp.7-24.

McKernan, J.A., 2013. The origins of critical theory in education: Fabian socialism as social reconstructionism in nineteenth-century Britain. British Journal of Educational Studies61(4), pp.417-433.

Reay, D., 2006. The zombie stalking English schools: Social class and educational inequality. British journal of educational studies54(3), pp.288-307.

Riddell, S., 2009. Social justice, equality and inclusion in Scottish education. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education30(3), pp.283-296.

Rubin, D.I., 2018. From the beginning: Creating a diversity and multicultural education course at Jacksonville State University. Education and Urban Society50(8), pp.727-746.

Tinning, R., 2002. Toward a “modest pedagogy”: Reflections on the problematics of critical pedagogy. Quest54(3), pp.224-240.

Walker, M., 2003. Framing social justice in education: What does the ‘capabilities’ approach offer?. British Journal of Educational Studies51(2), pp.168-18


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