DEFINITION OF “ANTI-OPPRESSIVE EDUCATION”
Contradictions abound in education. Teaching involves both intended and unintended lessons, and it is often in the unintended, hidden lessons that racism, sexism, and other “isms” find life. Learning involves both a desire for and a resistance to knowledge, and it is often our resistance to uncomfortable ideas that keeps our eyes closed to the “isms.” Common sense does not often tell us that oppression plays out in our schools. But the contradictions in education make it impossible to say that oppression is not in some way affecting what and how we teach, despite our best of intentions. What might it mean, then, to teach in ways that challenge oppression?
The term “anti-oppressive education” is a very broad one that encompasses approaches to education that actively challenge different forms of oppression.
There is Not Just One Form of “Oppression”
“Oppression” refers to a social dynamic in which certain ways of being in this world–including certain ways of identifying or being identified–are normalized or privileged while other ways are disadvantaged or marginalized. Forms of oppression include racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, anti-Semitism, ablism, colonialism, and other “isms.” Anti-oppressive education aims to challenge multiple forms of oppression.
There is Not Just One “Anti-Oppressive Education”
There are many approaches to anti-oppressive education, some that contradict or critique others. This is not surprising. For decades, educators and researchers have suggested a range of theories of oppression and practices to challenge it, and these theories and practices all have their own strengths and weaknesses. The field of anti-oppressive education draws on these traditions, crafting links between feminist, critical, multicultural, queer, postcolonial, and other movements toward social justice. As it moves forward, the field of anti-oppressive education constantly problematizes its own perspectives and practices by seeking new insights, recognizing that any approach to education–even its own–can make certain changes possible but others impossible.
Yet, There are Perspectives that All Approaches Share
Anti-oppressive education is premised on the notion that many traditional and commonsense ways of engaging in “education” actually contribute to oppression in schools and society. Furthermore, anti-oppressive education is premised on the notion that many commonsense ways of “reforming education” actually mask the oppressions that need to be challenged. What results is a deep commitment to changing how we think about and engage in many aspects of education, from curriculum and pedagogy, to school culture and activities, to institutional structure and policies. Perhaps more importantly, what results is a deep commitment to exploring perspectives on education that do not conform to what has become “common sense” in the field of education. Anti-oppressive education expects to be different, perhaps uncomfortable, and even controversial.
Alternative Models of Learning
If common sense often functions to maintain the status quo and perpetuate various forms of inequity and oppression, then any movement towards social justice needs to ask, Are students learning things in schools that challenge common sense? Learning is not just about “correcting” what students already know. Learning is not just about students’ acquiring what some in schools and society have already determined to be the things that they are “supposed” to know. Given the recognition that curriculum cannot help but be partial, learning needs to involve refusing to be comfortable with what we already know and what we are coming to know. Learning needs to involve challenging the idea that commonsense ways of thinking about the world–among students and among educators–are the right ways of thinking about the world. Furthermore, given the recognition that critiquing one’s own worldviews can be an uncomfortable process, learning needs to involve opportunities to acknowledge and work through the resistances and emotions involved in raising awareness.
Alternative Models of Teaching
Even among educators committed to social justice, common sense can get in the way of anti-oppressive change, as when thinking about teaching in traditional ways. Teaching does not consist merely of what we intentionally “do” with students, which means that we can never fully plan or execute anti-oppressive lessons. After all, what students learn results not only from what teachers teach intentionally, but also from what teachers teach unintentionally and often unknowingly, and different students “learn” different things, depending on the lenses they use to make sense of their experiences. These hidden lessons about the subject matter, about schooling, and about broader social relations are always permeating our schools, emerging from our silences, behaviors, curricular structures, institutional rules, cultural values, and so forth. Often reflecting the status quo or norms of society, they are experienced as parallel norms of schooling, as the ways things are and perhaps should be. And, because of their everyday nature, these hidden, unintentional lessons often have greater significance than the intentional ones. This does not mean that anti-oppressive teaching involves ridding our schools of hidden, contradictory curriculums, as if that were possible. Rather, anti-oppressive teaching involves exploring the insights and changes made possible when such hidden lessons become central to one’s teaching. Teaching becomes much more uncertain, quite paradoxical, and centered on oppression in our everyday lives.
There are Many Roles to Play in Anti-Oppressive Education
Teachers, administrators, counselors, teacher educators, community members, students, and other members of educational communities have different roles to play in challenging oppression and improving education. The Center for Anti-Oppressive Education offers professional development opportunities that support this important work.