Gina is in the sixth grade, and she's very excited to move to middle school. She wants to learn more about science and math, and maybe invent some cool technology when she's a grown-up. But there's an issue: Gina isn't from the best neighborhood. She's a person of color. And she's a woman. All three of those things can impact her education and, as an extension, her future.
Critical theory is a philosophy that involves being critical of the prevailing view of society. In many cases, that means looking closer at beliefs that might favor privileged people, like rich, white men, over other people, like Gina.
Critical theory in education is about questioning how our educational system can best offer education to all people. It offers opportunities and understanding of the different perspective of disadvantaged members of society. For example, poor children, like Gina, often go to more poorly funded schools than their middle- and upper-class counterparts. And less funding can mean issues like availability of technology or good teachers.
Let's look at how critical theory plays out in education and what schools and teachers can do to be inclusive of all types of students.
In today's world, technology is a major part of everyday life. From smartphones (or even plain old cell phones) to computers to tablets, everyone seems to have lots of interaction with technology.
Except Gina, that is. She's in the sixth grade, and her parents can't afford a computer, so she doesn't have one at home. They also can't afford to buy her a cell phone. Tablet? She's seen them advertised on the television but never seen one in person.
Technology is not only a major part of life for most people, it is a big part of success in the business world. Most jobs require computer literacy, and many of them require a basic understanding of smartphones and tablets, too. As an extension of that, most schools have technology as part of their everyday activities. Whether it's typing an English paper on the computer or using a tablet to work on a math app, technology seems ubiquitous in schools.
But there are problems with access to technology. Poorer schools can have a harder time getting technology in the hands of their students. Remember that critical theory in education is about making sure that every student gets a good education, so lack of technology in poorer schools can be a problem that keeps everyone from getting a good education.
Unfortunately, it's not just about whether or not schools have computers. Critical theory also recognizes that people come into school with different advantages and disadvantages and focuses on how to help every student achieve their potential.
Take Gina, for example. She hasn't had access to technology outside school, like many other students have. Her teachers don't understand why she has trouble operating the computer or why she's so slow when she's typing. They sometimes get impatient, and even the ones who aren't rude about it still don't give her enough time to do her work on the computer.
Like Gina, many poor students in America have lower technological fluency than middle- and upper-class students. This springs from the fact that poorer students might not be exposed to technology until much later than more well-off kids. While some children might play with computers or smartphones when they are still potty training, others don't get to work on a computer until they are in school. That puts them way behind their classmates!
What should Gina's teachers do? Giving students time to explore technology and learn how to use it is an important step that teachers can take to be inclusive of all students. With a little extra time, Gina can become familiar with laptops and really be able to use them to her advantage.
Gina faces more challenges than just those brought on by technology, though. Remember that she really likes math and science and wants to do well in those areas. Unfortunately, in middle school, girls tend to end up with less interest in math and science. Many studies have shown that this might be due to social pressure: boys are encouraged to be good at math and science, and girls are encouraged not to be good at it.
Sometimes, this happens in subtle ways. Classroom talk can be gendered, with boys being called on more than girls. Teachers can offer girls more opportunities to talk, especially in math and science classrooms, which can go a long way towards helping them succeed in school.
Classroom talk can also be racial in subtle ways. Different races, genders, and cultures express themselves differently and react to things differently. Studies have shown that white students and African American students understand and respond to questions from teachers differently. If Gina's teachers can be aware that different groups might interpret questions differently, they can avoid believing that Gina is not as smart or has a problem.
Racial and gender minorities also face some issues with classroom activities. Remember that Gina is a person of color, but all the writers, historical figures, and scientists that they study in school seem to be white. Subtly, this is giving Gina the message that racial minorities can't be good writers, scientists, or politicians.
By offering examples of racial minorities and women in class, Gina's teachers can help her see that people just like her can be anything they want to be. Again, critical theory focuses on how teachers can help students who are not part of the majority gain an equitable education.
Critical theory involves being critical of the established beliefs of society. In education, one major area this plays a role is in the access of and expectations around technology. Understanding that poorer students might not have had as much exposure to technology may help teachers be patient and offer more time for them to learn. In addition, being familiar with the gendered, racial, and cultural elements of classroom talk can also help teachers create a more supportive and inclusive classroom environment.
Upon completing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define critical theory
- Describe the focus of critical theory in education
- Understand how poor students have less access to technology, putting them at a disadvantage in the business world
- Explain ways that teachers can use technology and a familiarity with gendered, racial, and cultural elements of classroom talk to create a more effective learning environment
- Recognize that including examples of influential women and racial minorities in class discussions can inspire students
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Prompts About Critical Theory:
Essay Prompt 1:
Write an essay of approximately one paragraph that defines critical theory and critical theory in education.
Example: The purpose of critical theory in education is to offer equal education to all students.
Essay Prompt 2:
In approximately one to two pages, write an essay that describes the importance of technology in education, and how inadequate access to technology can present disadvantages to students. Also discuss ways that teachers can assist students who lack access to technology.
Example: Sometimes teachers can become impatient with students who are slow when working on computers or tablets. This further hinders the student's ability to learn.
Graphic Organizer Prompt:
Create a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that depicts the challenges that students may face due to gender, race, or cultural background.
Example: In a math or science classroom, boys may be allowed to participate more than girls.
Pretend you are a teacher and you are eager to implement critical theory in your classroom. Write a letter to your students' parents explaining why it is important to incorporate critical theory in education and how you plan on doing so. The letter should be at least one page long.
Example: You have increased your knowledge of how students of different races may perceive and answer questions differently. This allows you to tailor the classroom experience to meet the needs of students of all races.
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