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Social Justice Education

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence


Like all inclusive pedagogies, Social Justice Education is a field of study that examines diversity, inclusion, and equity in education. Social Justice education may take multiple pathways.  It may seek to teach educators how to develop courses and pedagogies that resist historical educational inequities. Or it may aim to develop the skills and bases of knowledge students need for solving complex problems of social justice.

In social justice-framed courses, especially those designed for programs that develop education professionals such as teachers or administrators, students may examine their own educational experiences. Such activities typically include both formal and informal forms of education and construe "education" very broadly. They often explore a diverse range of culturally-embedded forms of education and learning, and may include assignments in which students develop inclusive pedagogies that will empower their own future students or design culturally diverse educational experiences. Critical examination of the processes of knowledge construction is perhaps the most transformative approach to social justice in education:  critical race theory and feminist thought have both challenged assumptions about knowledge creation and research methods in higher education. Those influences have been felt in the sciences, history, literary criticism, and many other fields. 

Social Justice courses may also wrap around student learning outcomes that explicitly define social justice skills and approaches (e.g., collaboration skills, especially including cross-cultural competency) and intentionally align courses and assignments toward those outcomes. Students tend to be active partners in constructing courses and/or course components (especially assignments), and coursework typically emphasizes authentic assignments, students' active self-monitoring of their own development, case-based/problem-based and/or community-based learning (such as service learning, undergraduate research for actual clients, or internships), and collaboration with community partners.

Summary of Research

The pedagogical approaches that characterize Social Justice education find backing for their effectiveness in the research examining student engagement and motivation. Because it moves beyond analyses of inequality or the processes of social stratification to application of that learning, social justice education tends to engage students in a variety of "high-impact practices" that, if well-designed, can produce academically-meaningful interactions with instructors, and meaningful, structured, and guided interaction with peers and communities. As is true of all inclusive pedagogies, practices tend to fit a wide range of good teaching practices (see CATL's Teaching Improvement Guide and the Equity Strategies section of this Guide for more on this).

Social Justice educators note the need to prepare students well and deeply for both group work and for cross-cultural encounters before sending them into learning opportunities beyond the campus, whether those encounters are local or international, face-to-face or online. Research on group work and collaboration indicates the importance of careful design and continual redesign.


  • Develop your understanding of implicit bias and learn how it can function in higher education
  • Infuse your course content to include a range of perspectives or culturally-embedded learning experiences
  • Ask students to write about their previous experience with learning your subject or the skill you are teaching, especially if you have students who say that they "just aren't good at ___________" (e.g., math, writing, languages, music, drawing). Writing about how some students were taught such subjects or skills can be insightful for both students and instructors. Consider whether gender, race, social class, or other social categories may have helped shape your student's prior experience.
  • A typical problem for instructors is scaling a social justice problem to a manageable scope.
  • Explore the literature on feminist and critical race theorist challenges to knowledge production (epistemology) in your discipline. This growing body of work raises important questions about objectivity, whose knowledge counts, the role of science in policy (e.g. health care), unconscious assumptions that underlie research hypotheses, populations selected for research, topics deemed to be fundable in research grants, and how cultures shape how we know what we know. See, for example, Sandra Harding  (1991).Can you expose your students to these conversations?


Bintliff, B., & Bintliff, A. V. (2016). Re-engaging disconnected youth : transformative learning through restorative and social justice education. New York: Peter Lang.

Cavallero, J. J. (2013). Engaging Millennial Students in Social Justice from Initial Class Meetings to Service Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2013(135), 75–80.

Gorski, P., & Pothini, Seema G. (2014). Case studies on diversity and social justice education. New York:  Routledge.

Harding, S. (1991). Whose science? whose knowledge? : Thinking from women's lives. Ithaca: N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Quinn, D. M. (2017). Racial Attitudes of PreK–12 and Postsecondary Educators: Descriptive Evidence From Nationally Representative Data. Educational Researcher, 46(7), 397–411.

Sensoy, O., & DiAngelo, Robin J. (2012). Is everyone really equal? : An introduction to key concepts in social justice education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Tilford Group (2001). “Multicultural Competency Development:  Preparing Students to Live and Work in a Diverse World,” Kansas State University, Tilford Group. Retrieved Dec. 4, 2017, from

Hoskins, D. (2017). Designing Inclusive Courses: Social Justice Education. In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from