Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education

1. Critical Engagement with Material

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In his writing on transformative education, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire cautions teachers against what he calls “banking education,” particularly when trying to teach students about social and community issues. As Freire describes it, the “banking” metaphor sees students as empty containers into which teachers “deposit” knowledge. Students take in and catalog the information, sort it and repeat it when asked. They are not encouraged to bring a critical lens to their studies, weigh new information against their own experience or question teachers or textbooks.

Genuine anti-bias education challenges the fundamental assumptions and relationships at the heart of “banking education.” Rather than assuming teachers hold all the knowledge, an anti-bias approach prioritizes critical student engagement, analysis and voice. It rests on a foundation of mutual dialogue; teachers become learners, and learners become teachers. This is especially important when talking about issues of identity, power, privilege and bias, where deep understanding relies on multiple perspectives.

Critical engagement requires questioning, forming and challenging opinions, and feeling outrage or inspiration. It is about helping individuals find their voices and learn to trust their instincts. And it is about teaching the value of what students know and encouraging them to use their knowledge in the service of their academic, personal, social and political lives.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Teaching critical engagement supports three of the four anti-bias domains: Identity, Justice and Action. Critical engagement prepares students to make the material their own, connect classroom learning to real issues and take action toward advancing equity and justice in their schools and communities. Academically, it provides a crucial foundation for critical literacy.


Open-Ended and Higher-Order Questions

The questions teachers ask profoundly shape learning. Critical engagement requires open-ended inquiries for which there is no single “right” answer. Students should be asked to form and defend their opinions about the meaning of complex texts and social realities. Open-ended questions are prompts like “Which of the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights do you think are most important and why?” as opposed to “Which five rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are focused on economic issues?” The second question only asks students to memorize and recall. While close and critical reading requires students to ask and answer text-dependent questions, it is important that those questions also promote discussion, stimulate student thinking and allow students to hypothesize, speculate and share ideas.

Reading Against the Grain

A “reading” refers to what we believe a text means, yet a text can have entirely different meaning depending on the context in which it is read. In this critical literacy strategy, students analyze the prevailing interpretations of a text and produce alternative or “resistant” readings to draw attention to gaps, silences, contradictions, beliefs and attitudes that typically go unexamined by the dominant cultural reading. When students read against the grain, they push back against the default, privileged reading and bring the experiences of less-represented individuals and groups into the textual discourse.

Text-to-Text, Text-to-Self, Text-to-World

This is an analytical reading strategy in which students are asked to consider three levels of connection in the text. The first level looks for relationships between the text and other material students have read. The second level asks students to connect the text to their own lives. The third level explores connections between the text and the larger world.

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Project-Based Learning

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Project-based learning involves the use of performance-driven projects rather than simple “lecture, drill and test” practices. Project-based learning increases student engagement, supports critical thinking and builds analytical, application and teamwork skills. Projects allow students to develop interdisciplinary problem- solving strategies. They also offer the opportunity for students to learn from one another.


2. Differentiated Instruction

Rather than bringing a “one size fits all” mentality to curriculum and learning, teachers who practice differentiated instruction vary and adapt their strategies to fit individual student needs, backgrounds, skill levels, talents and learning profiles. This approach actively honors and addresses student diversity.

Differentiated instruction supports student success while maintaining the cognitive demand of the curriculum. An example of differentiated instruction is organizing a classroom with spaces for both individual work and collaborative conversation; students are able to choose the space that fits their needs. Another example is offering students a variety of options for demonstrating mastery of a given unit (e.g., write an essay or poem, put together a media presentation or create an annotated art piece).

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A few key areas provide important opportunities for differentiation:

  • Cultural styles and forms of expression
  • Language background and proficiency
  • Learning differences, IEPs and other special needs

Along with addressing academic access and supports, differentiated instruction can normalize differences and highlight diversity as a positive aspect of the learning process.

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Differentiated instruction supports two of the four anti-bias domains: Diversity and Justice. Acknowledging that different people need different learning supports reflects deep commitment to valuing diversity. This approach broadens access to the curriculum’s textual information and supports critical thinking, social analysis and historical understanding, all necessary to social justice education.


Tiered Activities

Tiered activities allow all students to engage the same material, but with different levels of support, challenge or complexity. For example, teachers may develop multiple vocabulary lists, ask a variety of analytical questions or offer different tasks depending on students’ background knowledge or reading skills.

Incorporation of Multiple Modalities

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Teachers drawing on the “multiple intelligences” work of Howard Gardner incorporate a variety of linguistic, visual, kinesthetic, artistic, logical/scientific and interpersonal approaches to learning. The goals and objectives of instruction stay the same, but the process and product of student learning can be differentiated.

Use of Technology to Support Different Learning Styles and Language Needs

Technology makes it possible to customize instruction to meet individual learning needs. For example, some computers and tablets offer the option for readers to hear text while they follow along. This can benefit auditory learners, special education students and English-language learners. Whether it’s using an interactive whiteboard or allowing students to answer teacher-generated questions via cell phone, a wide range of technological resources can break the “one size fits all” mold that holds many students back.


3. Cooperative and Collaborative Learning

Working in small groups can help students achieve collaborative goals, deepen their understanding and foster intergroup relationships. Classmates pool their knowledge and skills, answer one another’s questions and solve problems as a team. When done well, this practice crosses lines of social identity and academic achievement, supports equitable access to content knowledge and broadens participation.

Unlike teacher-centered instruction, cooperative learning prioritizes peer conversation and student-driven inquiry. In diverse classrooms, cooperative learning allows students to learn from peers with different backgrounds and work with partners they may not reach out to as friends.

Although cooperative learning is done in groups, not all group projects and team activities promote meaningful intergroup interaction. True cooperative learning has several key features:

  • Clear expectations of respect for diversity
  • Explicit respect for and incorporation of multiple perspectives and intelligences
  • Individual and group accountability for what is learned and created
  • Proactive strategies to ensure equal participation and to dismantle existing racial, gender, socioeconomic, linguistic, academic or other divisions. Examples of proactive strategies include
    • assigning roles to different team members in accordance with their strengths;
    • planning projects that require a broad range of skills, including some that do not necessarily correlate with academic achievement (e.g., artistic, theatrical, interpersonal, bilingual or community awareness skills); and
    • requiring groups to solicit and synthesize or compare/contrast the perspectives of diverse team members.
  • Shared goals that promote interdependence and require meaningful participation
  • Strong attention to group process skills, including communication, decision making, trust building, facilitation, conflict management, compromise, and other collaborative and cross-cultural skills
  • Thoughtful grouping of students that brings together different demographics, skills and needs

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Cooperative learning supports two of the four anti-bias domains: Diversity and Justice. It encourages students to view diversity as an asset and teaches effective teamwork across differences. Requiring students to work toward shared goals fosters cross-group friendships and builds collective ownership. Research has shown that these types of interactions reduce prejudice across racial, class and other divisions. By explicitly teaching communication, collaboration and trust-building skills, teachers can provide a foundation for young people to work toward equity, inclusivity and justice.


Cooperative learning is both a mindset and a way to structure classroom interaction. Over the past several decades, teachers and researchers have designed hundreds of collaborative activities and strategies for use in classrooms from kindergarten through college. The strategies that follow lend themselves to teaching critical literacy and anti-bias material.


In Jigsaw, each student is a member of two groups: a home group and an “expert” group. Each student in a home group is assigned a different topic from a reading (i.e., no two students in the same home group will have the same topic). Students then leave their home group and explore their assigned topic with the other students assigned to the same topic (their “expert group”). Once the students have become “experts” in their particular topic, they return to their home groups to share what they have learned. All students thereby benefit from the expertise their groupmates developed while away from “home.”

Numbered Heads Together

Numbered Heads Together promotes both group discussion and individual accountability. Students are placed in small groups, and each student in the group is given a different number. The teacher poses a question, and the group members “put their heads together” to figure out the answer. The teacher then calls a number and asks students with that number (e.g., all the “threes”) to answer. Because no one knows which number will be called, all group members must be prepared. This strategy also ensures that the same students do not answer all the questions.

Inside-Outside Discussion Circles

The Inside-Outside Discussion Circles strategy involves all students in processing or reviewing material. The activity begins with students standing in pairs in two concentric circles. The inside circle faces out; the outside circle faces in. The teacher poses a question or assigns a brief task. All students in the inside circle respond for a minute or two. Then the students in the outside circle respond to the same question or to a different one. After each partner has had a turn, everyone from the inside circle moves one step to the right, and the process is repeated with new partners. This strategy can be used for factual review, personal reflection, analysis or application. A class share-out can be used to review and synthesize key points.


4. Real-World Connections

It’s important to help students connect what they learn to their lives and to the world around them. Research has shown that meaningful connections between learning and real life promote student engagement, positive identity development and achievement.

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With some texts—for example, a story about exclusion in school or a piece about how media images affect youth—relevance to students’ lives will probably be clear. In these cases, classroom activities can be structured around thoughts and discussions young people are already having. For texts that don’t intersect class members’ daily realities, students might need help connecting the dots.

In either situation, students should consider why the texts are important, not just what they mean. What does this material have to do with their lives? How does it help them understand their families or communities? How does their learning connect to events in the news? And how can they use it to take action?

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Real-world connections support three of the four anti-bias domains: Identity, Justice and Action. Focusing on relevant topics allows students to connect their identities to the larger world, increasing student engagement. These connections provide an important foundation for critical literacy, analysis and social justice action. They also increase the likelihood of mastering the Common Core State Standards.


Personal Reflection Prompts

Guided reflection exercises help students connect material to their own lives and to the world. Reflection can occur through writing, art, individual conversation, group work or class discussions. Possible guided reflection questions include these: How does the text connect to your personal experiences? What inspires or upsets you about the text? What questions does the text raise? How do you see issues from the text playing out in your school or neighborhood? What do you want to change as a result of your reading?

Connecting to Current Events

For contemporary pieces, teachers or students may bring in statistics or news stories about current social and political events related to the text. For historical documents, students can compare and contrast the text with current realities or trace the long-term impact of policies, attitudes, challenges or movements.

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Service Learning and Social Action Projects

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Service learning helps students of all ages comprehend the significance of social issues. Individual and group projects may be planned by the teacher or developed by the students themselves. Thoughtful planning and reflection are critical when planning service learning activities.


5. Values-Based Assessment, Evaluation and Grading

How can a system of classroom evaluation, assessment and grading instill values such as equity, collaboration, justice and respect for diversity? Teachers can reflect on this question and the list below as they align their own evaluation and grading policies with classroom, school and community priorities.

Here are some questions to consider in evaluating student progress:

  • How can we be sure our systems of evaluation promote success for all students rather than fostering competition?
  • How can assessment tools and grading policies be used to build skills for collaborating across differences instead of supporting only individual achievement? Are there ways to shift the norm that working together is considered “cheating”?
  • How can evaluation and grading practices support authentic, critical engagement with texts and other material?
  • How can assessment policies model respect for multiple perspectives and opinions?
  • How can evaluation, assessment and grading policies avoid compounding academic differences based on gender, home language, immigrant experience, race, culture, socioeconomic status or ability?

Connection to Anti-bias Education

Values-based assessment and grading support two of the four anti-bias domains: Diversity and Justice. Evaluation practices shape both academic opportunities and student identities. Practices that support collaboration, authentic engagement and equal opportunity value diverse student learning styles and challenge the widespread tracking of students from different backgrounds.


Scoring Guides and Rubrics

A rubric is a scoring tool that defines expectations for the components of an assignment or piece of work. Rubrics support ongoing learning efforts by making performance expectations clear to all class members and reducing subjectivity in grading practices. They can also describe value-based expectations for students, such as working respectfully with peers or including multiple points of view in writing.

Assessment of Process and Product

Collaboration, conflict management and synthesis of multiple perspectives are difficult to assess. However, these skills should be evaluated along with content, presentation and other academic elements. As with any evaluated performance, these skills must be explicitly taught and the expectations thoroughly explained.

Distinguishing Assessment of Language Proficiency from Assessment of Other Material

It is important not to conflate limited English language proficiency with lack of understanding or analytical skill.

Grade Against Learning Objectives, Not Against Other Students

Instead of grading on a “curve” (using the most advanced student work to set the standard for what counts as an “A”), this strategy suggests setting concrete learning objectives at the beginning of a lesson and measuring each student’s success against those objectives. Anyone who meets the lesson’s learning goals (as measured by a defined rubric) receives high marks, regardless of how that student’s work compares with what other students have done. This strategy guards against the performance of more advanced students making it harder for other students to do well.

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