Shared Inquiry and Critical Conversations

Learning for Justice Staff

Connections to Social Justice Standards: Identity, Diversity, Action

1. Naming Shared Inquiry and Ongoing Learning
2. Let’s Talk! Critical Conversations and Dialogue
3. Foundations for Student Advocacy and Civic Engagement

Differences shape who we are and what we know. History, society and power cannot be understood from a single perspective; we need multiple viewpoints to truly see the world. Because of this, inclusive classrooms must function as learning communities built on shared inquiry and critical conversations.

Critical conversations are a form of dialogue in which people engage in discussions around difficult topics. They are different from debates, in which someone wins and someone loses. Critical conversations require openness to new ideas and collective learning. This is not an easy practice; for students and teachers to engage in critical conversations, they must build and exercise specific skills:

  • Listening. Deeply hearing what others say and the feelings, experiences and wisdom behind what they say.
  • Humility. Recognizing that, however passionately we hold ideas and opinions, other people may hold pieces of the puzzle that we don’t.
  • Respect. Trusting the integrity of others, believing they have the right to their opinions (even when different from your own) and valuing others enough to risk sharing ideas.
  • Trust. Building a safer, braver space to explore new ideas and work through conflicts, controversy and painful moments that may arise when talking about issues of injustice and oppression.
  • Advocacy. Speaking the truth as we see it and asking questions about things we don’t know or understand, particularly on topics related to identity, power and justice.

Naming Shared Inquiry and Ongoing Learning

It is important for teachers to create a safer classroom environment before asking students to engage in this work. Classrooms are safer when students have the opportunity to discuss principles of engagement and co-create discussion agreements. Many social emotional support strategies commonly taught in schools can also help establish a foundation for inquiry.

However, new experiences arise, new research informs moments of unlearning, and everyone in the classroom is human. Students and educators alike should understand that social justice learning is an ongoing process. When committed to learning together, the entire classroom community can engage in more fruitful conversations about critical issues.

Let’s Talk! Critical Conversations and Dialogue

Critical conversations are any discussions about the ways that injustice affects our lives and our society. They are conversations that explore the relationships between identity and power, trace structures that privilege some at the expense of others, and help students think through the actions they can take to create a more just, equitable world.

Most students want to talk about these issues. They recognize the injustice inherent in racism, gender bias, ableism, anti-immigrant sentiment, religious and anti-LGBTQ+ bias, and more—and they see how these prejudices harm people every day. LFJ’s Let’s Talk! guide includes strategies and resources to help educators facilitate these discussions confidently and skillfully, from kindergarten to high school. The guide includes how to set up and prepare for the conversation, what to do during the conversation, and how to follow up.

Foundations for Student Advocacy and Civic Engagement

Research shows that democratic classrooms, classrooms in which students have agency and can take ownership of their experience, are more effective for learning. In a democratic classroom, students feel more comfortable sharing their opinions and listening to other perspectives. Students who participate in democratic classrooms will be better prepared to take active roles in their wider school communities and beyond.

Teachers who center student perspectives in their practice believe in the importance of student agency. Students are more likely to advocate and engage with their peers and community if they are taught to:

  • Interrogate multiple viewpoints.
  • Make differences visible.
  • Examine competing narratives.
  • Produce counternarratives to dominant discourses.

In classrooms where teachers honor student perspectives, there is an increase in engagement, ownership of learning and social confidence. Students see their teacher as someone who respects them and is on their side, which can motivate them to work to improve their skills and expand their knowledge.

Honoring student perspectives might look like:

  • Co-constructing the teaching and learning that happens in the classroom.
  • Taking students’ knowledge, culture and interests seriously.
  • Engaging in ongoing conversations and deliberations with students about the classroom environment and content.
  • Prioritizing inquiry-based approaches to learning.

Practices such as using inquiry-based projects that center student questions and interests, allowing students to help develop classroom agreements, and facilitating democratic classroom discussions show students that their perspectives are important to the classroom community. This level of advocacy and engagement in the classroom will also help set students up for community activism.

Learn more about student advocacy with LFJ’s online course Youth in Front, designed to promote student-led perspectives in civic engagement.