Activist Discourses


Raising awareness of power structures, potential imbalances, and shared obligations

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … power to act
  • Knowing is … acting
  • Learner is … a citizen
  • Learning is … acculturation
  • Teaching is … awareness raising




Activist Discourses are concerned with interrogating the entrenched narratives and structures that infuse, lend support to, and help to perpetuate social norms and cultural institutions. Oriented by the conviction that there are no “neutral” acts or ideas, and critically attentive to the collective roots of personal convictions, Activist Discourses aim for deep understandings in order to inform and orient justice-oriented thinking and acting. In effect, Activist Discourses tend to reframe discussions of and in education by focusing on “Why?” more than “What?” or “How?”
Prominent Foci
  • Factory Model – a term of denigration, prompted at the structural similarities of Standardized Education and the early industrial factory
  • Gaps:
    • Achievement Gap – any instance of unequal attainment or inequitable distribution of educational benefits; usually used in specific reference to significant and persistent differences in educational achievement between learners of different races or with different socio-economic backgrounds
    • Learning Gap – the difference between one’s age/grade level and one’s achievement level – that is, the difference between what one should have learned and what one has actually learned, based on age and/or grade level
    • Opportunity Gap – ways in which differences that are outside the control of the learner – such as race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, bodily capabilities, language proficiency, and so on – adversely affect access to educational opportunities
  • Hidden Curriculum – non-explicit and not-necessarily-intended learning consequences of schooling, typically seen to include norms, values, and beliefs that are implicit in curriculum foci, classroom resources, institutional structures, grading practices, and teaching methods.
  • Mindless Curriculum (Charles Silberman, 1960s) – a term introduced to collect educational movements away from reflective and responsive emphases and toward teacher-proofing curriculum, deskilling educators, standardizing outcomes, and so on
  • Null Curriculum – that which is left out, whether deliberately omitted or simply not noticed, of theories and instantiations of curriculum
  • Reproductive Learning – an umbrella notion that is applied to all forms of education that are focused on the reproduction of existing knowledge – both explicit (e.g., as defined by traditional school subject areas) and implicit (e.g., social structures, power relations, cultural norms). Associated discourses include:
    • Reproduction Theory (Pierre Bourdieu, 1970s) – the assertion that schooling systems reproduce social divisions and economic structures, contrary to the popular myth that formal education is an equalizer
  • Subtractive Education – policies and practices of schooling that operate to diminish or eliminate students’ culture, typically justified as necessary to academic success
Commonly Invoked Concepts and Principles
  • Acculturation – the taking on of values and customs associated with one’s social and cultural groups
  • Indoctrination – the assertion that all acts of teaching serve to privilege some knowledge over other knowledge while instilling particular values and perspectives
  • Socialization – developing the habits and attitudes appropriate to a culture or a specific cultural situation, such as an institution or a profession
    • Socialization-Related Learning (Academic Socialization) (Thomas Reio, Jr., 2000s) – the learning of the behaviors, norms, and skills that are integral to functioning participants in a formal educational setting
  • Hegemony – social and cultural means by which dominant groups maintain their power – through, e.g., positions of authority, manipulation of media, and influence on Discourse (see below)
  • Discourse – In broadest terms (and as used in the title of this website), a Discourse is a system of mutually dependent and mutually supporting statements. Among Activist Discourses, the word Discourse is often used more specifically, to refer to worldviews and systems of thought that are entangled in social practices and power structures.
  • Intersectionality (Kimberlé Crenshaw, 1980s) – initially coined as a legal term to signal how race, class, gender, and other characteristics “intersect” (i.e., overlap, co-entwine) in one’s identity. Intersectionality has recently been associated with some Activist Discourses, where it is typically interpreted as a vital consideration in addressing disparities among individuals and groups.
  • Situationism – most generally, a theory that asserts one’s behavior is determined by contextual factors, not by personal traits. Among Activist Discourses, Situationism is often equated with the oppressive and exploitative aspects of modern capitalist societies.
Sites of Engagement
  • Anti-Ableism (Disability Rights; Equality of Access) – “Ableism” refers to any form of prejudice that favors able-bodied individuals. Anti-Ableism thus encompasses all attitudes and efforts to ensure equality of rights and access on the basis of bodily capabilities.
  • Anti-Oppressive Education – Starting with the realization that formal education is not (and cannot be) “neutral,” Anti-Oppressive Education calls educators, first, to be attentive to ways that practices and attitudes can contribute to or mask oppressions and, accordingly, to work with all involved to enact more just alternatives.
  • Anti-Racism – Whereas being “non-racist” mean not making discriminations based on race), being “anti-racist” entails actively identifying, challenging, and changing the structures, practices, attitudes, and privileges associated with racism.
  • Critical Race Theory (1970s) – Originating as a topic of academic interest among legal scholars, Critical Race Theory is attentive to the history of systemic racism and its manifestations in the contemporary world. In recent years, factions associated with ultra-conservatism in the United States have attempted to rebrand Critical Race Theory as a radical-left ploy to hijack schooling by distorting history and disparaging modern society.
  • Culturally Relevant Teaching (Culturally Responsive Teaching) (Gloria Ladson-Billings, 1990s) – curriculum emphases and teaching methods that are adapted to cross-cultural or multicultural settings and that are intended to enable all students to relate topics of study to their cultural situations
  • Decolonizing Education (Postcolonialism and Education) (Linda Tuhiwai Smith, 1990s)– a movement to rethink and rebuild schools, based on commitments to identify and interrupt the cultural legacy of European colonialism, especially with regard to imposed worldviews and privileged knowledge
  • Diversity Education – In the context of this phrase, “diversity” refers to every possible means that humans use to distinguish from each other – including (but not limited to) race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, class, wealth, gender, physical capability, cognitive ability, age, and body type. Diversity Education is thus about ensuring that diversities are not deployed to exclude or diminish.
  • Inclusive Education (Inclusion) – In education, “inclusion” refers to the right for each individual to be respected and involved, regardless of traits, abilities, or needs. Inclusive Education thus an ideological movement, articulated as a right for all children to be in the same classrooms and schools.
Associated Methods and Emphases
  • Excellence and Equity – a notion that encompasses any educational policy or structure designed to address matters of inequitable access or experience
  • Democratic Teaching – an attitude and/or approach to setting classroom norms that eschews teacher-centered practices (e.g., unilateral decisions, top-down management, pre-set curricula) in favor of rules, methods, and content that are negotiated among teacher and students
  • Radical Education – an umbrella notion that reaches across any approach to formal learning that rejects traditional aims and practices while seeking social and political reform
  • Conscientization (Critical Consciousness; Consciousness Raising; conscientização, in Portuguese) (Paulo Freire; 1970s) – the development of the ability to recognize and the inclination to interrupt any type of oppression or contradiction – social, political, cultural, economic, and so on
  • Voice – One's Voice is cultural, historical, social, racialized, class-based, and gendered. It arises in a weave of privilege and disadvantage. Voices are heard, ignored, and/or silenced  in socio-cultural contexts, and so the notion serves as a metaphor of power and agency and a focal point of analysis across many Activist Discourses.


Almost all Activist Discourses are articulated in terms of power – to act, to sway, to take, to withhold, and so on. While it might be argued that they have had little impact on the day-to-day realities of schooling, they have had the major impact of peeking under the false narrative that schools are great equalizers. On the contrary, Activist Discourses argue and demonstrate, schools are complicit in perpetuating (and sometimes amplifying) unjust structures, biased worldviews, and oppressive habits. In effect, then, Activist Discourses might be better described as “theories of unlearning” than “theories of learning.”


  • Achievement Gap
  • Acculturation
  • Anti-Ableism (Disability Rights; Equality of Access)
  • Anti-Oppressive Education
  • Anti-Racism
  • Conscientization (Critical Consciousness; Consciousness Raising)
  • Critical Race Theory
  • Culturally Relevant Teaching (Culturally Responsive Teaching)
  • Decolonizing Education (Postcolonialism and Education)
  • Democratic Teaching
  • Discourse
  • Diversity Education
  • Excellence and Equity
  • Factory Model
  • Hegemony
  • Hidden Curriculum
  • Inclusive Education (Inclusion)
  • Indoctrination
  • Intersectionality
  • Learning Gap
  • Mindless Curriculum
  • Null Curriculum
  • Opportunity Gap
  • Radical Education
  • Reproduction Theory
  • Reproductive Learning
  • Situationism
  • Socialization
  • Socialization-Related Learning (Academic Socialization)
  • Subtractive Education

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Activist Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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