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
    • Knowledge Gap Theory (Knowledge Gap Hypothesis) – the suggestion that those with greater wealth and education afford greater benefit from media information because of faster and broader access to it
    • 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
  • Patriarchy – Technically, a Patriarchy is a society in which descent is traced through and inheritance is passed through males (i.e., father to son). Among critical discourses, Patriarchy is typically used to label cultures and social systems in which males have conceptual, social, economic, and political privilege over others, especially women.
  • Power – in simplest terms, the ability to do something – which is understood to entail both skill and freedom. Within education, critical discussions of Power tend to revolve around the question, “Whose interests are being served?” – and, most often, that concern is focused on of authority structures (Who decides?) and curriculum design (What is to be learned?).
  • 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
    • Habitus – one’s way of being, typically reflective of one’s history and context, as manifest in everyday habits of thought and action
    • 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.
  • Resource Theory (Edna Foa, Uriel Foa, 1970s) – a theory of interpersonal relationships based on metaphors of economic power and exchange, whereby those with greater control over resources (material, emotional, and informational) have greater power in the relationship.
  • 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 and Associated Theories
  • Agency Theory (K. Eisenhardt, 1980s) – a concept out of business and economics that is focused on making sense of social dynamics associated with one person (an “agent”) beingempowered to act on behalf of another. To our awareness, when Agency Theory has been invoked in education, it has been in direct association with Activist Discourses.
  • 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. Among categories or distinct manifestations of racism, the following have been identified:
    • Old-Fashioned Racism – overt and direct discrimination, often hostile, toward others perceived to belong a different racial or ethnic group
    • Modern Racism – covert and/or indirect discrimination of others who are perceived to belong a different racial or ethnic group. Modern Racism is typically expressed as criticism of cultural values rather than as clear discriminatory actions.
    • Aversive Racism (Samuel Gaertner, John Dovidio, 1980s) – a form of racist behavior that is manifest in avoidance of interacting with others perceived to belong a different racial or ethnic group, often while avowing opposition to 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 (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. Associated constructs and discourses include:
    • Anticolonialism – an umbrella notion used to refer to any sentiment or action against a colonialist power. Anticolonialism movements are typically motivated by desires for self-determination, and they are often infused with themes of justice, equality, anti-racism, and anti-oppression.
    • Decolonization ­(Decoloniality; Decolonial Theory) – the undoing of colonialism, usually with a major emphasis on excavating, interrogating, and undermining colonialist sensibilities that might have displaced or erased prior ways of knowing and being
    • Postcolonialism – a more general term that is used to refer to the historical period after European expansionism, political movements against colonialism (see Anticolonialism), and/or an intellectual projects to interrupt imported and imposed habit of thinking (see Decolonization)
    • Double-Consciousness (William Du Bois) – a reference to the putative need of African Americans (and other visible minorities) to maintain two modes of thinking/being in a white-dominated society
    • Third Space (Homi Bhabha, 2000s) – a space in which the dominance of a post-colonial culture is deliberately subverted, typically through subtle political and/or aesthetic acts that introduce hybrid cultural forms. Third Space is about (re)asserting agency in self- and cultural identifications.
    • Two-Eyed Seeing (Etuaptmumk) (Mi'kmaq Elder Albert Marshall, 2000s) – a reference to a benefit of intimate familiarity with two cultures – that is, of being able to view situations through both the lens of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing and the lens of western knowledges and ways of knowing
  • Distributive Justice (Adam Swift, 1990s) – having to do with the fair allocation of the costs and benefits of resources. Meanings and implications of Distributive Justice can vary considerably, depending on the frame in which the topic is engaged, especially across ecological and sociocultural perspectives.
  • 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.
  • School Integration (Desegregation) (United States, 1960s) – a cultural-political initiative to end race-based decisions, policies, and structures in American schools
  • Social Dominance Theory (Jim Sidanius, 1990s) – a perspective concerned with the creation and maintenance of group-based social hierarchies, in which three primary mechanisms of perpetuation (i.e., forces against subordinate groups) are proposed: institutional discrimination, aggregated individual discrimination, and behavioral asymmetry
Associated Methods and Emphases
  • 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
  • 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
  • Excellence and Equity – a notion that encompasses any educational policy or structure designed to address matters of inequitable access or experience
  • 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
  • Strategic Essentialism (Gayatri Spivak, 1980s) – a tactic of groups who do not identify with/as the majority and/or dominant population to essentialize (that is, overstate selected aspects of) their identities temporarily in order to achieve desired goals, such as official recognition or equal rights.
  • 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
  • Agency Theory
  • Anti-Ableism (Disability Rights; Equality of Access)
  • Anti-Oppressive Education
  • Anti-Racism
  • Anticolonialism
  • Aversive Racism
  • Conscientization (Critical Consciousness; Consciousness Raising)
  • Critical Race Theory
  • Culturally Relevant Teaching (Culturally Responsive Teaching)
  • Decolonization ­(Decoloniality; Decolonial Theory)
  • Decolonizing Education
  • Democratic Teaching
  • Discourse
  • Distributive Justice
  • Diversity Education
  • Double Consciousness
  • Excellence and Equity
  • Factory Model
  • Habitus
  • Hegemony
  • Hidden Curriculum
  • Inclusive Education (Inclusion)
  • Indoctrination
  • Intersectionality
  • Knowledge Gap Theory (Knowledge Gap Hypothesis)
  • Learning Gap
  • Mindless Curriculum
  • Modern Racism
  • Null Curriculum
  • Old-Fashioned Racism
  • Opportunity Gap
  • Patriarchy
  • Postcolonialism
  • Power
  • Radical Education
  • Reproduction Theory
  • Reproductive Learning
  • Resource Theory
  • School Integration (Desegregation)
  • Situationism
  • Social Dominance Theory
  • Socialization
  • Socialization-Related Learning (Academic Socialization)
  • Strategic Essentialism
  • Subtractive Education
  • Third Space
  • Two-Eyed Seeing (Etuaptmumk)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Activist Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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