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Teaching Social Justice and Democracy in Action

This is an excerpt from Playing Fair by Joy Butler.

To embrace human rights is to become aware that without social justice there can be no fairness or equality; consequently, democratic processes cannot function. Essential to the definition of democracy is the notion that all people have equal power to live freely, to vote, and to speak. With these rights comes the civic responsibility to exercise these rights through active interest and involvement in the community. Teachers play a crucial role in preparing students to do this.


There are two key aspects of teaching for social justice through the practice of democracy in action. The first is addressing societal inequities through antioppression education. The second is using some of the pedagogical tools to teach social justice - in this case, democracy in action, situated ethics, and inventing games.


Understanding Societal Inequities

As Young pointed out (1990), the democratic process breaks down when unfairness and an imbalance of power occur. Let’s consider the nature of power in relation to the games curriculum.

  • Power over, or coercive power.This is the power structure in hierarchies. The school administration, which controls the curriculum, is supported by the school board, local government, and the law. Sometimes the culture of the school reinforces practices that seem to go without saying. These might include the disciplinary mastery approach to teaching sport, or inequitable practices such as dodgeball.
  • Power from within, or empowerment. As educators, we seek to empower our students through active creative experiences such as singing, writing, solving problems, making art, and dancing. Through inventing games, we offer active creative experiences in the ethical domain, as we encourage students to speak up, listen, negotiate, and make decisions that will enhance the effectiveness of the group.
  • Collective power. Collective poweris the power people gain when they act in concert. In the inventing games process, students begin to understand that they are part of a community they can trust. They come to accept that they sometimes need to set aside their own interests in favor of common goals. They learn when to take care of themselves and when to take care of others.
  • Power with, or social power (influence, rank, status, or authority). Social power determines how much weight an individual opinion carries, how much members are listened to in a group, and how much they are respected. As young people struggle to reach the expectations of adulthood, they rely heavily on their peers to establish self-esteem. Young people who see themselves as outsiders and not accepted by their peers are more likely to withdraw, become depressed, and become targets for bullying (Boyce, King, & Roche, 2008).
  • Earned and unearned social power.Unearned power is privilege, the power you get not from anything you are have done or created, but from who you happen to be - your gender, your race, your social class, the wealth you’ve inherited, the opportunities handed to you. With privilege often comes entitlement, a feature of hierarchy (Starhawk, 2011, p. 45). This often plays out along the lines of gender and race in physical education classes.


Teaching for Social Justice

Left unaided in group decision-making processes, students fall back on informal or culturally determined systems of interaction, ranging from the much-loved football huddle to a reliance on acknowledged leaders. These systems are products of cultural, generational, and gender norms. Although there is much to celebrate in all social institutions (church, family, state, school), the active and engaged citizen must always examine them for bias. The challenge for the teacher is to find ways to limit privilege while helping students find positive ways to be rewarded for their efforts.


Very often, we learn about what we believe when we confront real-life situations. In inventing games, these situations arise frequently and naturally as students encounter moments of aporia (rupture or stuckness). When we are faced with situations that challenge what we know, we struggle to make new sense of the universe and push beyond our current moral constructs. Varela (1999), who called this new, more conscious, sense of what is right ethical know-how, believes that it evolves over time through small decisions and actions, rather than being handed down as a set of a priori principles. As students invent and negotiate to create their games, they develop their capacity for personal and social responsibility, free inquiry, decision making, social justice, cooperation, and competition (see chapter 1).


Learn more about Playing Fair.

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Playing Fair

Playing Fair

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