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Inclusion Column

Student Autonomy is Social Justice

By Julie Ward, HS English Educator
Recent events, in large part due to the pandemic, have highlighted social inequities across the world. In the past year, we have seen social justice movements rise as individuals demand more autonomy, independence, and fairness: from equitable vaccine distribution, to government accountability on police violence, to economic support in a time of universal standstill. Individuals and society are speaking out, and social media is helping us all to hear them. And in the past year, Distance Learning, like the pandemic, has highlighted the inequities in education, and not just along lines of racial and class disparity—but a power disparity as well.
Paulo Freire, a social and educational theorist, believed that the most insidious way for individuals to be oppressed is for systems to mold them into vehicles of their own oppression. In other words, oppression works most efficiently when there is no higher institution inflicting oppression upon the individual; oppression is most successful when individuals have internalized their powerlessness and therefore act powerlessly.
In some ways, I believe, pre-COVID education did this to students: disempowered them to the extent that they acted as their own oppressors, whether that be through apathy towards their education, or through little self-advocacy as they saw teachers instead of themselves leading the way.  We now, like other movements happening around the world, are facing the social justice movement of student autonomy.
Not unlike the calls for police reform in the United States, education today calls for teacher reform. Instead of regulating student experience with the arms of grades, attendance, and deadlines—we need to help our students step into their own power by providing proactive systems that embolden them to seek and to design their own learning. Distance Learning put our students in the driver seat, and some of them were not prepared. In what ways does education need to change so that students are always prepared to be in the driver’s seat? How do we design education post-COVID to give power back to students? How can we ensure they are curious and driven individuals actively seeking their own education rather than passively complying with external demands?
To seek social justice is to seek a world of balance. We must now balance the power between teacher and student. Yes, this might mean our students stumble a bit more as they figure out how to be accountable first to themselves and then to us. But let us make space now for that self-accountability. Let us embrace the potential for a more just world by making our students design it themselves.