Alleynian Review: Teaching for Social Justice in International Schools


The idea that there is a link between education and social change may seem obvious, and many school mission statements claim a commitment to some form of social change. The literature on the topic embraces discourses as varied as critical pedagogy, democracy studies, multicultural studies, critical race theory, whiteness studies, feminist theory, LGBTQ+ studies, postcolonial theory, elite studies and more (Hytten & Bettez, 2011). This can cause difficulties in defining the goals of social justice education and in developing a strategy for achieving those goals. This article starts to explore some of the ways in which social justice education might be addressed in an international school context, before narrowing the focus to explore how some of these ideas might be addressed in the drama studio. 

What is social justice education? 

A useful starting point is Paolo Freire, whose 1971 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 2005) is a key text in the field of critical pedagogy. Freire criticises the “‘banking’ concept of education” which positions students as empty deposit boxes waiting to be filled with knowledge provided by the teacher / bank clerk (p.72). In this way, inequity is perpetuated, dominant ideologies are sustained, and knowledge is fixed both in its nature and in its origins. Freire seeks to replace banking education with problem-posing education, where the “teacher-student” and “students-teachers” (p.80) are on a shared mission to construct knowledge through a dialogic process of exploration. Each voice has something to contribute, each participant can both teach and learn, and participants are more open to questioning the world. Wink (2011) describes this as a process of “learning, relearning and unlearning” (p.11). Participants start to see things anew and to question dominant assumptions about the world. Learners become aware of inequity and injustice in the world and also of their own power to change that world, a process Freire called conscientisation (Darder et al., 2017). 

The tradition of critical pedagogy with Freire as its figurehead does, however, come in for criticism, not least due to the fact that many of the major voices are white and male (Darder et al., 2017). While it could be argued that this is an inevitable consequence of the time in which Freire was working, it is still important to consider other perspectives. For example, Chinyowa (2013) highlights a body of thought that sees the Freirean division of the world into oppressor and oppressed as an over-simplification of the complex nature of power relationships. Noted feminist scholar bell hooks has also made significant contributions to this discussion, broadening the argument to explore the intersection of race and gender. She acknowledges Freire’s influence, but also stresses the need to avoid the types of generalisations that see, for example, the experiences of white women as representing the experiences of all women (1994, as cited in Hart, 2019). It is therefore important to introduce counter-narratives that may challenge the dominant stories which could be seen as perpetuating unequal power relations. Carr and Thésée (2019), for example, call for the diverse lived experiences of those both in and beyond the school to be brought into the classroom. The goal here is to promote multiple perspectives and, in this way, to acknowledge the complexity of the way the world works. 

Another approach is suggested by Jennifer Gale de Saxe (2019), who advises teachers to ask three key questions: “1) What kind of society do we want? 2) What would education look like in this ideal society? 3) Can we imagine a society that brings us closer to an unequivocally better world?” (p.130). There is, of course, a challenge in defining a “better world”: what is better for one person is not necessarily better for all. For the purpose of this article, I am defining it as a world where inequities are recognised as products of systemic power imbalances and where the authority of voices from a wide range of contexts (including those traditionally marginalised) is promoted and sustained. In this society, individual citizens are empowered to critically examine the ways in which society needs to change in order to reduce inequality and, having recognised what is needed, possess the courage and means to take action. 

How do we get there? 

If this is the intended outcome, how do we get there? Before considering this question, it is important that teachers recognise the tensions thrown up by contexts in which they work. Most international schools serve members of what has been called the “transnational capitalist class” (Sklair, 2001, as cited in Tarc, Mishra Tarc & Wu, 2019, p.666). This class is made up of the globally mobile, highly skilled professional employees of large, frequently multi-national corporations, as well as successful entrepreneurs and those serving diplomatic missions. On the one hand, it could be argued that education oriented towards social justice is particularly important in such elite settings: the elite have the power to address and alter the systems that perpetuate inequity and injustice. However, this argument has been challenged by those who caution against the view that the elite are the ones who are best suited to improving the state of the world, and that it is only they who can address the structural inequities (Fahey & Prosser, 2015). Such a view potentially negates the agency of those who are less privileged. It could also permit elite students to see themselves as saviours swooping in to meet the needs of a stereotypically marginalised victim while at the same time using a rhetorical commitment to social justice to excuse and even hide their own privilege (Howard & Maxwell, 2018).  

This is a rather bleak view, however: it is important to work with hope and to seek ways forward. Swalwell (2013) carried out a study at an elite school whose mission is explicitly oriented towards social justice. She identifies four types of student: the “Meritocrat”, who sees injustice as a problem that exists elsewhere, but contributes in a disconnected way to supporting those less privileged; the “Resigned”, who fully understands the structural and systemic nature of injustice, but refuses to engage out of a sense of hopelessness; the “Benevolent Benefactor”, who cares deeply about injustice and will engage in service learning and charitable efforts; and the “Activist Ally”, who is critically aware and also empowered to act to address the root causes of injustice. Moving students along the spectrum from “Meritocrat” to “Activist Ally” seems like a useful way of conceptualising this issue. Barratt Hacking et al. (2018) stress the need for institutions, educators and, indeed, students to work intentionally towards these goals, making them explicit in everything that we do. They also emphasise the importance of self-examination, of critically “reaching in and exploring our own sense of identity, … assumptions and limitations” (p.9-10). 

Some practical ideas are starting to emerge here. Teachers and students need to become aware of their own identity, understanding the tensions and possibilities inherent in any position of privilege. In order to move towards being an activist ally, they then need to be given the opportunity to listen to a range of different voices. Brookfield (2019) has written about the power of “ideological interruptions” (p.14) in provoking an unlearning and relearning of beliefs about the world. Such interruptions are stories or events that allow us to see the world in a new or different way. In elite settings, such interruptions could help those with privilege reach a greater understanding of their position in the world, which could in turn be a useful starting point in learning about the systemic and structural nature of inequity and injustice. It is important to remember, however, that students are young people in the process of exploring and forming their own identities (Hatton, 2012). Work oriented towards social change and in/justice can be uncomfortable for participants, particularly if they are forced to confront their own privilege. We therefore need to ensure that our classrooms are safe spaces in which students will feel comfortable participating (Carr & Thésée, 2019; Yancy, 2019).  

To summarise, it is clear that social justice education moves away from the teacher- speaks-student-listens model. Instead, there is a focus on seeing the world anew. Boundaries between the teacher and the student start to blur and there is an emphasis on dialogue. This is enabled through the amplification of and respect given to traditionally unheard voices, leading to an understanding of the complexity of the world. Counter-narratives and ideological interruptions allow students to question the normative stories that have traditionally been heard in the classroom and in the world beyond. Students are also encouraged to examine their own identity as learners and as members of society. For privileged students, this may include an appraisal of how their privilege works in the context of structural and systemic injustice. All of this takes place in a safe space in which students feel free to speak. Students and teachers are intentional in exploring concepts linked to social justice and in working towards the role of an activist ally for those facing inequity and injustice. 

Social justice education in the drama studio 

As a drama teacher, I am aware that there is a significant body of thought that sees drama teaching as a powerful force for good (Neelands, 2004). Drama classrooms are seen as safe spaces in which students can explore their own and others’ identities, critically examine challenging real world issues and develop immense reserves of empathy (Hatton, 2012; Lambert et al., 2016). However, it is important to have the humility to recognise that any such learning may be messy, tentative and incomplete (Balfour, 2009). At the same time, we need to develop a curriculum that straddles the line between teaching for academic success and teaching for social justice, between learning about and learning through drama. 

There is not enough space here to explore such a curriculum in any depth. Bowell and Heap (2013), however, provide a starting point in imagining a helix comprising two strands: learning about drama and learning through drama. At the level of the whole curriculum, teachers pull each strand into focus depending on the unit of work being taught. In this way, some units have a primary focus on learning about a specific aspect of the art form or about a particular theatre tradition (e.g. puppetry, devising, script work, clowning or Wayang Kulit). During these units, the social justice work takes a secondary role, but is used to guide elements such as text and stimulus choice, set tasks, exemplars and the traditions selected. At certain times during individual lessons or tasks, however, the social justice elements may be brought into stronger focus. An example of this might be the introduction of the concept of parody to explore an issue of social in/justice during a clowning scheme of work. 

Other units have learning through drama as their primary focus. These units take a process drama approach to explore a focus question or theme that connects with an issue of social in/justice in the real world. The work follows a coherent narrative but is structured in an episodic manner. Students experience periods of in-role immersion in the drama, but also more distanced periods of reflection. This approach allows them to inhabit and explore different voices and viewpoints, as well as to experience moments where they may start to see the world anew. At times, learning about drama becomes the focus. The teacher then focuses on explicit analysis of how the art form is working to create tension, emotion, atmosphere and meaning. In this way, the work becomes a hybrid that merges learning through and learning about.  

This is an extremely brief and inevitably incomplete summary of how drama might be oriented towards social justice. The following list of further reading will hopefully help in continuing the conversation and in suggesting some next steps for developing a drama curriculum oriented towards social justice. 

Further Reading: Drama Teaching for Social Justice 

Babbage, F. (2004). Augusto Boal. Abingdon: Routledge.  Boal, A. (2002). Games for Actors and Non-Actors. London: Routledge. 

Bowell, P., & Heap, B. S. (2013). Planning Process Drama: Enriching Teaching and Learning. Abingdon: Routledge.  

Davis, D. (2014). Imagining the Real: Towards a new theory of drama in education. London: Institute of Education Press.  

Drama Research. (2021, February 3). Finding Radical Hope (Documentary): drama class and the activist voice [video file]. Retrieved from  

Freebody, K., & Finneran, M. (Eds.). (2016). Drama and Social Justice: Theory, research and practice in international contexts. Abingdon: Routledge.  

Haseman, B., & O’Toole, J. (2017). Dramawise Reimagined: Learning to Manage the Elements of Drama. Strawberry Hills: Currency Press.  

Kidd, D. (2020). A Curriculum of Hope: As Rich in Humanity as in Knowledge. Camarthen: Independent Thinking Press. 

Momentum Stage Inc. (n.d.) Momentum Stage Inc. Retrieved June 12, 2021, from  

O’Connor, P. (Ed.) (2010). Creating Democratic Citizenship Through Drama Education: the writings of Jonothan Neelands. London: Institute of Education Press.  

RE:THEATRE. (n.d.). RE:THEATRE. Retrieved June 12, 2021, from 



Balfour, M. (2009). The politics of intention: looking for a theatre of little changes. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 14(3), 347-359. DOI: 10.1080/13569780903072125  

Barratt Hacking, E., Blackmore, C., Bullock, K., Bunnell, T., Donnelly, M., & Martin, S. (2018) International Mindedness in Practice: The Evidence from International Baccalaureate Schools. Journal of Research in International Education, 17(1), 3-16. DOI: 10.1177/1475240918764722.  

Bowell, P., & Heap, B. S. (2013). Planning Process Drama: Enriching Teaching and Learning. Abingdon: Routledge.  

Brookfield, S. (2019). Uncovering and Challenging White Supremacy. In Yancy, G. (Ed.), Educating for Critical Consciousness (pp. 11-27). New York: Routledge.  

Carr, P. R., & Thésée, G. (2019). It’s not Education that Scares Me, It’s the Educators.... Gorham: Myers Education Press.  

Chinyowa, K. C. (2013). Interrogating spaces of otherness: Towards a post- critical pedagogy for applied drama and theatre. Applied Theatre Research, 1(1), 7-16. DOI: 10.1386/atr.1.1.7_1  

Darder, A., Baltodano, M. P., & Torres, R. D. (2017). Critical Pedagogy: An Introduction. In Darder, A., Baltodano, M. P., & Torres, R. D. (Eds.) The Critical Pedagogy Reader (pp. 1-23). New York: Routledge.  

de Saxe, J. G. (2019). Complicating Resistance: Intersectionality, Liberation and Democracy. In Yancy, G. (Ed.), Educating for Critical Consciousness (pp. 127-145). New York: Routledge.  

Fahey, J., & Prosser, H. (2015). Approaching methodology creatively: problematizing elite schools’ ‘best practice’ through a film about perfection and imperfection. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 28(9), 1033–1048. DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2015.1077535  

Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.  

Hart, W. D. (2019). Education and the International Division of Labor, Power and Prestige. In Yancy, G. (Ed.), Educating for Critical Consciousness (pp. 103- 115). New York: Routledge.  

Hatton, C. (2012). Performing “Girl” in the Facebook Era: Drama as a Safe Space for Negotiating Adolescent Identities and Agency. NJ, 36(1), 36-49. DOI: 10.1080/14452294.2012.11649553  

Howard, A., & Maxwell, C. (2018). From conscientization to imagining redistributive strategies: social justice collaborations in elite schools. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 16(4), 526–540. DOI: 10.1080/14767724.2018.1512048  

Hytten, K., & Bettez, S. C. (2011). Understanding Education for Social Justice. Educational Foundations, 25(1/2), 7–24. Retrieved from  

Lambert, K., Wright, P. R., Currie, J. & Pascoe, R. (2016). Performativity and creativity in senior secondary drama classrooms. NJ, 40(1), 15-26. DOI: 10.1080/14452294.2016.1189868  

Neelands, J. (2004). Miracles are happening: beyond the rhetoric of transformation in the Western traditions of drama education. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 9(1), 47-56. DOI: 10.1080/1356978042000185902  

Swalwell, K. (2013). With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Privileged Students’ Conceptions of Justice-Oriented Citizenship. Democracy & Education, 21(1), Article 5. Retrieved from  

Tarc, P., Mishra Tarc, A., & Wu, X. (2019). Anglo-Western international school teachers as global middle class: portraits of three families. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 40(5), 666-681. DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2019.1570635  

Wink, J. (2011). Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World. Upper Saddle River: Pearson.  

Yancy, G. (2019). Introduction: The Urgency of Refusing Adjustment. In Yancy, G. (Ed.), Educating for Critical Consciousness (pp. 1-10). New York: Routledge.