structural aspects of childhood poverty

structural aspects of childhood poverty

to address some of the structural aspects of childhood poverty. Consider the theoretical distinction between locating the problem in

the individual (it’s each family’s responsibility to provide for their own children) versus the collective (it’s a social responsibility to ensure that all children are provided for). These two theoretical frameworks will result in very different ways of making sense of, and responding to, the problem. Neither is neutral, but both will impact the problem in profoundly different ways (for example, some countries with a more collectivist approach, such as Japan and Finland, automatically provide school lunch for all children, not just low-income children. In so doing, they remove the stigma associated with special programs).

The way we make sense of our world (or our theories about the world) is often invisible to us. But we cannot address issues of critical social justice without first examining the maps we are using to identify the problem and conceptualize its solutions. Further, awareness of our theoretical maps can lead to fundamental change in our behaviors. This is why understanding theory is not only relevant but also essential for social change to occur.

Knowledge Construction

One of the key contributions of critical theorists concerns the production of knowledge. Given that the transmission of knowledge is an integral activity in schools, critical scholars in the field of education have been especially concerned with how knowledge is produced. These scholars argue that a key element of social injustice involves the claim that particular knowledge is objective, neutral, and universal. An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that objectivity is desirable or even possible. The term used to describe this way of thinking about knowledge is that knowledge is socially constructed. When we refer to knowledge as socially constructed we mean that knowledge is reflective of the values and interests of those who produce it. This concept captures the understanding that all knowledge and all means of knowing are connected to a social context.

In understanding knowledge as socially constructed, critical educators guide students along at least three fronts:

1. Critical analysis of knowledge claims that are presented as objective, neutral, and universal; for example, Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America

2. Critical self-reflection about their own social perspective and


subjectivity; for example, how the Columbus myth and the teacher’s racial identity influence what they know and teach about the history of North America

3. Developing the skills with which to see, analyze, and challenge ideological domination; for example, rewriting existing school lesson plans or curricula to reflect the complexities of the myth of discovery and the political investments in this myth

In these ways educators who teach from a critical perspective guide their students in an examination of the relationship between their frames of reference and the knowledge they accept and reproduce. Of course this is no easy task because for many Westerners the ideal of positivism (that European science followed rules and thus its findings are indisputable) is very powerful and deeply entrenched. It is challenging to guide people in a critical examination of knowledge that they have been taught is indisputable. Thus what critical educators often begin with is an examination of students’ own social positions and the relationship between those positions and the knowledge that they have.

For this reason the concept of positionality has become a key tool in analyzing knowledge construction. Positionality asserts that knowledge is dependent upon a complex web of cultural values, beliefs, experiences, and social positions. The ability to situate oneself as knower in relationship to that which is known is widely acknowledged as fundamental to understanding the political, social, and historical dimensions of knowledge. Positionality is a foundation of this examination.

James Banks is one scholar in education who has made significant contributions to the understanding of knowledge as socially constructed. Banks (1996) explains that the knowledge we create is influenced by our experiences within various social, economic, and political systems. Thus who we are (as knowers) is intimately connected to our group socialization (including gender, race, class, and sexuality). For example, consider the Columbus story. Whose racial perspective is reflected in the idea that the continent was “discovered”? Which racial groups may be invested in this story? Which racial groups may be invested in challenging it? Asking questions such as these develops a clearer picture of how “what you know” is connected to “who you are” and “where you stand.”

Positionality: The recognition that where you stand in relation to others in society shapes what you can see and understand about the world.

Banks’s knowledge typology has become a classic framework used by


critical educators to help unravel how knowledge is validated. According to Banks, there are five types of knowledge:

Personal and cultural knowledge refers to the explanations and

interpretations people acquire from their personal experiences in their homes, with their family and community cultures. Personal and cultural knowledge is transferred both explicitly, such as direct lessons taught by family members on what constitutes politeness (e.g., “make eye contact with your elders”), as well as implicitly through messages such as what isn’t talked about (e.g., race or money).

Popular knowledge refers to the facts, beliefs, and various character

and plot types that are institutionalized within television, movies, and other forms of mass-mediated popular culture. Concepts such as the ideal family, normal relationships, and which kinds of neighborhoods are dangerous are all standardized through ongoing representations in popular culture. Because popular knowledge is widely shared, it serves as a common vocabulary and reference point. For instance, you might remember where you were when you heard about the death of Prince or David Bowie. If you asked, many people would know what you were referring to and be able to say where they were too.

Mainstream academic knowledge refers to the concepts, paradigms,

theories, and explanations that make up the traditional and established canon in the behavioral and social sciences. This type of knowledge is based on the belief that there is an objective truth and that with the right procedures and methods it is possible to attain this truth. For example, many university courses teach theories that explain the psychological, physical, and intellectual development of children as a cohesive group. This development is said to occur through predictable stages that can be named, studied, and applied to all children, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or gender identity.

School knowledge refers to the facts and concepts presented in

textbooks, teachers’ guides, and other aspects of the formal curriculum designed for use in schools. School knowledge also refers to teachers’ interpretations of that knowledge. A critical component of school knowledge is not only what is taught, both explicitly and implicitly, but also what is not taught. School knowledge can also be thought of as canonized knowledge that has been approved or officially sanctioned by


the state, for example, through textbooks or standardized tests. Many students are socialized to not question the textbook, but rather to accept it uncritically. Questioning school knowledge is often penalized (grades, test scores, tracking, and reprimand) in ways that have deep and lasting consequences.

Transformative academic knowledge refers to the concepts and

explanations that challenge mainstream academic knowledge and that expand the canon. Transformative academic knowledge questions the idea that knowledge can ever be outside of human interests, perspectives, and values. Proponents of transformative academic knowledge assume that knowledge is not neutral and that it reflects the social hierarchies of a given society. Transformative academic knowledge recognizes that the social groups we belong to (such as race, class, and gender) necessarily shape our frame of reference and give us a particular—not a universal— perspective. Therefore, each of us has insight into some dimensions of social life but has limited understanding in others.

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structural aspects of childhood poverty
structural aspects of childhood poverty

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