Beyond Just Education: Why our approach to teaching makes all the difference in social change

February 28, 2017/ Article

“We need to educate people,” is one of the most common refrains from social change activists. But what does it really mean? The rise of popular education and insights from anti-oppression movements give us major insights into how to do meaningful education. Here’s how I’ve taken these lessons to heart to be more effective.


Take the counter-recruitment movement. In that movement we want to assist folks to better understand the impact of the military on their communities and the world. We want to help people understand ways they can internally and externally resist the military-industrial complex. We want to help young people see the whole range of their life’s options, breaking out of the myth that the military may be their only option.

This requires more than memorizing pieces of information. It requires new skills and new ways of seeing the world.

Unfortunately, most of us were raised in a model of education that does not promote this kind of paradigm shifting. Traditional education is teacher-centered: teachers know information and give it to their students. Students are told what is right and what is wrong, and are tested on their ability to memorize it.

In that model, students are not asked to reflect on their own life experiences. They are not asked to integrate what they’re learning into their own lives and their life perspectives. In other words, they’re not active participants in their own liberation.

When we come to “educating” people it is easy to replicate this information-centered and teacher-centered approach. Thankfully, we can choose to do our activism and education in people-centered ways.


In this new method, the role of the educator is to help people tap their own inner wisdom. People are brilliant. Studies and facts may prove helpful, but even more important is people’s capacity to see reality for themselves.

In this model, the starting point is not information, but each person. What do they care about? What do they see? And then probe to get a little deeper (getting to deeper layers or “peeling the onion”).

“Education” moves from telling people what is true to asking people what they see. This is more effective because education that helps people find their own inner voice is far more powerful than education that promotes the recitation of facts and figures.

This is the route of empowerment, not further reliance on experts and “those who know.”


In thinking about my own life, this showed up quite dramatically around the issue of recruitment. When I was younger, I considered going into the National Guard. I believed in helping people, and I saw the National Guard putting up sand bags to stop flooding and generally giving a hand to people in need.

I mentioned to my dad what I was thinking. He asked me why I wanted to do it – and I explained. I added that I didn’t want to join the army because I didn’t believe in killing people or in what they were doing. But I saw the National Guard as one way to give back to my community. (This was before the National Guard was being back-door drafted into Iraq.)

He said that made sense, and asked me if I had thought about other ways of giving back. I mentioned a few. Knowing I was very self-directed and wanted to go my own way, he asked me, “What would you do if the National Guard asked you to do something that you morally didn’t agree with?” He may have given an example.

I told him, “I don’t think I could do it.”

“Oh. Then what would do you think they would do,” my dad asked.

“I guess they’d court martial me, wouldn’t they?”

“Probably,” my dad affirmed, adding, “They don’t have any flexibility for people disagreeing with them.” (He was affirming my wisdom and I easily could have pictured him adding a fact or two here to shore up my own instincts.)

That was the end of the conversation. But it completely shifted me out of thinking about the National Guard. He helped me access my own instincts and trust them more. I guess I could say I was being empowered.

At one level, he was supporting me with information. But he was also showing me that he trusted that I could think the issue through. He believed I had the wisdom inside of me, given enough time and thoughtful attention. And he did it all through questions.

He modeled for me a people-centered form of education: education that invites people to think through their own lives, and trusts them to make wise decisions. Ultimately, they’re the ones who have to take responsibility for their own decisions, anyway.


This approach is not value neutral. It relies on empathy, respect for each person’s wisdom and finding one’s own leading into a pro-justice lifestyle. But it does not believe in imposing itself by setting up experts who should tell people what they should do with their lives.

In the counter-recruitment movement, this means youth should make their own decisions about their lives. We can listen, asking leading questions, and occasionally provide information based on our relationship – but the bottomline is not making them come out with the right position. The bottomline is respect for persons.

The old paradigm centered on facts. This one centers around the learner – their hearts, their intellect, and their self-confidence in their ability to act. It’s what being pro-empowerment is all about.


The people-centered approach is pro-action because, rather than starting from the outside, the process of learning happens on the inside. There’s a class dimension at play that further supports this shift away from external facts being seen as the major impetus to action (versus people’s internal process.)

Many middle-class activists came into activism by learning about an injustice – often one that didn’t directly affect them. Think about middle-class dominated movements, like the peace movement or anti-globalization movement. Their focus is on the lives of others. Many middle-class activists keep themselves motivated by finding out more about an issue, exploring the depth of structural injustice, and getting better educated about an injustice.

This is in stark contrast to many working-class activists. Working-class people are often fighting for a difference in their own lives. They operate on a lived experience of oppression. Learning more about the details of how mistreated they are does not inspire them into action. Instead, working-class activists look for how the change can happen. Seeing power and ways to make change gives them encouragement to move forward.

Cynthia Peters writes about this dynamic, quoting from two working-class progressives, Linda Stout (who wrote Bridging the Class Divide) and David Croteau (who wrote Politics and the Class Divide).

Perhaps hoping to replicate in others their own experience of discovering injustice, middle-class activists focus too much on education. Linda Stout says, “Many groups give educational programs without any actions assigned, believing that knowledge about a particular issue is enough to make people work for change. But I believe that if folks leave a program without understanding what to do with the knowledge they have gained, they frequently feel even more disempowered” (p. 138).

Meanwhile, David Croteau argues, setting up educational forums to reveal to people all the terrible injustice in the world is akin to asking people to learn the details of horrible but fixed aspects of life – things we have no chance of changing, like the weather. “A lot of times I don’t like the weather,” says one worker that Croteau interviewed, “but I don’t wrack my brain trying to think up a way to change it… If it’s raining…I go inside. I don’t try to stop it from raining.”

Saul Alinsky summarized the situation in this way, “If people feel they don’t have the power to change a bad situation, then they do not think about it.”  The suggestion is clear: move away from education about the problem and into confidence building, increasing people’s motivation to act.


This educational analysis and class dimension could inform the way that we think of “educating” people. Rather than bombarding people with facts and figures, our task is to stimulate people to think more deeply for themselves. That means asking questions that don’t have right or wrong answers. That means inviting people to see the difference that they can make. What are their options? Where are their choices?

Ultimately, this means more liberation for everyone.

For more on people-centered education, check out the Training for Social Action Trainers and other workshops offered by Training for Change.


•    Bridging the Class Divide (Beacon Press 1996) and Politics and the Class Divide:: Working People and the Middle Class Left (Temple University Press 1995) are two highly-recommended books on class. A new book on economic class especially for middle-class activists is Class Matters:: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists by Betsy Leondar-Wright (New Society Publishers 2005). Training for Change also offers public and tailored workshops for activists groups on economic class:

•    Cynthia Peters, “The Class Divide,” ZMagazine (October 25, 1999).

•    Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (Random House 1972), page 105.

[An extract from Before You Enlist and After you Say No, a counter-recruitment manual co-written by Daniel Hunter and Hannah Strange (Ruckus Society).]

Share this Post