Critical Reflectivity and Student Agency

This blog article will focus on bridging the work of Bautista et. al (2013) and Liou et. al (2009) with Howard’s (2003) rubric for self-reflection; beyond the ability to recognize your individual biases and agency, it is also important for research and researchers to recognize power built from student experience and the wider community.

Howard (2003) described a very personal rubric to aid educators in reflecting inward: upon their current racial or cultural biases, as well as major (personal) historical influences upon them. Bautisa et. al, expand upon this practice of cultural reflection, but move the focus outward; using a youth participatory research program (YPAR) as an example, the authors situate the power of student experience and student voice in educational research. The authors’ goal was to explore which “traditional tools of research” (pp. 2) students appropriated to evaluate their program—the Council of Youth Research. As part of a wider discussion, they also note the absence of student experience from educational research as a whole.

Liou et. al, likewise, expand upon the theme of critical reflexivity by focusing upon the agency that exists outside of a traditional school. How do local communities empower students to succeed–or, in this case, to seek out relevant resources and materials to apply for college–in the absence of such assistance from an underperforming school? The authors note that often, when services do not exist in underperforming schools–or when those services are not readily available to all students–students instead look to their community. This creates an interesting paradigm for school improvement; focusing upon the resources a wider community provides to students (as well as their quality) gives a school a new understanding of the services students need, as well as “improv[ing] the quality of relationships between school adults and the students they serve” (pp. 551).

These readings made me reflect upon one personal and very applicable example of the power of student agency, and how difficult it can be to build. During my time with the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), I worked to build and sustain a coalition for youth anti-tobacco advocacy, made of disparate school-based and community-based youth organizations from across the state. Historically, anti-tobacco work with youth in Arizona had heavily focused upon what we called in shorthand the “DARE model:” in-classroom lectures, featuring a figure of authority from the school or greater community who gave a very fact-based presentation. In focus groups with middle and high school students, however, we learned that this model was effective in passing along those facts–that cigarettes are deadly and addictive–but it did not personalize the subject, nor give students a sense of involvement in the cause. The goal of this new advocacy-based coalition was to empower students to understand what policy is, how it affects them and how they could affect it.

This was a radical change in the student-educator relationship, and one of the most difficult pieces to put into play was to demonstrate to these student leaders that they had agency–within their homes, their schools and their communities–and to support them in developing their confidence. Many, at the outset, simply asked for a list of acceptable club activities, without giving much thought to their local environment or personal interests. Definitely putting Howard’s rubric into play, adult educators were a vital piece of building confidence among students to tackle issues of importance to themselves and their peers; these adults, who could be anything from a homeroom teacher to someone working in outreach at the county health office to a volunteer with a community youth program, approached “advocacy” and “student agency” in very different ways; we helped all parties, including ourselves, to reflect upon our own biases, and our own communities, in order to formulate a better way to speak to coalition student leaders. Likewise, as Bautista suggests, we guided these students in the same process, asking them to identify their individual agency, as well as the agency of their local club, and to use that to find projects that were meaningful on both a personal and community level. This conversation was essential; without the wealth of student voices and experience added to the conversation, this coalition would never have risen past the lecture–a figure of authority telling the students what they should do.


Bautista, M.A. et al. (2013). Participatory action research and city youth: Methodological insights from the Council of Youth Research. Teachers College Record, 115, 1-23.

Liou, D.D., Antrop-Gonzalez, R.A. & R. Cooper. (2009). Unveiling the promise of community cultural wealth to sustaining Latina/o students’ college-going networks. Educational Series, 45, 534-555.

Howard, T.C. (2003). Culturally relevant pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflections. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 195-202.

Classroom cultural influences case study: Gender in a physical education classroom

Howard (2003) gives an excellent rubric for educators to explore their own cultural influences and prejudices, asking them to reflect upon five points:

  1. Their own interactions with different cultural (and particularly racial) groups growing up
  2. The primary influences upon their perspective
  3. If they harbor any prejudices against people because of race
  4. How those prejudices might affect a member of said racial background
  5. If they create negative profiles of others, based on assumptions of their race or culture

He outlines this as a necessary step to both valuing and creating an effective and culturally sensitive pedagogy, with which I absolutely agree. However, I wish his discussion had been rounded beyond this rubric; once an educator has openly analyzed their own prejudices, how do they apply that knowledge?

Howard lays out a foundation for educators to neither diminish cultural influences, nor to normalize them, which led me to linger on situations where cultural traditions may diminish a learner’s success; in particular, I was struck by some of the factors beyond race that Howard mentions in passing, such as gender. Is it ever acceptable to “normalize” a cultural behavior to “middle-class, European American cultural values” (pp. 198), and how does an educator recognize, prioritize and navigate that situation?

As an example: Ennis (1999) gives the case study of a physical education class in an urban high school where female students were largely disengaged. In interviews, they noted being bullied or scapegoated by male students in team activities:

“I used to like to play sports with the boys…Now, in high school, they’re like maniacs or something…They throw the ball so hard you can’t catch it.”

“They call us lame. They say we’re not trying, but we are.”

“I don’t need boys yelling at me when I make a mistake.” (Ennis 1999, pp. 33)

A program called “Sport for Peace” was instituted in the classroom; this program intentionally avoided many of the tensions that rose in the traditional “team sports” model by creating teams of equally skilled students, focusing less upon rewarding skills and more upon conflict negotiation beyond force or violence.

This example illustrates the normalizing of two culturally influenced behaviors, attacking the expectations of women to be delicate and unathletic, and of men to be forceful or violent. However, this is done in the service of creating more equal opportunities for learners of both genders. A simplistic reading may equate this to a prioritization of the normative cultural expectation–that learners are equal in ability, regardless of their gender–over the prevalent cultural norm. However, this case study and its curricular solution represent a more complicated methodology and conclusion. With its emphasis on consensus building and peaceful reconciliation, “Sport for Peace” is a textbook example of his rubric in action. It gives students the opportunity to reflect upon their own cultural biases, as well as the influences of their community growing up; it allows students to examine prejudices of others they may be carrying based upon gender, and how those prejudices impact their targets. Additionally, if gives the students an agency of which Bourdieu would approve. In order to recognize your own power within a social structure, you must be able to recognize the structure itself, and this program gives learners an extraordinary power to discover and mediate cultural biases independently. And while it might not directly answer the question of priotizing conflicting cultural influences in a classroom, it does answer that the process of self-reflection, as Howard outlined, can lead to unexpected rewards for learners and educators alike.


Bourdieu, P. (1978). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction.  In R. Brown (Ed.), Knowledge, Education and Cultural Changes (56-69).  London: Harper & Row.

Ennis, C.D. (1999). Creating a culturally relevant curriculum for disengaged girls. Sports, Education and Society, 4, 31-49.

Howard, T. (2003). Relevant pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflection. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 195-202.