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Past, Present and Future Inertia

Everything is changing, but so much remains the same. Our world is undergoing massive shifts. The disruptions that we are experiencing are existential in nature and global in scope. They are creating challenges that call into question the ways in which we choose to interact as a society. Yet many of the systems and structures on which we rely, including our systems of education, have been slow to change or have continued to reproduce patterns of inequity and injustice.

Three Major Disruptions

While we can point to several reasons why many things feel different, three major disruptions, as detailed by futurist Leah Zaidi, are shaping our experiences today and promise to impact the next twenty years:


Accelerating technologies, which include the advancement and proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, are reshaping the ways we work and communicate – and even what it means to be human


The climate crisis, triggered by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, is raising questions about which places will remain livable and what people might do to curtail ecological collapse


The fight for just societies throughout much of the world, made more urgent by the decline of functioning democracies, is calling into question the role of government and what it could mean to live in a society where every person were truly free (Zaidi, 2019)


These three major disruptions will evolve and intersect in both expected and unexpected ways. They raise the stakes for imagining and pursuing liberatory education futures.

Shared Challenges

The challenges created by these disruptions are shared ones. They cannot be confined to a single country, region, state or ZIP code. Nor can any individual buy their way into a solution. People with relatively great wealth and privilege may be able to resist the impacts of these challenges in the short run, but they, like others, will be confronted by them in the long-term. Already, people with relatively little privilege and wealth are feeling their effects. As our shared challenges intensify, these individuals and communities will continue to suffer the consequences more severely than others do.

The COVID-19 pandemic, alongside a resurgent social justice movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd, helped pull back the curtain on challenges and disparities that many have experienced for a long time. These pivotal events provided us with a dress rehearsal of sorts, showing us how things can play out when, despite a dire shared challenge, many people are unwilling or unable to come together around solutions. They exposed the historic inequities across American society, leaving no sector, institution or community untouched, further illustrating that, as so much around us changes, many of the systems and structures on which we depend remain the same.

A Brief History of Oppressive Education​

Despite wide-ranging innovations and reforms, education systems remain oppressive

A Shift from Equity to Liberation

To seek simply to make our current education systems more equitable would mean that we provided learners with the supports and means to succeed in a system that resists change. It would place undue burden on learners, especially those learners who come from historically marginalized yet resilient communities or who do not identify as part of White-dominant culture, to navigate a rigid system whose underlying structures are oppressive. Beyond the moral question of continuing to place learners in such a system, we need to unlock our collective brilliance to help everyone cope with and overcome the shared challenges that we are facing. These challenges demand that we imagine new systems and structures to support one another and to mitigate the effects of disruptions. More specifically, these challenges demand that education systems shift their focus from equity to liberation to drive the emergence of robust, anti-oppressive education structures.

Activist Rapheal Randall describes liberatory education as “rooted in self-determination. It is derived from an understanding that all human beings have the right to participate in shaping a world that is constantly shaping them” (Randall, 2018). A liberatory education system is one that is flexible and, to paraphrase educator Zaretta Hammond, one that prioritizes the science of learning and human development in tandem with culturally responsive instruction. It pushes back on the scarcity narrative surrounding public education, which reinforces the belief that people need to compete for available resources because there are not enough resources for all to share (Hammond, 2021).

According to Randall, liberatory education:

Recognizes the boundlessness of our collective potential as human beings, opting for an education situated in abundance. Knowledge creation is not solely the task of well-paid academics, business aficionados, and state bureaucrats; but people from all walks of life theorizing each day by culling new insights from their current and past experiences, as well as those of their forebears. Theory is humanizing, and all citizens should be trained to analyze their daily lives to better come to grips with their own agency and ability to change the world (Randall, 2018).

Key Features of Liberatory Education as Defined by Rapheal Randall

Liberatory education:

  • Is rooted in self-determination and the right to participate in shaping the world
  • Pushes against notions of scarcity and opts for an approach to education situated in collective potential
  • Challenges one-dimensionality and the fear of difference
  • Uses project-based learning to re-immerse people in the ecology of the physical world as partners of all living things and to rectify the social and economic problems confronting our neighborhoods and communities
  • Prioritizes human potential and promise and reconnects people to our creative natures.

See Raphael Randall’s article on liberatory education »

Zaretta Hammond Describes Liberatory Education

Liberatory education is the combination of culturally responsive teaching and the science of learning. Together they provide a “blueprint for liberatory education by helping historically marginalized students who are underperforming to engage in deeper learning by expanding their brain power.”

See Zaretta Hammond’s article about liberatory education »

The shift from equity to liberation requires widespread system transformation. We need to transform the parts of the system, and the ways they interact, to achieve different systemic behaviors; break old patterns; and give rise to newer, more positive ones. Specifically, we need to dismantle and replace oppressive systemic structures and behaviors. Liberatory systems of education would cultivate learners who in turn pushed against established systems and structures of learning to reshape them and sometimes to create entirely new ones. To bring liberatory education systems and structures into being, we must first imagine what they might look like.

Up Next:

Chapter 2: Two Critical Uncertainties

Questions about social cohesion and the responsiveness of public institutions will shape future possibilities

Imagining Liberatory Education Futures ©2022 KnowledgeWorks Foundation. All rights reserved.