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Cultural Competence and Critical Consciousness in Social Work Pedagogy

Abstract and Keywords

For social workers, developing cultural competence is a necessary hallmark for interacting with our increasingly diverse and complex world. Developing cultural competence, however, requires continuously raising one’s level of critical consciousness. Critical consciousness and related concepts such as reflexivity, critical self-reflection, and critical self-awareness are widely recognized as a fundamental building block of human service practice, including social work practice. However, the dynamics involved in raising our own levels of critical consciousness are lengthy and messy because we often encounter cognitive and affective roadblocks. Thus, there is no single pedagogical strategy that could help all social work students effectively engage with this process. In this article the concept of critical consciousness postulated by Pitner and Sakamoto is applied specifically to the social work classroom setting. Their Critical Consciousness Conceptual Model (CCCM), which describes the process of developing critical consciousness by engaging one’s cognitive, affective, and behavioral domains, is presented. How this model can be incorporated as a pedagogical tool to help social work students develop and further strengthen their own levels of critical consciousness in the classroom setting is discussed, as are various pedagogical methods, including classroom debate, identity paper assignment, “creating a world map” exercise, and mindfulness-based pedagogy. Finally, implications for social work education are explored.

Keywords: cultural competence, critical consciousness, social work pedagogy, social justice and diversity education, anti-oppressive practice, cultural equity and othering, mindfulness

When students aspire to have a career in the human services profession it is imperative that they learn to develop a kind of self-awareness that critically situates them in their world. Such awareness includes learning to be cognizant of one’s own privileges and oppressive status(es), both historically and contemporarily. Numerous concepts have been used to describe this process, such as “reflexivity” (Dominelli, 2002; Lay & McGuire, 2010; Trevelyan, Crath, & Chambon, 2014), “critical self-analysis” (Dalrymple & Burke, 1995), “critical self-reflection” (Marlowe, Appleton, Chinnery, & Van Stratum, 2015; Mullaly, 2002), and “critical consciousness” (Bransford, 2011; Browne, Pitner, & Freedman, 2013; Garcia, Kosutic, McDowell, & Anderson, 2009; Pitner & Sakamoto, 2005; Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005; Suarez, Newman, & Reed, 2008). In this article, the concept of critical consciousness postulated by Pitner and Sakamoto (2005) is applied to the classroom setting. Specifically, a framework for developing critical consciousness is presented, and how this framework can be incorporated as a pedagogical tool to help students develop and further strengthen their own level of critical consciousness in a classroom setting is explored.

The Critical Consciousness Conceptual Model

Critical consciousness (conscientizacào) is a concept originally developed by Paulo Freire (1997) that was popularized in Latin America and internationally. Its applications in multicultural counseling and therapy (Brammer, 2004; Collins, Arthur, & Wong-Wylie, 2011; Ivey, 1995; Goodman & Gorski, 2015; McDowell, Goessling, & Melendez, 2012), in social work practice (Anderson & Carter, 2003; Bransford, 2011; Kosutic et al., 2009; Lum, 2005; Pitner & Sakamoto, 2005; Sakamoto, 2013; Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005; Suarez, Newman, & Reed, 2008), and in empowerment practice (Gutierrez & Lewis, 1999; Hernández, Almeida, & Dolan-Delvecchio, 2005) are well documented. Critical consciousness is the process of continuously reflecting upon and examining how our own biases, assumptions, and cultural worldviews affect the ways we perceive difference and power dynamics (Pitner & Sakamoto, 2005). Moreover, this continuous self-reflection should be accompanied by action to address social injustice. Development of critical consciousness is a core element to becoming a culturally competent practitioner.

While the importance of training students and practitioners on how to develop critical consciousness has been discussed in the literature (e.g., Bransford, 2011; Lay & McGuire, 2010), questions remain about the theoretical underpinnings of critical consciousness, its pedagogical fit for college or university-level social work students, and the evidenced-based research that supports the development of this important process. Figure 1 outlines the conceptual model used by Pitner and Sakamoto (2005) in their discussion of the process of developing critical consciousness. This particular conceptual model is used in this article because its constructs reflect a comprehensive integration of literature and research from social work, feminist theory, counseling psychology, clinical psychology, social psychology, and critical theory. Each of these disciplines has contributed separately to the knowledge-base on cultural competence and multicultural training. However, Pitner and Sakamoto (2005) fuse together the commonalties reflected in how these distinct disciplines describe critical self-awareness and the development of critical consciousness. As can be seen in Figure 1, they suggest that critical consciousness gets manifested at both personal and structural levels. At a personal level, the development of critical consciousness requires a critical and continuous examination of the role that our own identities, positionalities, and standpoints play in shaping our assumptions and cultural worldviews. Pitner and Sakamoto contend that identity is influenced by our membership in a specific group (Tajfel & Turner, 1986), and is shaped by historical, political, social, and cultural factors. Because individuals have membership in many groups, they tend to have multiple identities, which may have different saliencies, depending on the specific social context. For example, an African American male MSW student may be more aware of his male identity in a social work classroom, but more aware of his African American identity in a classroom with mainly white students.

Identity is also guided by the various ways that we position ourselves along a continuum of oppressed versus privileged statuses, which shapes our standpoints about how we view reality. As can be seen in Figure 1, Pitner and Sakamoto (2005) suggest that identity, positionality, and standpoints are interdependent concepts that reinforce one another. For example, central to positionality is the notion that most people are simultaneously oppressed and privileged by their various group memberships and that these memberships shape people’s identities. Standpoint theory postulates that our identities are also influenced by our oppressed/privileged status and that this, in turn, influences our cultural worldviews.

Cultural Competence and Critical Consciousness in Social Work PedagogyClick to view larger

Figure 1. Framework for understanding the process of developing critical consciousness (after Pitner & Sakamoto, 2005).

Freire (1997) suggested that oppression was an inevitable component of any helping profession. Thus, at a structural level, Pitner and Sakamoto (2005) suggest that the process of developing critical consciousness requires one to actively strive toward an anti-oppressive profession. They describe such striving as first recognizing the oppressive nature of one’s professional training, and then subsequently working to balance the power differences between the service provider and service user (see Pitner & Sakamoto, 2005, for a detailed description of this process). As can be seen in Figure 1, this structural process involves recognizing power differentials, resolving a teacher/student trap, taking a one-down position, using an ethnographic approach, and ultimately ending at an egalitarian moment, which they describe as a balancing of power (i.e., co-partnering) between the service provider and service user. Pitner and Sakamoto discuss how cognitive and affective dynamics can facilitate or hinder the process of critical consciousness at each stage of development. At the core of their model is a behavioral process, which they contend is the catalyst for which personal and structural levels of this cyclical process get facilitated. Pitner and Sakamoto discussed the myriad strengths of developing critical consciousness. They suggested, however, that these strengths (i.e., the triggering of cognition and affect) can potentially become the greatest limitation (i.e., creating resistance) to developing critical consciousness. They concluded their article by suggesting that empirical research is needed that comprehensively examines these dynamics.

Pitner and Sakamoto’s (2005) argument is focused mainly on multicultural clinical practice, with little emphasis on the classroom settings of colleges and universities. Because schools of social work are mandated to incorporate multicultural and diversity-related content into their curricula, it would seem that the classroom would be a perfect setting to examine how the strengths of developing critical consciousness can potentially become a limitation. The hierarchical nature of colleges and universities, by default, predisposes them to an oppressive relationship between the teacher (service provider) and the student (service user), where the teacher is presumed to know everything and the student knows nothing (see Freire, 1997). Given the inherent oppressive nature of the academy, what specific strategies and pedagogical tools can instructors draw upon when teaching students about diversity-related issues? In particular, how may these strategies be used to help students develop and further deepen their level of critical consciousness about multicultural and diversity-related issues? As indicated earlier, the purpose of this article is to apply Pitner and Sakamoto’s critical consciousness conceptual model (CCCM) to the college or university classroom setting. Strategies and pedagogical tools are presented that diversity and social justice–oriented instructors can use to strengthen both personal and structural level development of critical consciousness in their students. The strengths and limitations of applying the CCCM to a classroom setting are discussed.

Pedagogical Tools That Strengthen Students’ Development of Critical Consciousness

When students are learning about diversity and difference it is important that they began to critically examine how they both “see” and “perceive” that difference. Sensations and perceptions are common concepts taught in any introductory psychology course. These concepts also play an important role in helping diversity and social justice–oriented instructors think about how students come to understand diversity. Moreover, it helps the instructor draw upon pedagogical tools that challenge students to critically examine the various ways that they see and perceive difference. Seeing difference entails examining specifically what our eyes see as diversity. For example, we may often see that a person is male or female, or that their racial background(s) differs from (or is similar to) our own. Of course, we are not always correct in this visual categorization; yet such categorization influences our perceptions about this difference. When instructors draw upon strategies and pedagogical tools that help students focus on their perceptions of difference they challenge students to critically examine how their own biases, assumptions, and cultural worldviews influence and shape how they perceive (and see) reality. This, we contend, also helps students develop and further strengthen their level of critical consciousness about diversity-related issues.

What are the specific pedagogical tools and strategies that instructors can use to help their students develop and strengthen their levels of critical consciousness? Using Pitner and Sakamoto’s (2005) framework, there are four pedagogical content areas that instructors can draw on: (1) co-creating a positive learning space and offering constructive challenges; (2) identity paper assignment; (3) classroom activities that de-center one’s own worldviews; and (4) mindfulness-based pedagogy. How such tools can be used to facilitate the development of students’ critical consciousness is discussed for each content area.

Co-Creating a Positive Learning Space

Baseline discussion guidelines

Creation of a learning space that is conducive for student engagement in critical dialogue about diversity and power-related issues starts with addressing structural-level dynamics of the teacher/student trap. More specifically, the instructor must be cognizant of classroom power dynamics and therefore, structure the classroom setting in a way that minimizes power differentials between “teacher” and “student.” This can be done in two ways. First, the instructor can establish discussion guidelines collaboratively with the students at the beginning of the semester and then revisit those guidelines throughout the semester. Table 1 provides a list that can serve as a guide that the instructor can use in order to initiate a conversation with students about discussion guidelines. Once these are delineated, the instructor should then invite students to add as many additional discussion guidelines as they feel are necessary.

Table 1. Baseline discussion guideline points.


Set own boundaries for sharing


Speak from experience


Respect confidentiality


Listen respectfully


No blaming or scapegoating


Focus on own learning


No personal attacks or insults

Adapted from Adams, Bell, & Griffin’s Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (2007).

The classroom debate

Second, the instructor should attempt to not “over-structure” classroom activities and to allow students to more actively participate and engage in the learning process. This is particularly important for discussions of diversity-related topics, as many of these topics can be controversial, which may cause the instructor to fall inadvertently into the trap of over-managing the classroom. Pitner and Sakamoto (2005) refer to this phenomenon as the teacher/student trap (i.e., the instructor has all the knowledge, while the student is the passive recipient of that knowledge; see Figure 1). Some controversial topics that often produce the teacher/student trap are abortion rights, social work and capital punishment, and religious perspectives and homosexuality, to name a few. There are numerous pedagogical strategies that an instructor can employ to avoid the teacher/student trap. One promising strategy is the timely use of a classroom debate. A well-designed classroom debate can create a situation where the instructor reduces the power dynamics in the classroom by taking a one-down position. In doing this, the instructor and students both become co-teachers and co-learners. The benefits of this activity are that students become active participants in the classroom discussion, active listeners to all student voices, critical evaluators of divergent (and convergent) perspectives, and critically aware of their own biases about the classroom topic.

Table 2 provides a guide for designing a classroom debate on a controversial topic; this particular example is based on a classroom size of 20 students. Once the instructor presents a controversial topic on a diversity-related issue, she or he should then pose a dilemma about the topic that requires a pro or con response from the students. The instructor should randomly assign students to the Pro Argument A or Con Argument A groups (see Table 2). Once students are in these groups, the instructor should then randomly assign them as debaters or participants within that group. Debaters are students who actually speak to the class, whereas supporters actively help debaters formulate their arguments. We suggest using random assignment rather than having students simply volunteer, because student volunteers will likely choose the side that best reflects their own positions. Random assignment, by contrast, challenges students to think more critically about the myriad perspectives on this issue. The class then actively engages in a debate on the topic.

Table 2 provides suggested time periods for each section of the debate. These are merely guidelines; however, time limits keep the debate moving along. Because the instructor does not participate in the debate (i.e., takes a one-down position), she or he should monitor the time. It is important to mention that although the time periods provide structure to the debate, they do not lead to the over-structuring of how students discuss the topic. Once the debate has concluded, the instructor and students both actively provide feedback. We suggest that the instructor use the “processing questions” in Table 2 as a guide. In particular, Question 1 should be asked to both the Pro A and Con A groups. Questions 2, 3, and 4 should be posed to the entire class for feedback. This type of classroom activity is beneficial because it breaks down teacher/student classroom power dynamics and invites students to actively participate in controversial topics.

Table 2. Debating an argument.

Debating Argument A

Pro Argument A

Con Argument A

Participants in Debate

5 Debaters

5 Debaters

5 Supporters

5 Supporters

Process of Debate

20 Minutes Group Strategizing

20 Minutes Group Strategizing

3 Minute Opening Argument

3 Minute Opening Argument

5 Minute Presentation of Case

5 Minute Presentation of Case

10 Minutes Strategizing Rebuttal

10 Minutes Strategizing Rebuttal

2 Minute Rebuttal

2 Minute Rebuttal

5 Minutes Strategizing Closing

5 Minutes Strategizing Closing

3 Minute Closing Argument

3 Minute Closing Argument

Processing Questions for the 2 Groups after Debate is Over

1. What other arguments might have been offered to support your own position, if any?

2. What other arguments might have been offered to support the opposing group’s position, if any?

3. In what ways did you find the opposing group’s comments to be sound?

4. What does this debate tell us about Argument A and its implication for social work?

*Takes approximately one hour to one and a half hours to complete.

Identity Paper Assignment

There are a number of classroom assignments and activities that can help students deepen their level of critical consciousness at a personal level (e.g., identity paper assignments, experiential or self-reflective classroom exercises, and critical analysis paper assignments). Going into details about all of these activities would go beyond the scope of this article. However, the Identity Paper Assignment is discussed here to illustrate how it can set the stage for pushing students toward a deeper development of critical consciousness. Identity paper assignments allow students to go through a self-interrogation process, with the ultimate goal of critically examining how their own identities and cultural worldviews are often shaped by dominant ideology. Moreover, this assignment allows students to examine themselves with an analytic lens from their multiple identities and multiple oppressions and privileges. The Identity Paper Assignment is fairly benign in that it gives students the opportunity to define their identities and status(es) from their own perspective, to critically examine how their identities and statuses shape (and are shaped by) their cultural worldviews, to interrogate how their identities and statuses shape the ways that they see (and perceive) diversity and social justice–related issues, and, finally, to critically examine how their identities and statuses influence their motivation to act for social justice. Students also come to see that differences in opinions in the classroom may be due to how various students define their identities and statuses.

An example of an identity paper assignment is to have students list all of the social group memberships (i.e., identities) they belong to for race, sex, gender, religion, class, ability status, sexual orientation, and age. After identifying these group memberships, students should indicate whether they perceive themselves to be privileged or oppressed by each of these identities. The next step would be for students to draw a large circle on a sheet of paper, and to indicate, by way of drawing slices of the pie, which identities they are most aware of and which they are least aware of (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007); essentially, students create an “identity wheel.” Larger identity slices reflect greater awareness of that identity, whereas smaller slices reflect less awareness. Students are then charged with reflecting on how the size of their identity slices relates to their perceptions of being privileged or oppressed, and how each of these identities intersect. Finally, students are charged with critically thinking about how their identity wheel represents the lens that they look through when they think about diversity and social justice–related issues. Throughout the semester, the instructor can challenge students to think about how their identity wheel lens shapes the various ways that they hear about, see, perceive, and intervene in diversity and social justice–related issues.

As highlighted in Figure 1, Pitner and Sakamoto (2005) suggest that the first step in developing critical consciousness at a personal level involves the student going through a process of critically examining his or her identities, social locations, and standpoints. An Identity Paper Assignment helps facilitate this process. Specifically, the goal of this assignment is for the students to develop a critical understanding of their multiple social identities (i.e., race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, and ability status), and how these identities intersect to create remarkably diverse identity groups (e.g., being an able-bodied woman of color, a Christian Latino gay male, a disabled white woman). A secondary goal of this assignment is for students to develop a critical understanding of how they are oppressed or privileged by their various identities. With both of these goals, students will gain a deeper understanding about the various identities, social locations, and standpoints.

De-Centering One’s Worldview: Creating a World Map

As discussed earlier, one of the important aspects of raising critical consciousness is to continuously examine one’s standpoint. The Creating a World Map activity involves student participation in collectively constructing their perceptions of what a map of the world looks like (Sakamoto, 2013). For this exercise, the instructor asks that one student start the process by drawing parts of the world map on the blackboard. Once the first student is done, other students are prompted to draw additional parts of the map. This iterative process continues until all students have exhausted their ability to draw any additional parts. It is very common for students to draw the map in a traditional format. More specifically, certain countries are typically drawn in the top quadrant (i.e., the northern hemisphere), certain ones are typically drawn in the middle, and others are typically drawn in the bottom quadrant (i.e., the southern hemisphere). This is so normalized that students often think of it as being “common sense.” However, when these common sense ideas are challenged by maps that are different from what they have internalized as the norm, students often react with surprise, disbelief, discomfort, or embarrassment.

To trigger this reaction, the instructor should present a “nontraditional” world map that has the southern countries that are typically drawn in the bottom quadrant at the top and those northern countries that are typically drawn in the top quadrant at the bottom (essentially, presenting an “upside down” world map). Because the earth is round, students are challenged to reflect critically on the various ways that they have come to learn about the world, and how such learnings may potentially reinforce dominant ways of thinking. In recent years, this exercise has been further developed to include other types of maps to drive home the idea of hegemony of knowledge structure and the colonial nature of map-making. For example, the Peters Projection Map typically shows the world in the same orientation as the most common world map. However, the Peters Projection Map is different because it reflects true proportions of each continent; thus, the size of Europe and North America are significantly smaller than how they are typically drawn. Students often note how unsettling and “unnatural” this version of a world map appears, because it challenges the dominant thinking that Europe and North America are larger. This world map exercise is important because it elicits the affective and cognitive components that Pitner and Sakamoto (2005) describe in their CCCM (see Figure 1).

Once the second (or more nontraditional) map(s) is (are) presented, the instructor can then engage students to reflect on their affective reactions, as well as their cognitive “re-mapping” of knowledge about the world map. The ultimate goal of this exercise is to help students “de-center” their worldviews, to become more open to different ways of knowing, and to critically examine the power differentials that may be embedded deeply within their knowledge structure. Cognitively, students know and understand that there are different iterations of drawing world maps. Affectively, however, the world map exercise tends to be a challenging experience, as students often voice how uncomfortable and disorienting it is to process the “upside-down” map. Such discomfort hints at the tacit nature and rigidity of what we often take for granted as commonsensical. The world map exercise challenges students to critically examine the notions that they have taken for granted as legitimate knowledge. Applying this specifically to North America, the instructor can also show a map of First Nations before European contact (e.g., Aaron Carapella’s Tribal Nations Maps) to help students further reflect on the issues of colonialism, power and “common sense.” This exercise has been successful in many social work courses with engaging students in discussions about multicultural and diversity-related issues (including the use of a First Nations map). For specific steps, see Table 3.

Table 3. “Creating a world map” classroom activity instructions.



1. Instruction

The instructor gives the instruction to students to collectively draw a world map on the blackboard. This can be linked to any social work trends (e.g., “as the number of clients who were born outside of our country has been increasing, let’s see if we have a good sense of the world that we now live in by drawing a world map”).

2. Students draw a world map

The instructor asks for 1–2 volunteers to start the world map on the blackboard. They can start from any parts of the world and each person can draw partially. Assure students that no single person (including the instructor) can usually do this alone as we typically know some parts of the world much more than other parts of the world. When the first volunteers are finished, ask for more volunteers to continue the work. Add prompts to encourage students to draw additional parts of the map (e.g., “What about: Middle East, Balkan Peninsula, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, the Philippines, Korea, Kamchatka Peninsula?”). Continue this process until students have exhausted their ability to draw additional parts to the map.

3. The instructor presents a different map

The instructor would then pull out the printed map (that the instructor brought), where the south is drawn on the top of the map and the north is at the bottom (see “Materials”).

4. Debrief the activity

Comparing the world map students have drawn and the map that the instructor brought, pose questions to students such as: “What is it like to look at this ‘new’ map? If you felt that this was ‘upside down,’ what does it mean? Who initially decided the north should be on the top of the map, considering that the earth is round? Why is the Atlantic Ocean in the middle? Does the size of North America look any different now that it is at the bottom? Do Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia look different to you in this orientation? What does it all mean?” The discussion can include the process and effects of colonialism, status quo in knowledge creation and maintenance, socialization and reinforcement of messages in schools and media, etc.

5. Refer to the activity

It is effective if the instructor refers to this activity throughout the duration of the course so that the students’ learning can be enhanced through recalling the experience and applying the learning to other areas in continuously raising critical consciousness.

Materials: A world map with the south presented on top (e.g., What’s up? South! but similar maps may be located on the Internet or in print); alternatively, instructors can use other maps that are different from the most common world map in North America; blackboard and chalk (or whiteboard and markers; or large newsprint paper and markers in case the issue of physical mobility needs to be considered).

Mindfulness-Based Pedagogy

We advocate for the use of mindfulness-based pedagogy as a way to address cognitive and affective roadblocks encountered in raising students’ level of critical consciousness. Mindfulness facilitates acceptance of self and others as they are, and this nonjudgmental awareness can promote change of the self (Wong, 2014). While rooted in Buddhist teachings, mindfulness is widely practiced in a secular manner. The robust effects of mindfulness have been documented widely in recent years (Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002; Siegel, 2010), and have also been applied in clinical practice and professional education in social work and other health professions (Birnbaum, 2005; Hick, 2009; Ying, 2009a, b). However, some experts contend that mindfulness-based clinical interventions have been, at times, applied as superficial techniques with little or no attempt to acknowledge or appreciate their deeper meanings and origins (Chiesa, 2013; Williams & Kabat-Zinn, 2011). To that end, it seems appropriate to use the internationally renowned Vietnamese Zen master and prolific writer Thich Nhat Hanh’s definition of mindfulness. Specifically, mindfulness is “the energy of being aware and awake to the present” (Nhat Hanh, 2009, p. ix). While mindfulness can be practiced in many ways through any activity, Thich Nhat Hanh describes mindful breathing and mindful walking as basic practices of mindfulness, which can then be applied to many other aspects of daily life. Through his numerous books, lectures, and actions, he has translated Buddha’s teachings into present context in plain language:

The seed of mindfulness is in each of us, but we usually forget to water it. If we know how to take refuge in our breath, in our step, then we can touch our seeds of peace and joy and allow them to manifest for our enjoyment. . . . This sounds easy, and everyone can do it, but it takes some training. The practice of stopping is crucial. How do we stop? We stop by means of our in-breath, our out-breath, and our step. That is why our basic practice is mindful breathing and mindful walking. If you master these practices, then you can practice mindful eating, mindful drinking, mindful cooking, mindful driving, and so on, and you are always in here and now. (Nhat Hanh, 2009, pp. ix–x)

While there are many ways of practicing mindfulness, many people may be introduced to mindfulness practice through mindfulness meditation (readers should note that “mindfulness” in itself is not synonymous with “meditation” although mindfulness meditation is widely practiced; cf. Hick, 2009). Mindfulness meditation can be practiced in many ways, but one common way is to start with sitting down and bringing one’s attention to one’s own breathing pattern for a duration of time (this could be any length—from a minute to one hour or longer) as a starting point to focus on the present moment. Many people may find it useful to start with some kind of relaxation technique before sitting down to start meditating for a longer duration of time. There are many audio files and YouTube videos that are available to guide mindfulness-based meditation, body scan, and relaxation exercises (e.g., UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center’s audio resources).

Once becoming familiar with the practice of mindfulness, be it through mindfulness meditation or other practice of mindfulness such as mindful walking, one can be mindful and stay in the present moment during any activity during the day (e.g., washing dishes, walking a dog, riding a bus, or using a computer). It should be noted, however, that the benefits of mindfulness are experienced through actually practicing it; having an understanding of the practice solely from a cognitive perspective will not lead to these positive effects. It is similar to riding a bicycle. One can read everything about a bicycle, but until that person rides a bicycle, the actual experience will not be felt. Mindfulness practice is not to be thought of as a magic pill; rather, it is a commitment to forming a habit of being mindful in the present moment guided by one’s own breath.

How does mindfulness practice get incorporated into social work education? Renita Wong, a social work educator who is also a long-time mindfulness practitioner following Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, wrote an influential article (2004) that describes how she uses mindfulness-based pedagogy in her class on identity and diversity. Courses that focus on multicultural and diversity-related issues always evoke a level of discomfort in students. Wong (2004) describes how she helps students sit with their discomfort while becoming more self-aware of their role in reproducing power. She believes that discomfort, when embraced nonjudgmentally, can be a rich learning moment for students to develop a deeper level of critical consciousness.

Wong (2004) began using mindfulness-based pedagogy in her social work classes when she realized the limitations of traditional models of teaching that rely primarily on cognitive learning and conceptual thinking. Most individuals—especially social workers and social work students—do not want to be perceived as oppressive. Thus, when students suspect that they are being implicated in a possibly oppressive identity group (i.e., being morally “bad”), this may create conflict with their image of being morally “good” (i.e., anti-oppressive), leading to cognitive dissonance, fear, discomfort, and denial (Pitner & Sakamoto, 2005; Wong, 2004). This, in turn, may make it difficult for students to stay in that uncomfortable affective state in the present moment (Wong, 2004). In other words, humans’ default tendency to maintain a positive self-image (e.g., Bernard, 2013; Pitner & Sakamoto, 2005) often interferes with their ability to stay with the discomfort experienced when confronted with the possibility that they may be implicated in somebody else’s oppression.

Instructors can use mindfulness-based pedagogy to help students avoid common affective and cognitive roadblocks to developing critical consciousness. Wong’s (2004, 2014) experiences suggest that this can be achieved through different activities informed by mindfulness practice. Wong writes about students’ experiences of taking her course “Spirituality and Critical Social Work,” which “integrated bodily, emotive, cognitive, and spiritual knowing into critical reflection in social justice and social work” (Wong, 2014, p. 130). In this class, she used in-class activities and assignments completed outside of the class sessions:

“Classes normally began with a ten-minute mindful breathing meditation and/or another fifteen to twenty minutes of mindfulness exercises such as mindful eating and mindful walking, based on the instructions given by Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990) and Thich Nhat Hanh (2000), and loving-kindness meditation. In one session, students were introduced to a thirty-minute ‘listening to trees’ exercise. All contemplative exercises were followed by a thirty-to-forty-minute ‘circle sharing’ exercise in which students sat in a circle and took turns sharing their experiences. They could pass on the sharing if they wished.” (Wong, 2014, p. 131)

Wong’s class activities also involved a six-hour silent retreat toward the end of the course, and weekly ungraded reflective journal entries. The overall effect on students was remarkable and transformative, as was detailed in Wong’s publications (2013, 2014). While the extensive use of mindfulness practice in Wong’s course may not be for everyone (or for every class), as she states, there are many lessons to be learned. For example, starting a class session with a centering exercise using mindful breathing could be done easily, and could help calm the minds of students (and the instructor) before tackling potentially challenging topics or situations.

In helping students raise critical consciousness in social work education, it is important to have students “quiet down” their minds and open up themselves to being with discomfort by focusing on the “here and now,” as opposed to fearing others’ judgment (i.e., focusing on the future), or regretting one’s action (i.e., focusing on the past). This can potentially lead to students creating space within themselves to look deeply into the roots of their discomfort, taking note of their fear of judgment by others and self, accepting themselves for who they are, and potentially moving toward changes in themselves (cf., Wong, 2013, 2014).

Instructors can introduce the practice of mindfulness so that students know that a possibility of using mindfulness in social work practice and self-development or self-care exists. However, as mentioned earlier, in order for mindfulness practice to take root and become a catalyst for deeper development of critical consciousness, one needs to practice it. In classroom teaching, it is useful to repeatedly practice mindfulness together with students, followed by group and individual-based reflections, as was discussed earlier (Wong, 2013, 2014). Over time, students may be able to notice their habitual ways of forming negative cognitive or affective reactions when faced with potentially “threatening” information to their senses of self. Ultimately, they may learn to transform these triggers into calmer ways of responding with more compassion to self and others.

Implications for Social Work Pedagogy

Striving to develop critical self-awareness is a crucial first step to becoming responsive to multicultural and diversity-related issues. Critical consciousness, as has been suggested, is a process for developing such an awareness. In this article, Pitner and Sakamoto’s (2005) critical consciousness conceptual model (CCCM) was applied to college and university classroom settings. Specifically, how CCCM can be used by instructors to develop strategies and pedagogical tools designed to deepen the level of critical consciousness in their students was examined. Pitner and Sakamoto discussed both strengths and limitations to their CCCM. This section discusses how some of these strengths and limitations get manifested in the strategies and pedagogical tools that instructors use to deepen students’ level of critical consciousness.

It is important to start by mentioning that the pedagogical tools provided in this article are only a few of the promising strategies that instructors can draw on to deepen the level of critical consciousness of their students. Other pedagogical tools worth noting are intergroup dialogues, modeling and learning by doing strategies, indigenous pedagogical tools, such as sharing circles, and service learning or community action assignments. The promise of these tools is that they trigger cognitions and affect in students in such a way that the students begin to move toward a deeper and more critical understanding of multicultural and diversity-related issues. For the Identity Paper Assignment and the Creating a World Map exercise, the instructor can use them to challenge students to critically think about the ways their various identities shape their assumptions about diversity and power dynamics. The Identity Paper Assignment does this by having students think about the intersections of their multiple identities and how they are both privileged and oppressed by them. The Creating a World Map exercise achieves this by having students think about their worldviews and how these worldviews potentially bias their perceptions about diversity and difference. Moreover, each of these pedagogical tools challenges students to critically think about the ways they have come to accept dominant ways of thinking.

As mentioned earlier, the premise of Pitner and Sakamoto’s (2005) article is that the strengths of developing critical consciousness (i.e., triggering of cognition and affect) also present limitations to this process (i.e., creating resistance). This is applicable to the classroom setting; however, the potential limitations also create opportunities for greater development of critical consciousness. For example, the Identity Paper Assignment and the Creating a World Map exercise can elicit strong emotions and discomfort from students. When students are forced to confront their assumptions and biases about difference, when they are forced to confront the reality that their worldviews are biased, and when they are forced to confront the notion that they contribute to systems of domination, they may become anxious or fearful and react with defense mechanisms such as denial. This definitely would create a roadblock to further development of critical consciousness. Instructors should be cognizant of such classroom dynamics; however, we believe that a very small segment of students completely shut down. For the majority of students, these types of dynamics create opportunities for the instructor to push them beyond their resistance to a deeper level of critical consciousness. As discussed, the instructor can use mindfulness practice as a pedagogical tool where students learn to embrace their discomfort in a nonjudgmental way. Ultimately, students learn to critically examine how their discomfort relates to their identity, positionality, and standpoints. Thus, instead of affect and cognitions being potential limitations to the development of critical consciousness, instructors can use this as an opportunity to move students to deeper levels of critical consciousness.

It is also important to discuss the role of the instructor. Students are not the only ones who get uncomfortable from discussions about multicultural and diversity-related issues. Instructors can often feel a level of discomfort. In fact, such discomfort may cause instructors to over-structure the classroom setting, thus creating the teacher/student trap (see Figure 1). This inevitably would create a roadblock for students’ development of critical consciousness. As mentioned earlier, instructors can use a timely class debate as a way to shift the power dynamics of the classroom (in essence, creating an egalitarian moment between instructor and student [see Figure 1]). However, when an instructor feels uncomfortable about the topic, he or she may be more likely to fall into the teacher/student trap. Thus, it is critically important that instructors see that this discomfort also creates opportunities for them to further strengthen their own level of critical consciousness. Being mindful of this will help instructors become more effective at helping their students deepen their levels of critical consciousness about multicultural and diversity-related issues.

The goal of this article was to describe pedagogical tools that instructors can use to help students become more critically conscious about multicultural and diversity-related issues. Pitner and Sakamoto’s (2005) model for developing critical consciousness was used as a framework for understanding these tools. Pitner and Sakamoto suggested that the strengths of developing critical consciousness can potentially be its limitation. Application of the CCCM to classroom settings suggests that the limitations that Pitner and Sakamoto mentioned may serve as one of the greatest opportunities for both students and instructors to develop their levels of critical consciousness.


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                                                                                                  Further Reading

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