Thursday / May 23

Foster Pedagogical Justice for Multilingual Students

Teaching Students to Teach Themselves

Prevailing U.S. pedagogy tends to focus on preparing students to score well on multiple choice tests. Yet there are a host of major problems with this “accumulation-based” pedagogy (a.k.a. factory model, banking model [Freire, 1970]), particularly for multilingual students:

  • The tests are in English, and their items are often worded in unclear ways (i.e., which tends to test language rather than content). Items and texts—whether intentional or not—tend to depend on tacit knowledge of White middle-class themes, topics, and backgrounds (Bach, 2020).
  • Curriculums and instruction tend to be designed to quickly “cover” long lists of the most tested standards in a short amount of time.
  • Many multilingual students are overwhelmed by the demands of the tests, they tend to have average lower scores than monolingual peers, and as a result many feel like they don’t have what it takes to be a student.

A pedagogy that does these things is unjust.

Pedagogical justice, by contrast, means using our energies, resources, and time to their fullest in pursuit of helping all students reach their many potentials (Zwiers 2024). These potentials are not just testable language arts and math skills. They include content knowledge, language, literacy, collaboration skills, social skills, emotional maturity, initiative, civic engagement, service, art, music, drama, problem-solving, confidence, and creativity, to name a few.

To help you achieve pedagogical justice in your setting, develop a pedagogy of building up ideas.

This means leaving accumulation-based learning, by and large, behind.

Don’t let the focus on test scores distort what you know is right for student learning and growth. Get to know your students, their interests, strengths, needs, and potentials.

Then envision what you want your students to learn, especially the big ideas, concepts, and claims within a discipline that will help students now and in the future. Ask students what big ideas they want to learn. Big ideas tend to start with idea statements and claims such as Utopia is impossible; All matter is made of atoms; The slope of a line shows its rate of change; Literature can be a vehicle for social change.

Come up with the products and performances that (a) motivate students to learn (i.e., to gather information, read, watch, listen, build, etc.) and (b) give students a chance to communicate their unique and important ideas to others. Have students work on their products and practice their “performances” in the final week(s) of the unit.

To help them build up unique ideas in the first weeks of a unit, have students use plenty of clarifying and supporting as they “gather building blocks” from texts, images, videos, experiences, labs, and peer collaboration. Make sure to elicit and value students’ “personal building blocks” which include background knowledges, experiences, stories, cultural insights, and ways of communicating. Even though such assets are not usually on tests, they are vital for fostering language use because partners in conversation seldom know the personal information of others (i.e., there is an authentic information gap to fill).

Help students to understand and remember key building blocks by using as much standing up, movement, music, rhythm, songs, and drama as possible—in all content areas and in all grade levels.

Along the way, formatively assess their progress in learning content, using language(s), relating to peers, and developing confidence and agency. Provide feedback based on how strong and clear and valuable your students’ ideas are and what they need.

Building up ideas helps to foster pedagogical justice. It values students’ choices and voices, and it focuses on closing the gap between who students are right now and the amazing people they were born to be. There is greatness in all students, even when their scores on yearly tests are not high or don’t improve. We must see their many varied potentials and look for ways to mine and amplify the many gifts, talents, and funds of knowledge that our students use in the building of their unique ideas across disciplines.

Finally, consider ways to apply these words by Maxine Greene:

“Our classrooms ought to be nurturing and thoughtful and just all at once; they ought to pulsate with multiple conceptions of what it is to be human and alive. They ought to resound with the voices of articulate young people in dialogues always incomplete because there is always more to be discovered and more to be said.” (1995, p. 43)


Bach, A. J. (2020). High-stakes, standardized testing and emergent bilingual students in Texas: A call for action. Texas Journal of Literacy Education, 8, 18-37.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Seabury Press.

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. Jossey-Bass.

Zwiers, J. (2024). Overhauling learning for multilingual students: An approach for achieving pedagogical justice. Corwin.

Written by

Dr. Jeff Zwiers is a senior researcher at Stanford University’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET). He has taught all subjects bilingually in secondary and elementary settings. His research and work focus on collaborating and co-teaching with teachers to enhance all instruction across all subjects, with an emphasis on student-student interactions. He has written books and articles on literacy, communication, conversation, and language development.

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