Boske, C. (2012). Sending forth the tiniest ripples of hope that build the mightiest currents: Understanding how to prepare school leaders to interrupt oppressive school practices. Planning and changing, 43(1), 183-197.


This case study documents a class in “leadership for social justice,” aimed at preparing educators to initiate change within schools. In the class, a total of three educators and administrators used arts-based inquiry as a means to critically examine their own concepts of difference and equity. While the teacher-researcher focused on teaching principles of social justice in education, a community artist supported students in translating their ideas into visual art objects to exhibit at the end of the course. The researcher collected data in the form of 39 weekly audio/visual reflections (thirteen per participant), written reflections, and the art projects, and used pattern-matching to analyze the qualitative data. The study suggests that process of imaginatively re-framing ideas into art increased participants’ critical consciousness and deepened empathetic responses.

Key Findings:

Based on interviews and observations, the researcher identified the following positive effects of the arts-based critical self-examination:

  • Increased critical consciousness: Participants reported greater understanding of themselves and others through the process of making art as critical self-examination. Making aesthetic decisions to build artistic meaning mirrored decision-making in their professional lives, but left behind a visual record for critical analysis. Preconceptions showed up in the artwork of participating teachers, eliciting adjustments and self-corrections.
  • Deepening empathetic responses: Participants referred to the imaginative aspect of art as an aid in envisioning the perspectives of others more clearly. They stated that art-making deepened and validated their empathetic response, especially towards underserved populations. Respondents reported learning that empathy requires the ability to understand that people cannot assume they see what other see because of differences in lived experiences, ways of knowing, and ways of responding.

Significance of the Findings:

Public schools face the challenge of educating a diverse population in the face of long cultural traditions of discrimination and inequality. Little research exists on if and how educators learn to confront issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality in their classrooms. This study examines art education’s potential for training leaders in social justice. The ability to re-imagine social roles and work toward more equity is crucial for educators in performing their duties. Teachers and administrators are responsible for providing a safe and just space for student learning and the program detailed in this study builds educators’ capacity to initiate meaningful change. This study provides insight for developing further social justice programs, and suggests the art classroom as a desirable place to begin addressing prejudice in schools.


The teacher-researcher used a case study methodology to investigate Northwestern University’s “leadership for social justice” class. The three participants were of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and served as educators or administrators in very different school environments ranging from a wealthy, predominantly white suburban school to an under-funded urban school with primarily minority students. Participants completed a series of assignments, including an equity audit of their home school system and weekly video reflections. Under the guidance of a community artist, they also translated their thinking into finished artworks for a community exhibition. The art instructor framed the process of making art as a way of thinking through complicated and emotionally challenging subject matter. The researcher collected qualitative data from thirteen video reflections per student, field notes, course assignments, and the final artworks, and analyzed the data following a pattern matching protocol, in which predicted themes were continually compared against emergent ones. Although arts-based learning outcomes represented only one item of the researcher’s investigation, emergent themes in the data brought the art component to the forefront.

Limitations of the Research:

Beyond the clear limitation of a small sample size of three participants, this study might have benefitted from an alternate presentation of the data in the article. The article groups together participant testimonies by the theme. Presenting data as a narrative instead, with quotes from participants’ earlier video reflections compared against their later thoughts, might have helped to clarify the progression of participant understandings over the course of the class. Additionally, one participant influenced change in her district’s special education policy; returning to all three students for a follow-up could have provided insight into the longer-term effects of the program.

Questions to Guide New Research:

The direct quotes included in this study evidence the power of arts learning for constructing nuanced understanding of social justice issues, but further investigation is necessary to clarify and distinguish the role of art from other teaching methods in social justice learning. How do school-aged students respond to art for social justice training? How do previous arts experiences influence the learning potential of individual students? Is art education more effective than theoretical study alone for teaching social justice values? Does social justice learning translate into action in the student’s life and career? How does the diversity of participating students alter the efficacy of the program?