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Educators Can Combat the Deeper-Learning Race Problem

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This post is by Gia Truong, CEO & Superintendent of Envision Education

Bravo to Jal Mehta for his recent post Deeper Learning Has a Race Problem.  I appreciate his careful examination of the issues and his willingness to bring them into the light of day. I believe that deeper learning is inextricably linked to educational equity.  Deeper learning outcomes--critical thinking, communicating, collaborating, and more-- are the tools of success in our culture, and it is our responsibility to ensure that underserved students have access to deeper learning experiences to interrupt the cycle of poverty. In this way, issues of class and race are central to any conversation about bringing deeper learning to more and more students across the country. 

Jal makes a critical point: Deeper learning is not "one-size-fits-all." In fact, if we act as if it is, we will do far worse than simply fail at deeper learning: we will fail the many disenfranchised students who deserve an education that will help them navigate--and shape--that "culture of power" Jal refers to. Understanding how race and class influence teaching and learning is critical to any effort to improve education in America.

In my daily work, my focus is on helping the students in Envision Schools--80 percent of whom are African-American or Latino, 77 percent of whom will be the first in their families to graduate from college--make dramatic strides forward. In order to ensure that this happens, I also focus on our teachers. If teachers (and school leaders) are going to deliver deeper learning outcomes to disenfranchised communities, they need to understand so much more than their content area and how to develop cognitive skills: they need to think about and understand power, culture, and privilege, and how these concepts play out in their own lives and in the lives of their students. There are powerful negative consequences when they don't.

I have personal experience with a teacher unaware of his own power and privilege. At the age of 7, I came to the United States with my family from Vietnam, never having been to school and unable to read or write even in my first language. From my family, I was infused with a strong work ethic. By middle school, I had learned how to "do school" and was earning straight A's. In high school, I wanted to be challenged, so I asked my ninth grade English teacher to recommend me for 10th grade honors English and Social Studies, which she did.

My 10th grade honors English teacher asked us to write about an awkward moment in our lives, one that presented a "moral dilemma," and about how we handled it. I wasn't sure what either awkward or moral dilemma meant. Nor could I think of a single personal story that might fit the bill, coming as I did from a family that put a premium on obedience. Moral dilemma implies a mindset that allows for shades of grey, which in my family did not exist.

But I did remember a story I heard in another one of my classes: The teacher had told us about receiving an ugly sweater from her aunt as a Christmas gift and having to wear it--even though she hated it--when her aunt came to visit. Not having a story of my own, and coming from a culture that valued and rewarded young people copying from adults, I wrote that teacher's story as my own. I didn't know about plagiarism: I only knew I had found an idea that fit the assignment and I wanted to follow the rules of the assignment.

The day the English teacher handed back our essays, he read mine out loud to the entire class as an example of a great essay. Instantly, my classmates recognized the story and started hollering that the writer was a fake and a plagiarist. "That didn't happen to her!  That happened to Mrs. Kelly!" (Luckily, the teacher did not identify me as "the fake.")  When I got the paper back, I saw that my A had been crossed out and replaced with an F and the comment: "Not original; I'm disappointed." For the rest of my high school career, I felt like that fake: I never saw myself as an honors student.

On the face of it, the ideas were not my own and so, I had not completed the assignment as the teacher intended. I had, in fact, stolen someone else's story and represented it as my own. But the teacher made the bigger mistake: he missed an opportunity to create the kind of relationship with me that would have helped me develop as a learner much faster and much more deeply than I did during high school. Here's where he went wrong:

  • That single dismissive comment was the only interaction I ever had with him over this incident; he didn't talk to me once about any of it.
  • He never asked me why I had done the assignment that way. It is likely that he assumed I had simply cheated in order to get an A. He completely misjudged the situation and missed a golden opportunity.
  • He did not place any value on getting to know me as a student or on understanding where I was coming from. He had no sense of who I was, my language needs, my cultural values, or my strong desire to be a hard working honors student. 

For those reasons, I regard his actions as ignorance tainted by racism. He was not violent or overtly cruel; he didn't humiliate me or try to destroy me. But he did act without regard to how privilege and assumptions colored his reading of the situation, preventing him from acting differently. This is the hallmark of institutional racism: when a system makes it possible for white privilege to negatively impact a person of color without anyone batting an eye.

Educators have the power in a classroom. They have the ability to shape their students' experiences of school and their identities as learners.  Because of this, they need to understand their privileged position, and then they need to understand the people on the other side of the biggest desk in the room.  So there are two important tasks for educators to keep in mind if they want to reach underserved and "at-risk" students with deeper learning outcomes:

  • First, teachers need to do the introspective work of looking at their own power, assumptions, and biases. They might see, as I have, that we are swimming in a sea of institutional racism that will drown minority students unless we actively reach out and grab them.
  • Second, teachers need to reach out. They need to develop real relationships with their students. They need to view students as assets and assume students' good intent. And when students fall short--when it looks like they've made the wrong choices--teachers need to ask lots and lots of questions to understand why. The answers might surprise them, and lead them to better teaching because of it.

Had my 10th grade English teacher taken the time to ask me some questions, he could have helped me understand so much more about school, thinking, writing, and responding to deep questions. He could have come to understand why I did what I did, and perhaps even given me a second chance. I had clearly written the story well: I had the skills to present and discuss ideas. I only lacked the cultural understanding of the expectations I had violated. 

Deeper learning is the opposite of one-size-fits-all. It is personal, individual, and interactive. At its best, it is responsive to students' needs, interests, and assets. And while deeper learning may indeed have a race problem, I firmly believe it's one that educators can do something about.  If teachers and school leaders are willing (and I know so many are!) to check their own assumptions and get to know their students well, then the stage is set for deeper learning outcomes to flourish for all students, especially those who need them the most. 

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