Unpacking Cultural Complexity to Create More Equitable Learning
This post is by Sarah Luchs, Program Officer for Next Generation Learning Challenges
Deeper learning educators understand the power of relationships and connections in learning, yet designing diverse, equitable, and inclusive (DEI) learning will remain a vexing challenge if we fail to recognize and honor complexity in ourselves, our communities, and our systems. Three strategies for unpacking racial and cultural complexity to create more equitable and deeper learning experiences in schools include fostering cultural belonging, welcoming multiple narratives, and establishing a culture of caring, listening, and co-creating. Links to cross-cultural resources from EduChange in Melbourne, Australia, and the Green School in Bali, Indonesia, as well as the United States, are embedded within this post to help you unpack the complexity.
Fostering Cultural Belonging
It's easy to forget that the system of education in the U.S., a western, industrialized, capitalist country, is itself an expression of culture. It has been used to advance and sustain dominant white values as the "norm" and to position everything else as the "other." When students experience this "othering" and cannot bring all their ways of knowing and being to a learning opportunity, it impacts their willingness, motivation, and ability to learn deeply. This can happen in project-based learning as easily as it can happen in a lecture. Unless we make an effort to engage differently with processes and teams, deeper learning experiences will likely maintain the dominant norms of U.S. culture.
How do we foster belonging and inclusion critical to learning and to nurturing dynamic learning communities when working in a system that excludes? How might we make room for a range of differences to be respected and honored as equally valuable and worthwhile?
By definition, belonging means "feeling like you fit in or mesh with a group" and "developing close intimate relationships." Members who belong feel free to be authentically themselves. They act in ways that define and determine group activities which infers mutual respect and shared power. Educators immersed in the dominant white culture may not see the ways in which they propagate cultural pitfalls or where histories have marginalized cultural identity.
Historically, the U.S. education system was intended to promote unity via the emerging country's identity and citizenship. It came at great cost. Recognizing the inherited system design as a cultural artifact—one that is reductive and mechanistic—allows us to begin to make different choices about our role and practices moving forward.
Now, achieving that same continuity may need to emerge through a very different strategy: a celebration of difference, the idea that unity can be found in and through diversity. Writing about global citizenship and local cultures for HundrED, a platform recognizing global innovations, Josephine Lister says, "every culture has something to offer the world, and no society is finished, it's always evolving." This simple notion of evolving, change, and fusion of influences opens and expands to a broader range of perspective and worldview than before was made possible by cultural rules. This is exactly the dynamic framework that's needed to engage with global issues affecting us all.
Welcoming Multiple Narratives
Connecting with our own identities and those of students and families invites us to get beyond the limitations of one story. DEI work often begins with self-inquiry and individual reflection because our complexity as humans resides in our stories and identities. Challenging stereotypes, writing counter narratives, and allowing space for multiplicity in our ways of being and knowing all work to disrupt the inequities and faulty assumptions created by singular narratives.
How might we create space for multiple narratives, enabling adults and students in our schools to discover themselves and the cultures and histories of their local and global communities—past, present, and future? Don't Guess My Race is an interactive web-based program that helps leaders and learners talk about race and engage in uncomfortable discussions in respectful ways. Similarly, projects like Microcampus enable children to generate robust pictures of individuals instead of generic stereotypes.
Establishing a Culture of Caring, Listening, and Co-Creating
"At Jeremiah Burke High School, we design for specific children, our children," explained Principal Lindsa McIntyre about her school's turnaround journey. "We must let go of schools designed for 'anybody and nobody' because our ability to connect and serve each child is tied to how well we know them. We visit each student in their home as a first step to establishing trusting relationships with our families. As a learning community, we decided to engage in a new effort to address trauma. We know this requires new skills and a more networked approach. It's not relegated to one person's job. We've elevated it to a school and community priority. Our students are always evolving, so we have to change with them, we are always learning."
Lindsa's leadership is transformative in part because she's embracing school as a living system not a mechanistic one. Collaboratively, she engages in inquiry and listens to and with educators, students, and parents. Learning and change are interwoven, constant, complex, and destination-free. As lead learner, Lindsa demonstrates curiosity instead of "expertise and answers." Along with other skilled educators, she facilitates processes that support sense-making and strengthens the relationships and connections in students' lives. Lindsa is re-humanizing the school system through a rich culture of caring, listening, and co-creating.
Listening and facilitating community connections as Lindsa has begins to deconstruct dominant norms. Other examples include HĀ outcomes, a culturally responsive definition of success adopted by the State of Hawai'i that incorporates Belonging, Responsibility, Excellence, Aloha, Total Wellbeing, and Hawai'i. At the Cape Byron Rudolf Steiner School in Australia, they're building a "stronger relationship with the Arakwal people" and "coming to a better understanding of and relationship to country." And the Green School learning community in Bali, Indonesia, prioritizes "spiritual awareness and emotional intuition," alongside social enterprise with community partners focused on local challenges to sustainability.