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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Equity & Diversity Opinion

Adults Are Banning Classroom Topics. Perhaps They Should Allow Students to Explore Them?

By Peter DeWitt — June 27, 2021 6 min read
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School is supposed to be a venue where students have numerous opportunities to engage in deep learning that will prepare them for their future. That learning is supposed to foster the ability for students to engage in their own learning around topics that they care about and perhaps even want to pursue after they leave high school and enter career and technical education, higher education, or the workforce in an internship capacity.

As teachers, we need to be allowed to explore issues with students like mathematical concepts, scientific problems that need our greatest thinking, or societal problems that need to be resolved. After all, we are supposed to empower students to feel they can change the world and not enable them to feel they can’t do anything to change it at all.

But everything becomes a political argument …

Unfortunately, some issues are being barred from school. What are the adults so fearful of that they need to bar issues from being taught in schools when it’s those very students who can help us solve them? For example, the media and politicians seem to be consumed by critical race theory and cancel culture. The adults seem to be doing a lot of talking and making decisions about what students need to hear and learn and what is not acceptable to talk about in classrooms at all.

Those adults come from the left, the right, and in the middle.

Just for clarity, Merriam-Webster dictionary describes cancel culture as, “The practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.” Vox further explains that “Conservative politicians and pundits have increasingly embraced the argument that cancel culture, rather than being a way of speaking truth to power, has spun out of control and become a senseless form of social media mob rule.”

As for critical race theory, Education Week writer Stephen Sawchuk offers an excellent explanation here. He writes,

“Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”

It seems that critical race theory is experiencing cancel culture.

Many have accused those who are trying to bar critical race theory being taught in the classroom as racist. In an Education Week blog post titled “Resisting ‘Anti-Racist’ Education Is Neither Racist Nor Unreasonable,” opinion blogger Rick Hess writes, “The issue, I’d argue, is that the backlash is not to this broadly-supported version of anti-racist education. Rather, the opponents are reacting to the ideas and educational practices promoted by some of anti-racism’s most visible and ardent adherents—ideas at odds with the values and beliefs of most Americans.”

Why Not Let Students Explore These Issues?

What the adults seem to be missing here is that critical race theory and cancel culture need not be taught by teachers as much as those concepts need to be explored by students. Instead of educators standing at the front of the classroom teaching students about CRT and cancel culture using direct instruction, perhaps those same teachers could support students as they explore these issues, and many, many more, through project-based learning.

In fact, in that same Hess article questioning the unreasonableness of resisting anti-racist education, he writes,

“As a onetime social studies and civics teacher (who long ago taught selections from Frantz Fanon, Lao Tse, and Marx to my high schoolers, alongside the Founders and Adam Smith), I’ve long supported efforts to look unflinchingly at American history and society, be inclusive of new perspectives, take differences more seriously, reexamine troubling practices, and do a much better job meeting the needs of all learners.”

I agree with Hess that we should encourage teachers and students to reexamine troubling practices like he was allowed to do when he was a teacher. Issues like red lining (watch Segregated By Design by Richard Rothstein), or gaining an understanding of how predominantly white schools receive 23 billion dollars more in funding, like this article by Andre Perry states. These topics do not have to be explored through direct instruction, but rather through project based learning where students are researching all sides of the issue, because through that research students can understand how these practices began and how they can have a voice in ending them.

Buck Institute for Education explains,“Project Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects.” The website goes on to explain, “Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

Where Difficult Issues and PBL Intersect

Recently, I moderated a chat on Education Week’s web show A Seat at the Table focusing on How to Develop Powerful PBL with North Carolina Global Cultures teacher Matt Cone, and two of his recently graduated high school students, Julien Taylor and Phoenix Tudryn. Taylor and Tudryn recently wrote this outstanding opinion essay for Education Week titled “Students: Racial Justice Demands More Than a Lawn Sign.”

In a private communication, Cone says,

“Global Cultures is a class that focuses on the experiences of groups from around the world who are not the dominant group in their society. In most years, we will explore 4-6 issues. In recent years, we have studied the experiences of the Yazidi in Iraq, the Hazara in Afghanistan, the Hmong in Laos, Honduran immigrants in neighboring countries, and African Americans in the United States.”

Cone goes on to say,

“Global Issues is a class that changes dramatically from year to year as we try our best to study some of the most pressing and interesting issues that are in the news. In most years, we will explore 6-8 issues that deal with conflict and/or development. Recently, we have studied the conflict in Yemen, the economic collapse of Venezuela, arguments about a universal basic income, populist movements, pandemics (before COVID-19!), and the treatment of refugees.”

If you have time, please consider watching the episode of A Seat at the Table because it was a powerful conversation, and we explored what PBL is and how it can be used to teach anything from career technical concepts to critical race theory and cancel culture.

In the End

I had a more conservative family member contact me lately and ask why critical race theory needs to be taught and suggested we focus on how we are the same rather than focus on issues that divide us. The issue is that there are so many disparities in our country for Black and brown people and they do need to be explored so they can be resolved. In that exploration, we can begin to come together to understand what we have in common and can even look at how we can come together in more authentic ways.

One of the ways teachers and students can explore these issues is through PBL. Unfortunately, more and more states are passing legislation that bars that from happening. However, what we know is that those states don’t need legislation to bar those issues from being taught. Teachers will self-select not to teach it anyway, because they lack the confidence or the support to teach those issues. Both are examples of how cancel culture and critical race theory intersect.

In their recent book, Project Based Learning, Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy say it best when they write,“Based on what we’ve experienced, countless schools prioritize what’s comfortable for adults, not what’s best for students. And then we take issue with students when they don’t buy into what we’re doing.”

Thank goodness for teachers like Cone and students like Taylor and Tudryn who don’t shy away or bar these conversations but instead try to gain an understanding of all sides of the issue.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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