Equity & Diversity Opinion

Deeper Learning and Equity: Looks Can Be Deceiving

By Contributing Blogger — July 17, 2015 4 min read
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This post is by Carlos Moreno and Andrew Frishman, the Co-Executive Directors of Big Picture Learning.

“Which one of us is an athlete? Which one of us is a chess player? Which one of us loves to dance? Which one of us is married?” It was July 2002, the first day that we had ever worked together with students, and we stood side by side uneasily shifting our weight, asking a group of rising 9th graders to make snap judgments about the two of us. As we tallied the students’ votes on a piece of chart paper, we continued to ask for their gut reaction, “Which one of us speaks Spanish? Which one of us benefited from college scholarships and financial aid? Which one of us is a Shakespeare fan? Which one of us was born in New York City?”

Our induction and training process had begun. Just the week before, the two of us had been paired as advisors, teaching next door to one another at the Met High School in Providence, the first Big Picture Learning school in the world. There were clearly profound differences that separated us. However, we also discovered many striking similarities. For instance, to each of the questions posed above, the answer is “both!”

We deliberately chose to initiate our relationships with our students with this activity, to elucidate ways in which people’s outward appearances can lead to stereotyping. Thus, when we read Jal Mehta’s provocative piece, entitled “Deeper Learning has a Race Problem,” it was not the first time that we had considered these issues. Since the outset of our professional collaboration 13 years ago, we have frequently discussed the ways in which race has influenced our experiences as learners, educators, and leaders. Although we share many commonalities, we also have experienced troubling examples of differential treatment. For example, we have quite divergent answers to these questions: “On the way to a meeting with a superintendent, which one of us is more likely to be pulled over in a ‘random’ stop by the police? When in conversation with state and federal policy makers, which one of us is given more eye contact and is less likely to be interrupted? Which one of us is more likely to walk into the lobby of a foundation’s offices for a meeting and be sternly interrogated by a security guard? When attending a convening of the leaders of innovative education organizations, which one of us is more likely to be the only one of our race present in the room?”

This month--July 2015--we transitioned into co-leadership of Big Picture Learning and we proudly focus on the core value and core pedagogical value of equity; we have vowed not to abide by the status quo. We are thrilled to see others in the education sector calling for similar commitment. Nicole Nguyen recently wrote recently in Edweek that If we are to train future teachers, principals, and education researchers, we must recognize how schools perpetuate and disrupt systems of inequality, nourish the critical consciousness of our students, model antiracist and decolonizing pedagogies, and build the tool kits necessary for creating more-democratic schools...carving out a vibrant public sphere in which young people act as agents of social change in ongoing struggles for a more just future.”

We are committed to expanding these opportunities by building leadership capacity specifically in the areas of deeper learning and equity. Thus, we are ecstatic that our newest initiative, in collaboration with the Internationals Network for Public Schools, is the launch of the Deeper Learning Equity Fellows project, which is now accepting nominations. The Fellows themselves will be emerging leaders in the field, anxious and passionate--as we are--to right the systematic wrongs that have produced the inequities we see in the education system. We urge all those who are committed to equity to join us in this work.

Fundamental to Big Picture Learning’s approach to deeper learning, our students engage in personalized project-based learning opportunities that are designed and co-constructed around their own interests, often taking them beyond the protective, nurturing walls of the classroom. As a result, as our students--who most often come from underserved populations--often abruptly encounter structural racism and institutionalized inequality. Our educators and leaders work with students to debrief and process these occurrences so that they can strategize when it is most advantageous to code-switch, when to persevere as tempered radicals, when to acknowledge prejudice, and when to take direct action to call for change. These kinds of authentic experiences will help them to navigate the complex world of adulthood.

The vast majority of classrooms throughout the country do not follow a deeper learning approach and do not employ deeper learning instructional practices with a focus on equity. We must put an end to the long-established policies that focus on low-level skills and remediation-centric practices that impede equitable access to deeper learning opportunities for all students. We know from our own extensive work with youth of color, immigrant youth, English language learners, queer youth, and youth living in poverty that they can all benefit from deeper learning instructional practices focused on equity, if these educational opportunities engage these youth intentionally.

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