Equity & Diversity Opinion

Deeper Learning Has a Race Problem—And It May Have the Solution

By Contributing Blogger — December 20, 2016 7 min read
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This post is by Sam Seidel, director of the Student Experience Lab at the Business Innovation Factory.

Two years ago, Jal Mehta wrote a post on this blog declaring: “Deeper Learning Has a Race Problem.” As I participated in the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s annual Deeper Learning grantee meeting, which took place last week in New Orleans, I reflected on Mehta’s piece and the discussions we had about it at last year’s meeting. I am grateful to Mehta for sparking the conversation and I appreciate the Foundation’s efforts to focus on this important question. Here, I am contributing my perspective in the hopes that it advances the conversation....

Deeper Learning most definitely has a race problem. But it didn’t create the race problem. Deeper Learning suffers from the same race problem society suffers from: racism.

In current public education contexts, this manifests as interpersonal racism (e.g., teacher biases toward Black students resulting in disproportionate suspensions and expulsions for breaking the same rules as white students), as well as through systemic means, such as inequitable access to high quality educational facilities and experiences. (In preparation for last week’s meeting, we read a report on “Student Experiences and Outcomes in the New Orleans School Marketplace,” which found that “white, non-poor, and/or academically able” students have access to attractive school options in New Orleans, while other students do not.)

Structural inequity is not solely dictated by race—socio-economic status, citizenship status, religious orientation, gender identity, learning differences, English fluency, and other factors all impact the opportunities students receive. All of these factors—and their intersections—must be further addressed in the context of education equity generally and deeper learning equity in particular. But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on how racism appears in discussions of deeper learning.

In his piece, Mehta states, “If you travel in deeper learning circles—go to conferences, teach classes, visit schools—you will notice that many of the faces, among both the teachers and the learners, are white.” Perhaps this is true if we are talking specifically about the sliver of educators who use the precise phrase “deeper learning” to brand their work. But if we are talking about the skills and approaches that the phrase “deeper learning” represents—critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration—it is incorrect to imply that these are more the invention or province of white people than anyone else.

Schools, and both formal and informal out-of-school programs around the country, are engaging young people in deeper ways of learning. Much of this work is being led by educators of color, and for and with students of color. The difference is that deeper learning work done by white educators is lauded publicly in a way that the deeper learning work by educators of color often is not. And deeper learning done by white students is more frequently celebrated, while it can be ignored or even punished when students of color engage in deeper learning.

Consider Kiera Wilmot and Ahmed Mohamed—two young people of color, who developed and carried out self-guided scientific projects. Not only was their work not recognized as deeper learning because they did it on their own, but they were arrested by police for it. When a white student builds a clock and shows his engineering teacher, it is celebrated as deeper learning. When a Muslim student of color does it, he may be escorted out of school in handcuffs. That’s racism. And it’s clearly a problem.

The second deeper learning race problem is that public conversations about deeper learning and race rarely acknowledge the impact of racism on our students, schools, and society. Nowhere in his piece does Mehta mention racism. The conversation at last year’s Hewlett grantee meeting was framed as a conversation about “Deeper Learning and Equity” and while racial inequity was a central theme, racism was hardly discussed. In both cases, “access” to deeper learning experiences was talked about absent the historical or contemporary context of structural racism. We are left to believe either that it is a mysterious fact of life that white students have greater access to deeper learning or that access is really just about socio-economic status and that, as Mehta writes, “To the degree that race mirrors class, these inequalities in access to deeper learning are shortchanging black and Latino students.” But let’s do our own deeper learning and thinking here: Why does “race mirror class” in this country? Do white people in positions of power believe that students of color are capable of developing the skills of the future managerial class? Do they really want young people of color learning to collaborate, critically question things, and have the skills and confidence to create new realities?

One of the reasons racism is rarely explicitly called out in these conversations is that it can feel overwhelming, divisive, and hopeless (particularly to the people controlling the literal and metaphorical microphones, who are often white). In fact though, there is much that is already being done, and that educators must do, to challenge racism. Here are some examples that come from my colleagues in the Hewlett Deeper Learning initiative and other partners. (Please note that this is by no means an exhaustive list of the racial justice work that has been done by the organizations mentioned below and it leaves out much impressive work by others, it is just meant to advance a conversation about things that can and are being done.)

Acknowledge the impacts of racism on our selves, students, schools, and communities

It is impossible to address racism without talking about it. Critically analyzing the web of structural oppression in our society can be hard and painful, as can examining personal biases, trauma, and privilege. It can be especially challenging to do these things in interracial schools, organizations, and communities. Groups like the National Equity Project and Pacific Education Group can help facilitate these conversations to ensure that they are productive.

Take action to address opportunity gaps

Instead of looking at racial disparities in academic success as unfortunate “achievement gaps,” acknowledge that in many cases, due to structural racism, students of color are not receiving the same opportunities as white students and work proactively to address this. High Tech High has launched a networked improvement community across their schools to improve how they support young men of color. They are engaging students as experts, piloting new approaches, coming together to share findings, and then iterating based on results. They have seen improvements in chronic absenteeism, sense of belonging, and four-year college going rates through these efforts.

Invest in leaders of color

Racially diverse leadership is key to combatting racism in schools. Twenty years ago, Big Picture Learning was founded with an explicit focus on ensuring that students of color had access to deeper learning experiences. Over the last two decades, the organization has invested in recruiting, training, supporting, and empowering leaders of color. Last year, the white co-founders passed the leadership of the organization to Black and white co-directors and, in partnership with Internationals Network for Public Schools and the Hewlett Foundation, Big Picture Learning launched the Deeper Learning Equity Fellows to cultivate and network diverse leaders focused on issues of equity.

Critically engage students

Structural racism is impacting our students. Deeper learning offers opportunities for students to engage in a critical action-oriented learning process to interrogate and address it. After a recent graduate of the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul was brutally attacked by police while waiting to pick his children up from preschool, the school invited him back to work with students on a project about police brutality (a police officer and ACLU attorney also came in to work with the students). The students produced music, video, and “know your rights” wallet cards. This is an example of deeper learning that engages and empowers students and builds their ability to understand and counteract racism. Projects are not the only deep way to learn about racism. For instance, Socratic seminars can open space for deep, self-directed critical inquiry and effective communication with others.

In the end, perhaps the most important question we can ask about deeper learning and race is: What educational model will most effectively prepare our children to dismantle the racism that plagues our society? Will it be the factory model in which students are told a particular narrative about the history of their country and the world, and then trained to regurgitate it? Or will it be a model that encourages critical thinking, collective dialogue, and problem solving?

Deeper learning is impacted by the same race problem the rest of our society suffers from: racism. Deeper learning is also our best hope at dismantling it.

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