Equity & Diversity Opinion

Leaders as Learners: Exploring Equity

By Contributing Blogger — February 29, 2016 5 min read
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This post is by Gia Truong, CEO of Envision Education.

One morning this past January, a group of education leaders gathered at the National Equity Project in Oakland, CA, to talk about equity.

This isn’t so unusual: equity is a big conversation these days in education, with design, practice and policy ideas popping up all over the country from educators who seek to improve outcomes for disadvantaged and underserved students.

But the group in conversation on this particular morning--the Deeper Learning Leadership Forum (DLLF), a project of Envision Learning Partners--is doing something a little different: looking for ways to inject equity issues and priorities into the Deeper Learning movement, to bring these two important ideas together. Almost two years ago on this blog, Jal Mehta explored race and equity issues that Deeper Learning proponents need to think about. While these issues are not going away, the growing number of people around the country who are moving the conversation forward is encouraging. Members of the DLLF’s first cohort, hailing from places like Cincinnati, South Carolina, Sacramento, San Diego, Oakland, and Seattle, are among those people.

These educators--district leaders, non-profit leaders, principals--with strong commitments to both Deeper Learning and equity, are dedicated to transforming their districts and networks into centers of deeper learning for every student. Through the DLLF, they are coming together to enrich their conversations about how to accomplish this.

For their first gathering, Envision Learning Partners came up with a “Slice Experience,” designed specifically to take place at the intersection of equity and Deeper Learning. The goal was to create an experience that would mirror the kinds of “deeper learning” experiences students should be having in their classrooms, while tackling the topic of equity. The hoped-for outcome was for these educational leaders to see how the two concepts can be intentionally combined so that students gain the full range of Deeper Learning competencies while simultaneously practicing the skills they need for academic endeavors--reading, comprehension, synthesis, exposition--and examining an issue directly linked to equity.

The assignment: The first order of business was to ask the group to examine a so-called Mystery Text on the topic of Bay Area gentrification. They looked at a bar graph showing the changing demographics of one Bay Area city, Oakland, over the last 30 years and the steep decline in the African American population during that time. After discussing the graph and its implications for education, the group listened to guest speaker Bobby Stahl, a researcher from Urban Strategies, talk about the issue from a housing perspective, including how housing touches multiple aspects of the urban experience, including health care, education, and employment.

Next, the group took a field trip to San Francisco’s Mission District, to see first hand the gentrification process in action. This historically Latino neighborhood is experiencing dramatic shifts in population, income, and character, as the ongoing high tech boom to the south of the city creates large numbers of young, mostly white, well-paid industry workers who are moving in and displacing long time, mostly poor Latino residents. It is a massive and well-documented problem for this city--complex and entrenched, with competing interests and priorities, and no easy answers. The DLLF group’s goal was simply to get involved in the neighborhood for an afternoon, to talk to residents and get “on the ground” information about the problem, to add to the information they had already gathered from their Mystery Text and speaker Bobby Stahl.

We know that strong project-based learning, grounded in real world problems and challenges, yields high engagement from students while helping them obtain deeper knowledge of the subjects they are studying. Usually, in professional learning experiences for educators, adults are asked to approach problems analytically, through research and discussion, with a focus on their expertise as educators. We sometimes forget that these issues involve real people and real lives. While we know that increasing relevance for students in turn increases their engagement, it’s rare to apply that same idea to learning for adults.

The DLLF Slice attempted to provide that kind of experience to our cohort. Rather than appealing to the DLLF members as experts, we wanted them to approach the topic from a different angle. We asked them to take off their “leader” hats and put themselves in the role of “learner,” to suspend their occupational impulses to design solutions and lead change efforts and instead listen, ask questions, and think about entrenched problems. They were asked, in other words, to do what schools should be asking students to do every day.

Sound simple? Perhaps so but, as one DLLF member put it: “I’ve been involved in Deeper Learning conversations and in equity conversations, but this is the first time I’ve had the chance to talk about them at the same time, in a concrete way that shows us what is possible.” And here is what is possible: students can and should be given opportunities to do exactly what the DLLF leaders did that morning: use and practice cognitive skills, in collaboration with others, to tackle a real, relevant problem in the world.

This model can be adapted to any classroom setting. In Envision’s schools, we’ve seen science teachers work with social studies teachers to design a project examining the environmental impact of a toxic spill and investigating who is working on the clean up and policy issues. We’ve seen math teachers use prison statistics and demographics to help students manipulate data, create evidence graphs, and forecast trends, or to explore the impact of budget and economic decisions on the real lives of disadvantaged populations.

One way to introduce these opportunities to students is to make them more common for adults as well. Getting educators involved actively and personally, as our Slice Experience did, clearly engaged them in a way that, while not necessarily novel for them, is not something leaders get to do often enough. And if they have such opportunities, they are better equipped to turn around and create them in their school communities. It is critical that we give all students, especially those who have been traditionally underserved, opportunities for these kinds of engaging learning experiences, in order to empower them to succeed in college and beyond.

It is our hope that this slice and the other activities of each DLLF cohort will explore and expand ways to create schools and school systems that give all students deeper learning experiences that develop them as critical thinkers, problem solvers, leaders, and change agents, in whatever capacity the choose. This is what students need and deserve; this is where Deeper Learning and equity come together and empower students to succeed.

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