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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Human Experience Should Guide Strategies for Closing Education Equity Gaps

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 04, 2024 8 min read
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Adeyemi Stembridge has a new book out, Brilliant Teaching: Using Culture and Artful Thinking to Close Equity Gaps, in which he urges teachers to adopt an artful mindset.

The educational consultant, who works with schools and districts to create equitable opportunities for students to learn, chatted with me recently about the book.

LF: People often refer to teaching as an art, and you make that an important part of your book. What does that mean to you?

Adeyemi Stembridge:

The book is developed around a metaphor: A painter is an artist who creates on the medium of a canvas, whereas a teacher is an artist who creates through the medium of experience. But the real practice of the artist is a way of being in the world. It’s much more philosophy than technique, and so in the book, I make reference not so much to the output of painters, photographers, jazz musicians, and even chefs but more so to their artful thinking as inspiration for how we teachers might approach our craft. The teachers with an artful mindset don’t teach with strategies or curriculum as much as they teach with the tools of the human experience.

I refer to artful thinking that draws on the themes and methods of culturally responsive education in the interest of closing equity gaps as Brilliant Teaching. Artful thinking for teachers lives at the intersection of philosophizing and creativity. When our pedagogical choices are informed by deeply considering our core beliefs with an awareness of the moment and the materials therein, we can say that we are thinking artfully because we are best positioned to create something meaningful.

I talk to many teachers who are struggling with the craft, and they are facing the very real possibilities of burnout and soul-crushing disappointments. Artists—all artists—struggle with their craft. That’s a big part of what it means to be an artist.

The argument I am making in this book is that our best hope for creating schools and classrooms that provide quality and effective opportunities for all students, irrespective of their racial, ethnic, gender, language, or socioeconomic background, is to center artfully designed pedagogy that is culturally responsive in the local and immediate context. And so, while many describe teaching as an art, my argument is that it is absolutely essential that we embrace the habits of artful thinking because equity gaps in classrooms won’t be closed by algorithmic means.


LF: You talk about the difference between equity and equality. Can you explain that and offer specific examples of what each might look like in the classroom?


Equity and equality are conceptual cousins that both seek to solve problems of fairness, but they look and act differently because they are differently measured and motivated. The meaning of fairness in terms of equality centers sameness—as in equally divided resources satisfies the fairness imperative. Equity requires something else.

Equity in education is the policy and practice directive to provide quality and effective learning opportunities so that background and identity are neither correlative nor predictive of student performance and/or achievement outcomes. There are three main pillars in the definition of equity in education—each clarifying an essential element of the construct for both its understanding and operationalizing in policy and practice:

1. It’s about outputs. Given the purpose of American public education, equity is measured by outputs in contrast to equality, which is measured by inputs.

2. Opportunity brings achievement. Equity requires quality learning opportunities that are effective in bringing about achievement.

3. Differences aren’t deficits. Though there are differences in cultural, linguistic, racial, ethnic, and language backgrounds, as well as differential access to resources among students, socio-ethnolinguistic groups do not differ from each other in the capacity for intelligence in any important way; thus, differences do not equate to deficits in ability.

The most egregious example of the confounding of equity and equality in schools and classrooms is the growing trend toward scripted curriculum, which teachers are often told to follow “with fidelity.” It’s profoundly inequitable, and further, it has the potential to assassinate the character of artfulness. I understand the decision to invest in these programs and packages, but they should carry the expectation that it’s the teacher who is best positioned to identify the manner in which each unique classroom can benefit from outsourced materials.

The preferred way to use curriculum and other instructional tools in a classroom is with integrity rather than with fidelity. The equality position is that fairness means that every student has access to the same curriculum; but equity means giving teachers the tools and support necessary to be responsive to their students without compromising the integrity of the opportunities to learn. Teaching is too complex to be reduced to simple pedagogical recipes that are expected to fit in every classroom with every group of students. Equity requires that we level up in our thinking, not dumb it down for the sake of uniformity.

LF: The book highlights a culturally responsive teacher “tool kit.” What do you think are the most important parts of it?


It’s true that I share some strategies and activities in the book, but hands-down, the most important part of the culturally responsive teacher tool kit is the teacher themself. The effectiveness of the strategy is less a function of any inherent quality than it is dependent on the circumstances in which it’s utilized. I’ve experienced many times a strategy that worked especially well on one occasion only to flop on another. Sometimes, on the same day! If we emphasize the strategies themselves over the reflection, discretion, and direction that allow for effectiveness, we risk missing the point entirely.

Every classroom is a unique mixture of humanity with dynamics that vary in relation to the specific identities and cultural fluencies of students. This speaks to the critical role of the teacher. The most significant question that we teachers should be asking ourselves in selecting activities is: What do my students need? That’s why lists of activities and strategies don’t deliver on culturally responsive instruction without an organizing framework for an equitable approach to the artful design of educational opportunity.

Activities are selected based on the teacher’s read of the social learning environment with particular attention to the opportunities for students to leverage cultural fluencies in rigorous thought. I was careful to highlight only a few specific strategies in the book because they can limit readers’ imagination for their own process in the design of culturally responsive learning experiences. The commitment to strategies before clarifying the larger purpose of the learning experience is consistently the biggest mistake I see in teachers’ planning. It’s a hard habit to break and it’s also the growth with the greatest potential for return on investment.

Our students need learning opportunities that bring their own cultural assets to bear—or they are unlikely to perceive the opportunity to learn as meaningful. The argument is not that some strategies are effective in closing equity gaps because they are inherently culturally responsive, but rather that a culturally responsive approach lends itself to the selection of strategies that close equity gaps. This requires teachers to be artfully engaged, not as facilitators of assembly line style lessons with a prescribed course of activities—but as designers of human experience.


LF: You have a chapter on culturally responsive assessments. What are some elements that comprise them?


A culturally responsive assessment provides feedback and reliably captures evidence of students’ understandings with opportunities to draw on their cultural fluencies. The major quality of culturally responsive assessments is that they are much more likely to be performative in nature—as in, students perform their understandings. Assessments that take on the qualities of problem/project-based learning experiences, portfolios, and capstones are fairer because students benefit from the full range of their identities and cultural inheritances in showing what they understand.

Though it’s obvious, it should be stated unequivocally that the efficacy of assessments cannot be disentangled from the quality of instruction. A culturally responsive assessment isn’t something that can be retrofitted onto decidedly unresponsive pedagogy. It isn’t equitable to teach something in a way that doesn’t allow some students to leverage their cultural fluencies and then measure what they have learned with the cognitive handcuffs of assessments that ignore their assets. Our approaches to assessment of students’ learning shape the way behaviors, beliefs, and norms are interpreted in the culture of a classroom.

I want teachers to know that we have options in our assessment strategies, and we must think artfully in terms of how to put them together. A standardized assessment seeks to measure perfection. It asserts that there is such a thing as a perfect way of knowing, the evidence of which can be derived from a set of static test indicators.

But if the goal is to teach in ways that students are empowered with understandings that integrate their own cultural fluencies inside of a larger, interconnected view of the world, then assessments that support the goals of equity emphasize robust methods that collect evidence of students’ understandings in multiple forms. The challenges of the 21st-century classroom, with its wide range of diverse identities and cultures represented, are not assessment problems to be avoided but rather a feature of the pedagogical environment that is flush with opportunities for artful design.


LF: Thanks, Yemi!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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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