This is a unique time, at least in the lives of current generations. For educators, we hear that Black Lives Matter, and we see this as a message that can and should be endorsed in schools and classrooms.
The question is: what is the wake up call for us as educators? Is it stating only that we all are equal, and that we should all be treated equally in our schools and classrooms? Or is there a deeper and more profound question?
The issue is not only about making sure that Black Lives Matter or that we treat all people equally. As educators we take pride in engaging in the learning processes for our students and peers. It is a joyous profession. However, there is a blind spot that we need to identify and reflect on.
Our teaching methods are based upon an educational assumption. The past fifty years in western education has seen a shift to the idea that each child is unique as a learner. As teachers, we recognize this and we attempt to facilitate the learning for each student. This is a core skill. There is a problem, though, in that although we embrace the premise, we do not always see our responsibility beyond the dynamic of teaching and learning, shaped by curriculum.
Our curriculum outlines the learning outcomes and there is an expectation that students will do the learning needed to achieve the outcomes. In order to achieve this expectation, the teacher keeps to deadlines and keeps the learning outcomes at the forefront of their thinking. In order to best facilitate this dynamic, the teacher develops and implements the skills and processes that are recognized (but not clearly defined) as “best practice”.
“The issue is not only about making sure that Black Lives Matter or that we treat all people equally.”
A teacher takes pride in being able to apply “best practice”, and administrators evaluate teachers on their ability to do so. There is a tension here. The child is unique, but the learning outcomes are set for all students and the teacher’s best practice is built into their education, modelling and professional development. There is no surprise that the expectations of achieving outcomes and using best practice dominate the reality of the classroom.
Our blind spot is in the middle of this combination of teaching and curriculum. The concept of an international curriculum is based primarily upon western curriculum. An assumption is made that the outcomes are universal: that is, built upon the needs and development of humans. How else can we explain that we are applying learning theories developed in western cultures based upon research in western classrooms and undertaken by western educators? How else can we explain the universal use of a curriculum when the demographic of a classroom not only has multiple representations from different cultures but also multiple representations of sub-cultures within each culture?
“An assumption is made that the outcomes are universal: that is, built upon the needs and development of humans.”
What if our teaching methods are based upon western cultural experience and values? What if our teaching methods promote and rely upon student familiarity with, and proficiency in, the dynamic of teaching and learning built into those methods? What if our assessment practices are based upon western cultural values?
In this moment of serious global reflection, it behoves us to reflect on what we believe in and what we need to do to truly make a contribution. If our curriculum is reflective of one culture, then what needs to be adjusted to allow learners to recognize themselves, their values, their perspectives, their experiences? Should we be celebrating all cultures, not as tokenism as part of a “feel good” checklist, but to celebrate in order to educate? Students from all cultures would be exposed to the many different (and often dramatically different) perspectives, interpretations and values in the classroom, school and society.
“If our curriculum is reflective of one culture, then what needs to be adjusted to allow learners to recognize themselves, their values, their perspectives, their experiences?”
What if our curricula were shaped with learning outcomes that had their genesis in multiple cultures? Our “best practice” must adapt to this situation in ways that we have not seen in the past. Consider that the perpetuation of a western way of teaching is another form of cultural dominance, and people from other cultures know what is happening and it is not helping. Even within a western culture, there are multiple cultures and many sub-cultures that are not being seen, let alone valued in the educational process.
How can a person feel valued if their culture is ignored or marginalized? How can a student connect to learning if they do not recognize themselves in the process? How can the students feel valued if the measures of success are based upon a completely different cultural context from their own? If we return to the original idea that each student is unique, we have to go much further than thinking of students as individual learners with their own learning style.
“How can a person feel valued if their culture is ignored or marginalized?”
Each student is a microcosm of the cultures of their family and experience. Our cultural context shapes our thinking and therefore the way we learn, our perspectives and their values. As teachers, we have to be brave enough and strong enough to listen, learn and adapt. As administrators, we have to be brave enough and strong enough to listen, learn, support, make the appropriate decisions, and allocate time and resources to make it happen.
A longer version of this article was first published in the Spring 2021 edition of International School Magazine.