Equity-mindedness: challenging the “land of inequality, disadvantage and marginalisation”

I published an article recently – Personalising learning: A wicked challenge! As I read some of the comments, I realised that people did not see “Personalising Learning” through the rich lens of a humanising education as I did. Many saw it as an individualised, technical process and even neo liberal in intent. Hence, this article is, at least partially, a reframing of “personalising learning” into the more political Equity-Mindedness.   

Judge Becroft, Children’s Commissioner, spoke recently at a “Talking Matters Summit” in Auckland. In a statement that held back no punches, he said, “Today’s New Zealand is a land of inequality, disadvantage and marginalisation – this is not the New Zealand I want to be a part of.” He called for the establishment of a cross-party accord to deal with such issues. Sadly, the politics of our times is not well suited to addressing the “wicked” problems our country and our world faces. What will be required is a wide range of people contributing to solutions no matter what their party affiliations are or their ideological leanings. Such a collaboration would require each member to remove the lenses through which she/he sees the world and try looking through the lenses of others. As long as we keep our own blinkers on, little progress will be possible.  

The “achievement gap” is one such problem. In 2017, the K-12 Horizon Report identified the Achievement Gap as a wicked challenge – one that is hard to even define, let alone solve. The term Achievement Gap refers to an observed disparity in academic performance among student groups, especially as defined by socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, or gender. The report suggested that “within the classrooms, learners can be exposed to behaviours such as biases and negative stereotyping that influence their achievement and prevent them from realising their potential.” The report also points to structural and systemic conditions such as socio-economic status that impact academic achievement. However, I think the report’s bland, impersonal tones cover up, gloss over and fail to confront the propensity for human beings, institutions and societies to discriminate against and marginalise those who are different from themselves and to maintain unequal allocation of power and resources when they benefit – whether they know that is what they are doing or not. 

I have been guilty of that – whitewashing what is really happening by using words that sound like we are taking action but that do not confront the truth. As a school, we use the term, “Meeting the needs of every student.” In fact, we changed to saying, “Meeting the needs of EVERY student” to emphasise our commitment to every single student, and when I write it or say it, I genuinely mean it. I do have a deeply felt, driving commitment to meeting the needs of EVERY student. However, no matter how deep my commitment, those words are still a whitewash because they allow us to believe we are doing our best for all students, without confronting the truth of the systemic conditions that lead to the achievement gap, or of my own discriminatory behaviours and beliefs, and my unwitting complicity in the unequal allocation of power and resources – as one who has benefited from it. We need every teacher in New Zealand to have equity-mindedness.

Equity-mindedness refers to the perspectives or modes of thinking exhibited by educators who call attention to the patterns of inequity in student outcomes, explore the conditions that lead to those outcomes, and take actions to change them. These educators are willing to take both personal and institutional responsibility for the success of their students, and as a result, critically reassess their own practices and the beliefs they hold that underpin those practices. They challenge the deficit thinking in which educators blame others for outcomes, rather than looking at themselves first; and it requires educators to be race conscious and aware of the social and historical contexts of exclusionary practices in New Zealand and globally. 

When I mention the word “equity” in education-related meetings, I watch people become unsettled momentarily, and then their eyes glaze over and they quickly move on. We use terms like “meeting the needs of every student” rather than more political terms like “equity”, “inequality”, or “marginalisation”; perhaps, because we are genuinely ignorant of how much we see the world through the lenses of those who hold power and resources. But, perhaps, because we do actually know, and we are afraid to take the lid off because of what we suspect will be found underneath. Perhaps, we are afraid of what we might discover about ourselves and, perhaps, we are afraid of what it might cost us to confront reality – we might have to change, become a little radical, give something up, perhaps. Rather than risk this, we use whitewashed terms. It keeps everything in its place and we can continue on our way relatively undisturbed and unperturbed. 

In his award-winning book, “Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America” (2016), Ibram X Kendi suggested that racism comes in many forms. It is not necessarily the racism of hate (such as the KKK) or of biological determinism, or of segregation that are the biggest problems. He suggested the biggest problem is the “unending and unwitting racism of the well-meaning.” Racism of hate is easily identifiable and, as a society, we agree it is wrong. But terms like “personalisation of learning” and “meeting the needs of every student” are well-meaning. They promote individual freedom and the rights of the individual without challenging the mechanisms, structures and systems in society that maintain the power of some and create economic, social and other disparities for others. Can we truly meet the needs of every student, or acknowledge the 'whole child' in our schools without challenging and confronting the systems and structures that marginalise them at a societal level? After all, they don’t simply exist in individualised vacuums, they live in families, communities, cultures and societies.  

But also, and completely within our power to change, we each need to ask whether we can truly meet the needs of every student without looking within ourselves to the deeply held beliefs and barriers that I (me, myself) bring to my role as educator and leader that inhibit equity? What are the attitudes, deeply seated beliefs that I hold that perpetuate inequity and inequality? What are the practices I carry out that enact these attitudes and beliefs and unwittingly marginalise students that I teach? If I want to be more than simply well meaning, then I need to be prepared to take off the lid and find out what sits beneath even though it may not be palatable. 

As teachers, so much has happened to make us defensive and cynical. But we need to remove our masks of cynicism and our personas of perfectionism and honestly consider the ways in which we are each involved, however unwittingly, in perpetuating the disparities that exist for individuals and whole groups of people in New Zealand society and in our schools. We need to talk about inequities and race in spite of our very low thresholds for enduring discomfort when challenged about them. We need to put aside the guilt and shame that we might feel because of the discriminatory beliefs that may sit deep within our psyches; and because we know our privilege as those who live in a social environment that protects and insulates us from institutionalised and systemic race-based and other types of stress. The problem with the guilt and shame is that it inevitably attempts to diminish the spotlight aimed at showing up issues that are germane to marginalised groups. We push what we are ashamed of further down into the darkness and try to pretend it doesn’t exist rather than allow the light to shine on it and be released from it. Having equity consciousness or mindedness begins with knowing ourselves. Understanding and acknowledging who I am now opens up the pathway to being different in the future. 

The above is an impassioned argument for equity-mindedness and change. However, in simple terms, what is it that we need to do?  

As schools, we need to: 

  1. Provide high quality staff development in equitable practices – where we practice trying on other lenses and seeing the world differently as a result – see An exercise in exploring different lenses below; 
  2. Directly confront issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender etc. and be willing to consider whether student underachievement is the result of fundamental injustices within the school’s system itself; 
  3. Disaggregate data (including students’ voice/feedback) by race, ethnicity, gender, class and genuinely consider it, to develop an understanding of how our school practices are impacting students 
  4. As a result of the above hard look at the facts of disparity, we need to intentionally adjust school practices towards more equitable outcomes for all students 

However, though we can create change in our schools’ systems and structures to ensure more equitable outcomes, it will not be enough to change the experiences of children in our schools. We also need each individual teacher and leader to look within themselves to the beliefs and perspectives they hold. 

As individual teachers and leaders:  

  1. We must understand that everyone views the world through socio-cultural lenses. We must each, individually examine how our socio-cultural perspectives affect the ways we see students and their families. Each must ask, “What self-exploration do I need to do?”; 
  2. We need to be curious and open about our impact on students and disaggregate the data of our own students to better understand ourselves as teachers and to see how our particular socio-cultural lenses and the practices that result, impact our students; 
  3. Out of genuine interest, we need to frequently collect feedback to find out our impacts on students from a students’ perspective, and adjust what we are doing as a result; 
  4. We need to consider what additional information we need to learn about our students, such as cultural backgrounds and perspectives and personal and family values, so that we gain knowledge of how to tap into our students’ cultural strengths and ensure that we are not teaching on the basis of stereotypes; 
  5. We must also think about how we can demonstrate in practice that students’ families’ cultural framing and knowledge are important to us; 
  6. We also need to understand that we are not to “blame” for the socio-cultural lenses we carry. These lenses reflect our experiences. However, once we understand this, we do have a responsibility to learn to see the world through other lenses and eschew the defensiveness that comes from trying to protect our particular worldview  

______________________________________________________________________

An exercise in exploring different lenses:

Consider the kinds of questions below in a high trust, non-judgmental environment. Practice slipping different lenses on and off and consider how the world looks different. Do this in an attitude of “playing around with ideas” but also reflecting on how the different lenses and ideas make us feel.

In his book, Ibram X Kendi, raises the possibility that different environments actually cause different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement. Therefore, does the “Achievement Gap” actually exist? Or does it only exist when we use the particular lens of standardized academic testing? If we looked through the lens of cultural or sporting achievements, would the “tail of under achievement” change? Would I now be in that bottom 20% rather than in the top 20%?

The point is that, perhaps, through our focus on measuring achievement in a narrow range of academic subjects, we have created a tail of underachievement that includes a significant number of Maori and Pacifica students. How relevant is this particular lens? Perhaps, if we measured other skills, a completely different picture of intelligence would emerge. Kendi asks the question, “What if we measured literacy by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environment; how much individuals knew all those complex equations and verbal and non-verbal vocabularies of their everyday life?” What other skills and capabilities (intelligences) might be relevant in different situations? In an apocalypse or disaster? Or a food shortage? What lenses are relevant today or for the future?

What if our educational systems focused on opening minds instead of filling minds and testing how full they are? What if we realised the best way to standardize schools is by standardizing our schools to encourage intellectual openness and difference? Perhaps achievement at school could be measured by looking at achievement through multiple lenses. What would those lenses be? How would we determine them? An important question to consider is why we are so stuck on measuring achievement through the particular lens of standardized academic testing and who benefits most from this lens? Is this a way of ensuring power and resources remain in the hands of a certain group of people?

______________________________________________________________________

Conclusion

Equity-mindedness is hard, yet incredibly inspiring and valuable, work. It requires thoughtful, courageous and bold conversations about race, poverty, who holds power and who benefits from the allocation of resources. It requires close examination of policies and practices, data and evidence of student achievement, progress, and success. Most of all, it requires a willingness to look deeply at one’s beliefs and attitudes and to reflect on how those attitudes play out in daily practice.