Paradox in the Classroom
My journey transforming lesson plans into learning experiences.
Educators do not enter the teaching profession to stifle kids’ creativity. I have never heard a teacher say, “I just want my students to be bored.” However, as I explained in my last blog post, the status quo bias and implicit bias both contribute to teachers being stuck in a rut and unable to change their pedagogical practices. Teachers today find themselves in a systemic paradox, feeling an overwhelming tension between opposing ideas and practices.
Paradox comes from the Greek para (“contrary to”) and doxa (“opinion”). From that, the term came to be used for something that was contrary to, or contradicted, common sense.
Throughout public education tensions and contradictions to logical common sense abound. Teachers receive competing expectations from their administration. For example, Miriam Ben-Peretz & Maria Assunção Flores (2018) explored the tension between achieving immediate results and success in superficial external exams versus the need to prepare students to be successful in their lives. They considered a series of questions that guided their research. How can teachers be expected to prepare students for state standardized tests and the real world simultaneously? How can teachers be aware of and responsive to a child’s race and ethnicity, but then prepare them for an exam that was designed to fail historically marginalized students? Teachers want their students to be autonomous and self-directed lifelong learners, but public schooling overwhelming favors compliant and dependent students (Silliman & Johnson, 2011). Teachers want students to work on creative and innovative projects, but then use worksheets and tests to direct what is supposed to be self-directed learning. Teachers claim to trust students to monitor their own learning, but then proceed to micro-manage students’ learning and behavior over facilitating creative thinking and student-directed learning experiences.
P.J. Palmer (1998) discusses paradoxes connected with traditional educational paradigms:
“The world of education as we know it is filled with broken paradoxes — and with lifeless results: we separate head from heart. Result: minds that do not know how to feel and hearts that do not know how to think. We separate facts from feelings. Result: bloodless facts that make the world distant and remote and ignorant emotions that reduce truth to how one feels today. We separate theory from practice. Result: theories that have little to do with life and practice that is uninformed by understanding. We separate teaching from learning. Result: teachers who talk but do not listen and students who listen but do not talk” (Palmer, 1998, p. 66).
Teachers feel this separation with every incoming class of new students and at every weekly staff meeting. We hear Don’t smile until Christmas at the same time as build strong relationships with students.
Marija Bratanic, researcher and lecturer at the University of Zagreb (2002) describes the feeling many teachers experience each year:
“Every academic year I improve my teaching step by step by developing the curriculum and attempting to synchronize the contents and methods, and harmonizing my relationship with the students. At the end of the academic year I experience a sort of blessing. The students’ achievements are the reward for my efforts. I would like to continue working with the same generation of students, but at the beginning of the new academic year another generation awaits me. Why am I feeling so awful, so worried, so anxious? It has taken time to understand that this was a question of discrepancies between my development level and that of my students. The more I developed myself the more I moved away from them.
This experience is common. The more teachers work to improve their own knowledge of content and pedagogy, they feel less prepared to teach another incoming class of students. For teachers who believe that they have spent their careers training to be the “sage on the stage” they quickly recognize the same paradox in Palmer’s thought, “The knowledge I have gained from thirty years of teaching goes hand in hand with my sense of being a rank amateur at the start of each new class” (Palmer, 1998, p. 63).
Teachers struggle with this fundamental shift in their pedagogical practice. Deep down, they realize that the more disparate information they tell students, the less prepared they will be for the real world. Today’s students no longer require (if they ever did!) a packaged curriculum delivered in neat lessons and units, and assessed with biased multiple-choice tests. “Teachers teach the way that they were taught” is not just a trite saying. It’s a real fact that many educators, including pre-service teachers, realize too late in their careers: students, parent community, and administration all require vulnerability, creativity, and innovation that they are unprepared to teach.
There is power in James Baldwin’s quote from A Talk to Teachers, 1963: The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. Too often, teachers are passive consumers of the profession they enter. They are not rewarded for questioning the system. They are often penalized for questioning authority and not being complacent themselves. Teachers are praised for having complacent students instead of a “loud” class. Teaching creativity and innovation are seen as “special” curricula instead of part of the necessary mindsets of teachers and students. It often seems that the more we push teachers to think about preparing students for the future, the more teachers become nostalgic about the way school used to be. Learning in public school is becoming increasingly more complex and uncertain, leading many teachers to long for “good-old-days” of traditional subjects, basic skills, and singular values in a world of white-supremacist certainties. The “good-old days” were not good for all people.
Tony Wagner (2012) researched innovators and innovative thinking in order to profile them in his book Creating Innovators. He wanted to look at individuals who are “individuals doing highly innovative work in so-called STEM fields, and individuals engaged in social innovation and entrepreneurship” (Wagner, 2012, p. xiii). He names the skills necessary to be innovative, what business leaders deem “necessary for careers, continuous learning, and citizenship in an increasingly flat world,” as “the Seven Survival Skills” (Wagner, 2012, p. 12). They are:
- Critical thinking and problem solving
- Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
- Agility and adaptability
- Initiative and entrepreneurship
- Accessing and analyzing information
- Effective oral and written communication
- Curiosity and imagination
It is not surprising that critical thinking and problem solving are first on the list. For years, educators have heard the importance of 21st century skills. However, as Wagner (2012) discovered when he interviewed leaders in the for-profit, nonprofit, and military spheres, these 21st century skills are not enough. The list “doesn’t touch on some of the qualities of innovators that [Wagner] understands as essential — such as perseverance, a willingness to experiment, take calculated risks, and tolerate failure, and the capacity for design thinking, in addition to critical thinking” (p. 12). Having students solve real-world engineering problems is great for helping students learn team dynamics, empathy, design thinking, and collaboration. However, how do students find such problems? Do these problems need to be engineering-based? Or how, as Wagner (2012) puts it, “do I solve a political problem, a social problem, and a technical problem all together to deliver something” (Wagner, 2012, p. 13). Instead of teachers providing projects for their students to complete, students need to find their own projects and problems that matter to them. This teaches them to value hands-on projects while demonstrating mastery and using a transdisciplinary approach to problem solving.
We say that we want an educational system that is transdisciplinary, yet we continue to teach individual content areas in isolation. Teachers are trying to prepare students for the real world using an Industrial Revolution, siloed model. It seems then that the only way to break out of this continuous Twilight Zone paradox is to disrupt the current system’s status quo. We need to promote, celebrate, and reward non-conforming teachers who mentor students and help them find their voice in order to change their school, community, and society. We need teachers who motivate their students to greatness. Every Can we? question by students must be answered with Why not!
Instead of teaching how we were taught, we need to be teaching from a vulnerable place inside us, who we are: creative and innovative and loving and empathic beings. Teachers are taught to be mechanical and separate their head from their heart, facts from feelings, theory from practice, teaching from learning. However, the brilliance and art of masterful teaching is in defying this paradox to create magical learning experiences in the classroom. Teaching in a classroom with 30 students is dynamic and alive. There is interpersonal give and take, almost like breathing. Masterful teachers make learning feel alive. Their classrooms are filled with love and authenticity. And intentionality. Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge (2020) explains that masterful teachers “choreograph rigorous and engaging learning experiences that draw richly on students’ strengths and identities by building upon their assets” (p. 119). When you observe a teacher who loves creating authentic and dynamic learning experiences, it seems effortless. The apparent ease stems from much effort on the part of the teacher not only to build mutual trust with their individual students and to use this trust to build a loving teacher-student relationship that empowers students to learn, but to continually improve their craft. Instead of holding teachers accountable for the final product, administrators should reward the process of constant and continuous learning, unlearning, and relearning.
Teacher accountability and student achievement
Teacher accountability is a controversial topic. Many feel that educators are evaluated using the wrong metrics: standardized test scores. Some feel that teachers are not held accountable enough and that if we want to improve public education and student learning, we need to not only tie teacher evaluations to student performance, but teacher pay as well. Public education is socialized in a culture of accountability and standardization. Whenever teachers are confronted with a new pedagogy (ability grouping versus heterogeneous groups, culturally responsive teaching, math practices versus discrete skill sets, project-based learning) or new a curriculum or tools (thinking maps, online assessments), the question is always, How is this [insert tool or curriculum or pedagogical practice] going to affect my students’ scores on the standardized test? Stembridge (2020) believes that if teachers can “confirm that our methods are effective with our students, then the standardized tests — if they are valid measurements — should corroborate what we see in the classroom” (p. 213). Which is at fault: the new method or tool, or the test? Instead of “teaching to the test”, teachers must be encouraged to center their assessments on actual student learning. Unfortunately, the reality for educators is that their evaluation is based on student standardized test scores, and that administrators (and school districts) believe these scores indicate student learning. Student learning, not student achievement on biased exams, needs be the center of any educator’s planning and assessments. Teachers want to be effective and have a positive impact on their students. Unfortunately, when we value standardized curricula and test scores above student relationships and learning, then we continue to reproduce poor instructional methods and test preparation in every classroom lesson plan. Should we be surprised that status quo thinking produces the same status quo results?
Big data-driven thinking
So, what data should we be using? How does one effectively measure student learning if not with standardized tests? Many people believe that standardized test scores are effective data points for holding teachers accountable. However, we must look at data through a lens that allows us to see our practices and contexts in new and revealing ways. One can accurately predict how a student will perform on their state’s standardized test, not by examining the teacher’s pedagogical practice, but by looking at the highest level of education of that child’s mother and the zip code where they live. Students who have mothers that are college-educated and live in affluent socioeconomic neighborhoods, always score better than students who live in poorer areas. Using longitudinal data to understand income differences in educational outcomes, researchers repeatedly find that a student’s social class is the most significant predictor of their educational success (Garcia & Weiss, 2015). These performance gaps begin as early as Kindergarten and persist throughout their entire educational career (Garcia & Weiss, 2017).
When we use this type of data to label schools as failing, our accountability system (think No Child Left Behind) is not only flawed, but perpetuates white supremacy. We reinforce negative outcomes and look at the wrong issue. Racist practices such as redlining (refusing a loan or insurance to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk), force children who are born into poorer neighborhoods to overcome significant obstacles to be successful in their neighborhood public school. They enter into an educational system that is designed to hold them back.
This reminds me of a scene in Charles Fraizier’s 1997 book Cold Mountain where he beautifully captures the utter frustration felt by the women left behind to tend the farmland during the Civil War. Ruby Thewes, exasperated about the destruction of the Civil War, exclaims to her friend, Ada Monroe, “They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say ‘Shit, it’s raining!’” (p. 339). This perfectly captures the sentiment felt by so many historically underserved students and communities.
Student learning is easy to measure if you look at the student, not the test. How do students feel during the learning experience? How are students participating (or not) in the classroom discussion? What parts of the learning experience do students talk about with their friends and family? What specific concepts and ideas do students remember from the learning experience? What reflections do students provide after the learning experience? How is students’ voice present in the learning experience and the assessment of that learning experience? These types of questions provide more relevant data than any standardized multiple choice exam.
At its inception, public education was designed to teach white children Puritan values and how to read the Bible. Yes, we have come a long way from those one-room schoolhouses, but we still have a system that was created for only a certain demographic. If we want an educational system that serves all students, we need to stop trying to make the old system fit our current needs. This is why so many paradoxes are prevalent: we keep trying to add here and take away from there to make a system work for everyone when it wasn’t designed to work for everyone. Education reforms fail because they do not address the systemic problems in public education. We need to design for change. The power in redesigning a system is that we can design a new institution that serves all students who enter. This requires an entirely new set of pedagogical practices that have not been part of our pre-service training to become educators. We, as educational designers and anti-racist teachers, need to truly understand the scope of the problem that we have been asked to solve. Public schools have been designed for a singular purpose and are in dire need of a redesign that is relevant for all of today’s youth.
Paradoxes are self-contradictory statements that when not explored are taken assumed to be true. What happens when we do not investigate our assumptions (or the assumptions we enter in to as educators)? Educators know that standardized curricular materials and state-mandated testing are not good for kids, but many continue teaching to these tests and reading from the scripted guides because they are either overwhelmed by the unrealistic and harmful expectations placed upon them, or they are ill-equipped to push back on an educational system founded upon harmful ideas and practices. We do not have to be stuck in this impossible public education paradox. It isn’t sustainable for teachers or students. Teachers are feeling demoralized and burned out, leaving the profession at an alarming rate. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand and dismiss culpability. Packaged curriculums and standardized testing need to be questioned en masse. If how we were taught to teach is harming children, then we have a responsibility to change. Educators need less work improving their knowledge of inequitable teaching practices and fill-in-the-blank activities that promote conformity and compliance. Instead, we need professional development and time transforming lesson plans into responsive, creative and inclusive learning experiences.
Equity Defined: CRE (Relevant versus Responsive)
There is much academic literature around Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) and pedagogical practices in the classroom. Throughout history, educational theorists such as John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1997), Paolo Freire’s Education for Critical Consciousness (2005), Kenneth Howe’s Equality of Educational Opportunity (1993), and W.E.B. DuBois’ “Talented Tenth”: a passionate belief that African Americans need greater access to higher education (DuBois, 2002, pp. 68–72), educators and critics have tried to understand how a system is unable to adequately service all students. Likewise, the collective works of Gloria Ladson-Billings, Lisa Delpit, Geneva Gay, and Sonia Nieta have enormously influenced theoretical and practical understandings of CRE.
In Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge’s (2020) book Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom, he identifies and discusses six themes of CRE and gives teachers authentic planning questions for teachers to plan and teach with an equity mindset. If “equity is an idea that is demonstrated in our work” (p. 5), it is vital that we understand our craft as educators through a culturally responsive lens. For example, cultural identity is one of the six guiding themes of Culturally Responsive Education (CRE), a pedagogical framework originally discussed by Gloria Ladson-Billings, in her book The Dreamkeepers (2009). CRE is a framework that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning, and according to Stembridge, is the “epistemological offspring of Multicultural Education and Critical Race Theory; a mental model that is useful for identifying themes and tools of practices for closing opportunity gaps without marginalizing some students relative to others” (Stembridge, 2020). Engaging students in rigorous learning experiences contributes to their development of content knowledge, as well as how their culture, race, ethnicity, gender, and academic abilities. As teachers pay attention to and validate students’’ everyday experiences and interests, they are closing systemic equity gaps.
In order to foster teachers with skills in culturally responsive pedagogy (CRE), and the capacity to use this critical pedagogy in order to improve student achievement, I believe that frequent and continuous professional development (e.g.: an instructional rounds model) throughout the school year is necessary. School district instructional coaches need to be adequately trained in CRE and Project-Based Learning (Papageorgiou et al., 2015). Collectively, we, as anti-racist educational leaders need to think specifically about what can we do to help teachers and administrators move past the mental/emotional blocks that prevent anti-racist work to begin at all. Many times, at the mention of race/ethnicity, educators shut down and claim I’m not racist. This passive dismissal effectively stops real anti-racist equity work from even starting (for more information about anti-racism, please read Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-racist).
Equity is “raising the achievement of all students while narrowing the gap between the highest and lowest performing students and eliminating the racial predictability and disproportionality of which student groups occupy the highest and lowest achievement categories.” Anti-racism is “our conscious and deliberate individual and collective action that challenges the impact and perpetuation of institutional White racial power, position and privilege” (Singleton & Linton, 2006, p. 242). There is value in understanding motivation and engagement in traditionally underserved students. Or, more importantly, how are students not being motivated or engaged in their schooling experiences? The urgency with which systemic changes need to be made is always present. There will always be constraints or limitations to any inquiry into the racial opportunity gap. It is vitally important that we, as educators, mentors, and role models ask this one question: Do we have the will to educate all children?
Dr. Asa G. Hilliard (1995) believes:
“the knowledge and skills to educate all children already exist. Because we have lived in a historically oppressive society, educational issues tend to be framed as technical issues, which deny their political origin and meaning. There are no pedagogical barriers to teaching and learning when willing people are prepared and made available to children. If we embrace a will to excellence, we can deeply restructure education in ways that will engage teachers to release the full potential of all our children. (p. 200).
I believe that the inability to provide equal access and opportunity of culturally responsive learning experience begins with an unwillingness to acknowledge how the presence of privilege and power continue to underserve students of color, further widening the gap between access and inequity. Instead of initially focusing on motivating students, I believe that there should be concentrated efforts helping teaching staff and other educational leaders (a) acknowledge their complicity in the oppression of their minority students, thereby resulting in an achievement gap, and (b) using this racial consciousness to create structures that will recruit, encourage, and foster students of color innovative learning experiences.
Isn’t Culturally Relevant also Responsive?
Dr. Stembridge (2020) believes that “responsiveness is the capacity for providing access to powerful understandings along with meaningful supports for learning” (p. 38). This goes deeper than having multicultural books on your classroom bookshelf. Responsive instruction is deeply personal and authentic to students. “Responsiveness facilitates trust — which is essential for our most vulnerable students to be willing to take the risks associated with rigorous learning” (p. 38). If you pride yourself as an educator for the #BlackLivesMatter and Hispanic Heritage Month posters on your walls, you are closer to being culturally relevant than responsive. Even if you integrate these cultural symbols into your lesson plans, they can still be just a surface element to a deeper and more rigorous learning experience. Responsiveness is more about how teachers really see their students. “When we see our kiddos in the light of their assets, we can more responsively leverage their identities and backgrounds in order to give students the opportunities to bring their own cultural references and fluencies into learning spaces” (Yosso, 2005; Stembridge, 2020, p. 39). Being a culturally responsive teacher is a vulnerable act. You do not need to be of the same culture or race of your students to be responsive. You need to start the loving act of teaching with empathy and understanding of the context which brings your students to your classroom.
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