The Promise of EQUITY


Exclusion and Inclusion

Education for all has a short history. Just a couple hundred years ago — a blink of an eye in the human story — education was strictly limited to the privileged. Even today, equality is still taking root in education. If you visit different schools and different districts, you know that it’s a work in progress. We still have huge gaps in learning opportunity. After all, Title IX only became law in 1972.

That movement from exclusion to inclusion is critical for a democratic society. Yet the movement for inclusion also coincided with the industrial revolution, which stressed efficiency and uniformity over variety. Equality, a wonderful idea and a powerful social force, came piggybacked with the factory mindset. The result was a system built on producing a reasonably-well-educated work force accustomed to instruction and obedience. That’s not the same as lifelong learners dedicated to questions and discovery. In fact, those are opposites.

Algorithmic or Heuristic Learning?

The assumptions that underlie our schools — from pre-school to executive training centers — are rooted in assembly-line thinking about how we learn as well as why we teach: algorithms that help organize, and also restrict, learning activity.

I’ve worked on two assembly lines. I remember the mindless, robotic work I repeated between the whistles that signaled two 15-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch. Any thinking on my part interfered with the algorithmic nature of my day: repeat, repeat, repeat. So, I didn’t. Think, that is.

To prepare for that sort of approach to work (and life), education that focuses on memorization, replication, and obedience may provide appropriate tools. The price we pay is that the nearly limitless horizons of human thinking are ground down to docility. I’m not trying for hyperbole here. I’ve been there and remember how, even after I left work, instead of reading or any other higher-level operation, I vegetated. My brain marked time. It wasn’t tired, it was switched off.

Heuristic (“to find out”) work focuses on possibilities, design, agility. It is the opposite of the factory. We develop those skills through learning that generates skepticism and innovation, and which sees error as progress. In this place, everyone is a leader. Learning comes from each one and for each one. Differences in thinking, learning style, preference (e.g., introversion or extraversion) become resources. The greater the diversity — including answers — the greater the possibilities.

Equality and Equity Pull Schools in Opposite Directions

Equity powers two parallel currents of learning and development. The first encourages opportunities based on differences — different learning styles, learning cadence, values, goals and preferences. Equality focuses on all of us, equity on each of us. In an ideal school, all of us have opportunities to learn and grow (equality) and each of us has an opportunity to find that path based on our individual temperament (equity).

The second stream of equity embraces investment. We all are familiar with how much equity we may have in our home — the debt to equity ratio is a key determiner of net worth. Let me extend the financial metaphor just a bit. In order to build equity, we must build investment. How much are students actually invested in their learning? Not just in their grades, in their careers, or in their parents’ expectations, but in their own individual learning? It’s time to look at how our framework for education actually impedes continuous learning.

Harnessing Intrinsic Motivation: Drive

Who is in charge of a school? Whom do we hold accountable for students’ learning? Who decides hiring, funding, curriculum, events? We build equity when the answer to these questions is “The students and . . . .”

“Drive,” a book by by Daniel Pink, grew from powerful research and numerous case studies. In the book, he illuminates our earliest drive, survival. At some point, we began settling into communities (primarily due to agriculture, population, trade and politics). For these villages, towns, and cities to operate, we incorporated an external system of drive known colloquially as “carrot and stick.” Here’s the kicker: carrot and stick never has worked particularly well. It may spark achievement, but it also sparks cheating, zero-sum competition and anxiety.

The most powerful drive comes from within. Always. External rewards and punishments fail whenever they obstruct our three basic human drives:

  1. To direct our own lives;
  2. To learn and create new things; and
  3. To do better by ourselves and our world.

How can we tap into these sources of boundless energy?

Building Equity

I suggest we underestimate the capacity of our students. Far more of them are bored than over-challenged. In a climate of control and restriction, there’s scant room for true development. We can begin to examine every habit within the system very clearly. We can adjust or discard any practice or structure in our school that impedes individual discovery.

Here are three initial changes that will build equitable learning opportunities for students.

  • No more grade levels. Only in schools do we segregate by age.
  • Teach toward exploration and answers rather than the answer.
  • Students develop their own objectives and goals. Other students, teachers, parents provide feedback but not control.

Especially in the age of digital communication, it’s too easy for our students to become isolated from meaningful connection, from deep learning. If they can be invited to contribute as unique individuals and feel connected — invested — in not just what they learn, but how and why they learn, we can serve them better.

We who lead learning have a critical role, a chance to redefine teaching. Technology provides data, but let us not mistake measurement for understanding*. We can lead toward insight more than information. We can establish and preserve a context for discovery, exploration, and individual mastery rather than oversee an assembly line of uniformity.

Let’s align every classroom along lines of equity.

If you would like to exercise your auditory learning facility, click on this link to a podcast with some additional insights:

(*Attributed to Pliny the Elder as he was about to be engulfed by the explosion of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.)


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