Education after the Black Lives Moment

This blog is from Walter D. Greason, Associate Professor and Chair Educational Leadership Dean Emeritus, The Honors School Monmouth, University (USA)

“Everybody wants to be interdisciplinary, but nobody wants to *be* interdisciplinary.”

The best questions we ask cross the boundaries of formal inquiry.  The wonder of knowledge should inspire us every day, but the weight of data terrifies every writer into a corner of self-assurance. In an information economy, our most valuable currency is accuracy. The most venal sin is to be wrong.

There was always the fear of being seen in error. The sense of embarrassment and the possible of ridicule silenced millions of voices in the schoolhouse and throughout life. The multiplying platforms of public exposure — cable television, the internet, and social media — have amplified this cowardice. No one wants to become the latest meme, unless they’re famous and have a branded line of products that might benefit.

In education, these commercial calculations are pernicious. For students, the lessons of classroom errors settle over decades, discouraging their imagination. For their teachers and educational leaders, the consequences can be much worse. Structures of authority reproduce conformity. Standardized testing limits the possibility of intellectual exploration. Rigid benchmarks of professional development created a generation of instructors who often follow curriculum guides to keep their jobs. Even the best innovators rely too much on predictable scaffolding to model the next steps toward the evidence-based standards of pedagogical research.

Interdisciplinary education undermines these habits. In seeking the limits of knowledge, and applying critical scrutiny to inherited assumptions, students and teachers engage in generative processes that fuel democracy. However, the cost of doing this work in a traditional structure is high. There are penalties for asking the wrong question, about the wrong topic, at the wrong time. So few professionals have interdisciplinary training that the champions of the orthodoxy struggle to understand their importance to the highest principles of education.

Much like the well-worn phrase among Black Americans about the popularity of African-American culture, juxtaposed against the lethal violence and discrimination faced by Black people, many people love to use the idea of being ‘interdisciplinary’. Rare educational systems actually reward the work.

“Freedom Schools for Democracy”

The highest standards of teaching and learning across disciplines evolved in conjunction with processes of social struggle. W.E.B. DuBois wrote about the ‘right to learn’ as one of the fundamental principles of human freedom. In places where oppression prevents people from learning, the determination to seek knowledge is deep and unyielding. One of the most dangerous social settings is the appearance of total availability of knowledge. This illusion deceives many into the assumptions that education is unnecessary, as individuals simply ask questions and find answers.

Any librarian or archivist will describe these assumptions as unfounded. People need guidance in both inquiry and discovery. Every teacher will tell you that some of their greatest moments in the classroom come when students ask unexpected questions that lead to new insights. A central question is, how do we maintain our excitement about teaching and learning together?

Three approaches work best over my career. First, share a common goal for the learning experience. As the class discusses obstacles and assumptions in the topic, their common understanding shapes a sense of community in pursuit of the course’s goals. Second, foster a sense of exploration. When we dismantle the perceived penalties for wrong answers (or silly questions), then everyone relaxes in the joy of mutual discovery.  Third, small, sincere, spontaneous rewards reinforce the pursuit of excellence. When one student has a breakthrough, it is a victory for the entire community. When our celebrations erupt without planning in response for these moments, the classrooms become sites of positive epiphanies.

In the emergence of regional school systems throughout the southern United States in the late nineteenth century, as well as the emergence of activist training centers like the Highlander Folk School in the twentieth century, these principles formed the bedrock of a curriculum dedicated to human freedom. The world faces a moment when we need similar institutions in every nation around the world.

“Virtual Technologies and Distance Learning”

The most powerful teaching practice over the last decade has been the effective use of technology in the classroom. International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards point the way toward quality assurance and assessment, but they also reinforce punitive frameworks related to evaluation and accreditation. Humanities, Arts, Science, Technology, Alliance, and Collaboratory (HASTAC) offers innovative, open-ended models that open new doors in higher education, but they need to connect with organizations like National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education to empower a broader group of educational professionals. The combination of these approaches, in the context of freedom school legacies, opens new doors for both experiential and digital education.

Simple interactive games have created stable ways for students to meet curriculum goals in P-8 classrooms. Math and science games, especially, have ways to energize content that often discourages students in traditional settings. As the world’s schools adapted to the pandemic this Spring, many instructors moved into interactive video settings like Flipgrid, Zoom, and Google Chats. The process of adaptation often made for an exciting new platform, initially, but the second phase of teaching and learning required more preparation in shaping productive virtual experiences.

Most of the memorable virtual lessons in my experience revolve around experiential simulations that convey practical strategies based on the course content. Thirty years ago, I could rely on experiences like BaFa, BaFa, or Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes to help students ask more critical questions related to sociology, psychology, and history. A decade ago, I built experiences like “Escape with Nat Turner” or “Explorations in Elie Wiesel’s Night” that uncovered nuance, tragedy, and resilience in the worst moments of human history. Instead of simulations that reinforce patterns of abuse, these games teach students how to question authority and build systems of freedom. More recently, theoretical exercises like “Semiosis” and “Sojourners’ Trail” have taken video game templates and applied them to interactive, virtual platforms.

Beyond powerful archival experiences like “The Colored Conventions Project” or “Visualizing Emancipation”, there are an infinite variety of ways to redesign learning using digital technologies. As schools respond to a pandemic, the ability to engage families with these innovative techniques raises new questions about how we maintain excellence in our educational practices. These interventions were designed to inspire excitement about school attendance, but they can also animate enthusiasm for daily engagement with online academic content.

“Educational Leadership for the Twenty-First Century”

Superintendents, principals, and other educational leaders must be at the forefront of these processes. Adaptation moves most quickly when engaged leaders offer clear incentives for teacher leaders at every level. One of the keys to effective engagement is the application of the ‘flipped classroom’ principles to structures of school administration.

In these cases, the educational leader becomes a facilitator to showcase the insight and effectiveness of teachers and students for parents and elected officials. A charismatic principal or superintendent has often established a legendary reputation, based on the excellence of their teams. Arguably the most impactful reward for excellence in teaching and learning is public acclaim, as well as the material rewards that flow for such recognition.

On a regional or national scale, these patterns of recognition often drive various forms of professional advancement. Exceptional teachers can become principals; outstanding principals can become superintendents. These strategic ladders of success are central, but some of the rungs are less visible or missing entirely.

As the Dean of an Honors School, the patterns of excellence were readily visible. Highly motivated students worked with exceptional instructors. Together, they produced experiences of teaching and learning that inspired whole communities. Rarely, these students continued into careers in education.  Then, as they excelled as educators, they became teacher leaders, and, ultimately, administrators. Very few of these outstanding educators then moved into conversations with scholars in higher education. The two gaps (from student to teacher, from administrator to scholar) can be closed right away, especially through the use of digital tools.

In 2011, Ken Bain led a workshop titled “What the Best Teachers Do.” Based on his experience and research, he brought lessons of effective pedagogy from P-12 systems into higher education. During one workshop in Newark, NJ, a group of educational leaders discussed the best ways to bring graduate research to the P-12 classrooms.  Supervised research experiences helped seasoned educational administrators to expand their understanding of education as a profession with strategies based on extensive data. Further, these same interventions helped student-teachers, in their undergraduate studies, to understand that they could become both administrators and scholars.

This sustained engagement with interdisciplinary research throughout the educational process builds on the successes of Freedom Schools and intensive virtual learning techniques. Together, they are the building blocks for excellence in comprehensive education in the twenty-first century.

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