Grabbing the Mic at #EWA14

My esteemed university hosted the Education Writers Association conference this year.

(You can check the hashtag #ewa14 on twitter — it turns out journalists are mad live tweeters!)


The guy talking is José Vilson. He was keeping it real.

Unfortunately, since I wasn’t asked to actually speak, all I could do is tweet and then blog about it later. So this is my socially acceptable version of grabbing the mic.

Here are some points about education and research that I would like to share with the members of EWA.

Learning is a complex phenomenon, and the best teaching will need to address learning at every grain size.

Is learning about changes in our neural networks? Is learning about reorganizing our schematic understandings of the world? Is learning about becoming a certain kind of person in the world?

The answer to all of these questions is: YES.

These descriptions of learning are rooted in different disciplinary perspectives –– neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and social psychology, respectively. This is the state of the field of learning sciences: we do not yet have unified narratives of learning (although people are trying) because  each framework powerfully leverages certain kinds of issues.

Discussions about schooling usually tacitly focus on the cognitive psychology framework. However, any discussion of learning can be enriched by at least considering what other versions of learning might offer in the way of explanation. Imagine if discussions of the so-called achievement gap didn’t simply focus on students’ deficits but talked about the neurological consequences of PTSD or the identity conflicts students might experience buying into school as an institution.

Unequal schooling may be a fact of our American life, but it could be mitigated with greater political will.

According a 2011 report from the Organization for Economic Development, student socioeconomic status accounts for 17 percent of the variation in student performance in U.S. reading, mathematics, and science instruction. In higher-performing countries, such as Canada and Japan, socioeconomic status accounts for only 9 percent of the variation in student performance. That is almost twice the variance due to SES.

With our culture of individualism, we are in love with the idea of the hero-teacher saving students. This narrative has been critiqued by sociologists as reinforcing white, middle-class fantasies of urban communities.

However, racism and inequality are structural problems. One individual cannot change –– or even mitigate –– structure. Research repeatedly shows the the potential for teams of educators to work in ways that minimize such stratification by supporting all students’ academic advancement (Burris, Heubert & Levin, 2006; Gutiérrez, 1996; Lee, Smith & Croninger, 1997).

Not all parents are middle class parents.

During the panel I attended on the Common Core, a number of speakers talked about parents’ role in children’s schooling. Yet I kept thinking (and tweeting) that not all parents are middle class parents. Sociologists studying inequality have found that different parenting styles have consequences for children’s “fit” in institutions. Sociologist Annette Lareau named a prevalent middle class parenting style concerted cultivation, referring to an orientation toward children’s individual needs, arranging out-of-school time with formally organized activities, and running interference with children’s institutional relationships.

This seemed to be the taken-for-granted parent in the panel’s discussion. Having taught in highly diverse, working class schools in Northern California, I can attest to the fact that concerted cultivation does not describe the parenting style I encountered as a teacher. But that did not mean that parents did not care. They themselves had different resources, different social positions, and different access to schooling, whether they were constrained by language, multiple jobs, or simply deference to institutional authority.

Objectivity is not always achieved by seeking both sides of an issue, since the empirical grounds for each side may not be equally weighted. Objectivity almost always involves interrogating your own social position.

Talking to folks at EWA, there is a lot of professional pride in the journalistic commitment to objectivity. People praised stories that showed both sides of an issue. But if “both sides” are ignoring critical, structural aspects of schooling and education, then an important component of the story has been missed. I think that this has been missed on “both sides” of the Common Core “debate”, as I explained here.

Thanks for listening. Feel free to comment if you have questions.