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Differentiated Learning Should be Key to Anti-Racist Learning (and vice versa)

Differentiated Learning Should be Key to Anti-Racist Learning (and vice versa)

My apologies for going a bit MIA over the last months.  My excuse (shameless plug alert!!!) was that I was co-writing a book (with Steve Volk, co-director of the GLCA/GLAA Consortium on Teaching and Learning) with very short window (The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College:  A Manifesto for Reinvention).  Excited that it will be released on Sept. 1 and can be pre-ordered now on the Belt Publications website!

In any case, the work of that book has gotten me thinking a lot about what it means to have “high expectations” in a pedagogical sense, what rigor really means, and how all of this feels intimately connected to me to what I see to be the necessary work of anti-racist teaching practices bolstered by anti-racist institutions.  I’m thinking about Kendi and DiAngelo, obviously, and how their work plays into the mix, finding much inspiration, explicitly from a pedagogical standpoint, from Kendi and much frustration and disappointment from DiAngelo, for the implications her approach has for building authentic, shared-power spaces for messy, authentic, text-based, open-ended, difficult conversation, where everyone in the room feels his or her voice validated (which has always seemed to me the ideal space of the classroom).

So, I start with a pretty shameful caveat, which is that I have refused to read White Fragility.  From the time it came out, with growing intensity over the last months, its premises have struck me viscerally and intuitively as entirely counterproductive to the work of shaping conversations that aim for creative solutions.  It has felt, from the get go, far too simplistic and reductive, divisive and essentializing, far too formulaic and scripted to produce the kind of high-impact outcomes any work on race should set out to produce.  My immediate reaction was—of course, and this is the kind of thing DiAngelo is banking on—defensiveness.  I am the person who routinely cries in conversations that expose the graphic violence of racism, most particularly when students introduce their own experiences.  I am that person that DiAngelo would shame for expressing emotion in a way that might deflect attention away from the larger conversation of atonement onto me, a privileged white woman in the room.  I do get this, and often try to contain my tears in these situations, because I avidly DO NOT WANT to be the center of attention.  I’ve thought about this response for quite some time and have come to my own way to articulate why it feels so off to me to admonish people for this.  First, my tears always come with a stated wish for a fuller and richer conversation, a plea that the conversation continues to a space of action.  Second, they always reflect sincerity, my sincere sense of pain that we live in a world that has caused so much pain for others and that continues to cause it in horrific ways.  My tears, I very much believe, reflect compassion and empathy, my wish to listen closely to experiences that may not have been my own, but that, in that listening jolt me into a sense of deep shame for what humans are capable of doing to one another.  I would very much like to hope that, for others who exhibit this tear-prone trait, it is similarly a mark of empathy and compassion, a mark of the truly human.  Why is it that we want to erase the truly human from conversations designed to become collectively more human? 

All that said, I’ve been thinking about critiques of the book (yes, I’ve read those, largely to confirm my own biases… another shameful caveat and admission) that suggest how dehumanizing the strategies are, and how they tend to flatten out the possibility for real discussion.  Apparently, any time someone deviates from the script, they are pulled back on course by the trainers and facilitators (for sessions that reach up to $15,000 a pop!  Digression, yes, but also a warning bell in my head).  Participants describe this experience as frustrating, as it’s the moment when things start to get real, when the clear but somewhat arbitrary boundaries the training aims to construct start to fall apart and people just start to talk about their own, individual lived experiences.  Personalization, individualization is considered a disruption to the process.  But isn’t this also the space of the deeply human, the space where we might hear one another’s stories in the efforts of living more richly together?

I’ve started to think about the scriptedness of these programs through the lens of a disappointing lack of high expectations for participants.  As if participants aren’t capable of the kinds of conversations that would organically bring them to co-unpack the concept of white fragility, which must be unpacked.  It’s a distrust of the people in the room to assess and process their world.  For sure, protocols are often necessary for any groupwork/training sessions, as they give the group something solid to hold on to.  But the protocols should be the vehicle for—and not the obstacle to—something richer, deeper, more rigorous, a deeper encounter with the material alongside of others processing the same material in their own heads and through their lived experiences.

And it’s this lack of rigor, this lack of expectation that has started to coincide in my thinking with all that needs to change in the classroom.  Despite the evidence of its outcomes for higher-impact learning, there is still deep resistance (especially in higher ed, and in my experience, especially in the humanities) to the notion that students’ lived experiences can provide an avenue into the richest, text-based, rigorous interactions with course material (see my earlier blogs). In the same way that the trainings/workshops begin with a rather low set of expectations for participants, I fear that, too often, so do the ways we construct our courses and approach the learning process.  We tell students from the first moments what we expect them to get out of our courses, but do we ask them to articulate their own hoped-for outcomes?  Do we ask them to consider how the material is most relevant to them?  And do we ask them to take these personalized encounters with the material into a space where they can reflect and build collaboratively on what others have discovered?  This is the rigor piece, as I see it, and it is how we as educators work to help students hone their intrinsic motivation in terms of their connection to the course material. It is this apprach, I contend, that produces the sharpest, highest quality outcomes. It is the differentiated piece that shows respect for students as individuals. It is where we meet our students where they are and fully believe that where they are brings value to the pursuit of the course material.  Our students feel the artificialness, the scripted-ness of courses designed to pull them to pre-determined outcomes.  They know and existentially reject the “tell me what you want to hear”—even if they play the game we’ve established for them, they walk away discarding the lessons they’re “supposed” to be learning because they’ve been strong-armed into learning them. Worse, they don’t feel they’ve had the chance to put anything into the world that really speaks of them, of their values, of their dreams and passions.   I suspect that many of the participants of “White Fragility” trainings leave with a similar mix of immediate forgetting, resentment and/or confusion as to action steps.

Kendi says a number of extraordinarily important things concerning how to become an anti-racist, the way he centers on power and not people, the way he manages to expose the insidiousness of an uncontestable racist set of institutions, while still moving his audience to a place of solution-building.  One of the things he says that resonates the most with me, both in this regard and, especially with regard to the implications for the classroom, is that we have to meet every person where he or she is.  Period.  The only way we create productive, creative, innovative spaces for learning is to validate every person in the room.  To start with the premise that everyone has something to contribute to the conversation.  This extends so beautifully to a pedagogy of differentiated learning.  As long as the course material is at the center, each student should have autonomy over how he or she is connecting to and processing that material.  This is the height of rigor, that the course material takes on inflections and nuances that each eye sees differently, but that all eyes together, through those different perspectives, can bring into the sharpest, richest, truest focus.  The only way to get to this collective perspective building is to dismantle the power in the room.  This is the true work of educators, as I see it, to acknowledge and then relinquish one’s own power as “professor” and, in that dual act, to create a space for shared, collective power working collaboratively towards a shared vision.

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