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Four cornerstones for designing equitable learning experiences for students

Four cornerstones for designing equitable learning experiences for students

An equity toolkit

The cost of not addressing equity in education is high. It can start with learners not feeling heard, reflected or important and then disengaging. When learners are just sitting there doing their time, a sense of disenfranchisement grows while learning outcomes diminish. This deeply affects individual learners along with teachers, classmates, the school environment and the greater community. On the flipside, engaged learners look forward to coming to school and are less likely to need remediation. The community thrives as a result. That’s why designing equitable learning experiences is critical. 

The link between community and equity extends to efforts by school systems to build equity. Therefore, a collaborative team approach works best. Such a team should extend beyond the obvious policy makers, district leaders, educators, families and learners. It should also include curriculum materials and technology providers along with community members.

As a former classroom teacher and administrator (now Senior Director of Learning Innovation at Hāpara) I have outlined four principles. These principles form the cornerstones for designing equitable learning experiences and environments for students and are inspired by “4 Equity Levers in Project Based Learning” written by Sarah Field at PBLWorks and Zaretta Hammond’s book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.” With the right tools, teachers can promote equity in their instruction and create a classroom environment where equity can flourish. 

Likewise, schools and leaders can use these four cornerstones as lenses to think differently about how they design curriculum and education systems. Companies that design products for learners can also use these four equity cornerstones. It can help them promote a much more equitable set of outcomes, regardless of the background or cognitive needs of learners.

Four cornerstones of equity

1. Knowledge of learners

First, when designing equitable learning experiences, teachers need to understand students well enough to be able to set up lessons and resources. They need to do this in a way that honors and reflects each learner’s strengths, identities and interests. Knowing students to that depth starts with familiarizing ourselves as educators about where students live and go to school. Learning about our students is key to building and deepening relationships. This involves asking questions and providing space for them to give feedback.

Products can support educators by fostering the conditions and the communication to understand learners at this deeper level. This could look like starting a large project or unit with a formative assessment. This could be a Google Form with open-ended questions about what learners already know and what they want to know about a topic. Teachers then can incorporate student responses then into a standards-based approach to education. 

A second way to use knowledge of learners centers around the context of their lives. Educators can connect to either community resources or invite people from the community into the classroom to make lessons more relevant to students. A traditional history curriculum, for example, gives an overview and generalization of a set of events. Yet it often doesn’t capture the important roles that different communities and identities played within those parts of history.

Community members that lived a particular part of history can share their experiences with learners. This can present a more complete picture, while connecting learners back to the community. Seeing themselves in those community members is critical for learners who may not regularly see themselves in the curriculum or media, whether that’s based on gender identity, skin color, socio-economic background or ability.

2. High cognitive demand

Important to the teaching and learning process are rigorous challenges that fit the developmental level of a student. When designing equitable learning experiences, teachers need to ask enough of students. Without knowledge of learners, this can’t be done. Teachers must know them well enough to be able to appropriately set cognitive demand to each individual’s level. 

Here technology that allows teachers the ability to assess the progress of large numbers of learners on an ongoing basis can be an invaluable support. The degree to which an edtech tool can support equity depends on what kind of communication it facilitates. It also depends on which areas of the learning process it allows teachers to see. 

A teacher able to see student progress instead of just completed assignments has more precise information on what a particular learner needs. Supporting that need through individualized resources and differentiation then becomes possible.

Holding the reality of having high expectations can be hard instead of automatically giving certain students the easier worksheets, for example. It requires an educator to be a warm demander with the ability to be caring and friendly. They also need to create a safe environment, while pushing students appropriately to their level. 

Needing to wrap up and move on to a new topic or unit is another reason teachers fall into the habit of accepting work that falls short of what they know learners are capable of. A platform that enables students to work at their own pace can solve this problem. That’s because learners can take the time necessary to repeat challenging areas until they understand, without holding back the rest of the class.

Finally, teachers should ask what scaffolds they can provide to help learners. It may be pre-teaching vocabulary needed for the next day’s reading assignment. It could also mean breaking down complex assignments or projects into smaller bite-sized tasks. Doing so supports learners in being successful in completing a larger, more demanding outcome. Using a student dashboard with small tasks outlined is a way technology can be used to support this action item.

3. Literacy

Literacy commonly refers to reading and writing, yet it includes the ability to listen and speak across a range of different contexts and disciplines. When designing equitable learning experiences, administrators, educators and companies can focus on giving teachers and learners access to authentic and culturally-relevant materials. These materials should allow learners to see themselves. Democratic access to information is an established equity pivot point.

Other steps that promote literacy include:

  • demonstrating connections between what’s being learned and where it is applied in the real world
  • providing a large variety of ways for students to demonstrate their competencies like creating a video or a podcast
  • being cognizant of the language we’re using as teachers, specifically around power dynamics. 

Speaking to the final task, explore the relationship between power and context. Help learners understand how to best communicate in challenging situations. Take, for example, a student reacting to a teacher using authoritarian-type words such as “you will” or a very directive tone. Teachers can support learners by helping them reflect on why that is a trigger. They can then provide communication tools for students. This can help learners express if they felt anger toward an educator or fellow peer or if they were triggered enough to shut down. 

4. Shared power

Finally, when designing equitable learning experiences, a balance of power in the classroom is essential. It helps students gain a sense of responsibility and ownership of their learning. This increases engagement and is linked to improved student outcomes. While students are engaged, they’re personally happy with school, have a sense of purpose and are less separated from one another.

The leadership and guidance of the teacher is important in cultivating a voice of interdependence in the classroom. Teachers need to model appropriate communication for feedback. They can do this with a number of different strategies including educational protocols through the School Reform Initiative. By fostering improved communication, teachers can get feedback about where they can better improve in facilitating learning. 

Students are not given license to evaluate teachers professionally. Teachers help learners build their internal understanding of what is and what is not appropriate feedback, timing and language. Several different educational protocols are available to help teachers in structuring classroom communication and group work to build interdependence. 

Within shared power is the practice of lifting up the work, voice and accomplishments of learners. Teachers modeling this for peers is important so they can give peer feedback in a way that helps shift the classroom culture—from one of intolerance, criticism and competition, for example, to one of mutual support, acknowledgment and celebration.  

A guiding principle behind shared power is equipping and enabling students to take charge of their own learning rather than just being passive recipients. For products, when they’re built to facilitate the sharing of power and voice, they can support educational equity.

Action steps

Understandably the amount of work involved in adopting these principles in teaching or product and curriculum design can be daunting. Like the scaffolds we build for our students, educators can use the following steps to scaffold into incorporating these four cornerstones. To design equitable learning experiences for students:

  1. Find one thing that feels doable among the four cornerstones.
  2. Start to build that one thing into your practice during the next quarter or semester, or whatever time period feels right.
  3. Continue to grow.
  4. Adopt a learner’s stance by recognizing that you can evolve your practice to better meet the needs of all students.

Explore ways to ensure all learners and staff members feel seen and heard by creating a climate of trust and empathy.

Exploring Educational Equity with Rich Dixon and Andre Daughty computer

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