What is an Equitable Learning Environment?

By: Deana Senn

 

The philosophy behind equity pedagogy – how to take your thinking a step further

I was recently reading the Chicago Public Schools Equity Framework and came upon the following sentence:

“Liberatory thinking pushes us to think about what we want for students as a result of equity – beyond only working to stop the negative consequences of inequity” (Chicago Public Schools, 2020, p. 28).

I will admit that in the past, I have tended to think about equity in terms of stopping the negative consequences of inequity. I haven’t often taken it the step further to pause and think about what we want for students as a result of equity.

It isn’t enough to say we want all students to be treated fairly. It’s about truly defining what we want students to be able to experience and achieve in an equitable learning environment.

It isn’t enough to say we want all students to be treated fairly. It’s about truly defining what we want students to be able to experience and achieve in an equitable learning environment.

To me, one of the results of equity is when all students’ voices are heard, and their perspectives are valued. This is well beyond saying we want to stop the negative consequences of inequity; it’s understanding that all students bring strengths and talents to the class environment and then supporting all students so that they are able to contribute their strengths and talents.

Focusing on the results of equity is a lot more work than saying we want to stop inequity – and it is also more concrete.

For our students who have been historically seen as disadvantaged, it’s important to recognize that they bring their own strengths to our classrooms. Equity is not about the deficit thinking of disadvantage. It’s about understanding that all students bring strengths, fostering those strengths, and helping students understand the strength they do bring into our classrooms.

For example, simply because a student may be reading below grade level does not mean that they are not a leader in our classroom. Or just because a student didn’t grasp the lesson’s math concepts doesn’t mean that they are not an incredible problem solver.

How do we get all voices heard and perspectives valued? It comes down to ensuring that classroom structures and supports are in place so that equity pedagogy is at the forefront.

A formula for equity pedagogy and creating an equitable learning environment.

 

Examples of classroom structures that promote equitable learning environments

What is the definition of educational equity?

According to The Aspen Education & Society Program and the Council of Chief State School Officers (2017):

“Educational equity means that every student has access to the educational resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education across race, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, sexual orientation, family background, and/or family income” (p. 3).

Ensuring that “every student has access to the educational resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education” is a tall order and can lead to very exhausted teachers – unless we think about how to give every student access to the resources and rigor they need without the teacher being the only provider of that access.

Creating an equitable learning environment starts with helping students understand that their skills and perspectives are not only valued but necessary in the classroom.

To do this, we need to think about how classroom structures and systems are set up. Is the learning environment set up for students to access and self-select which structures and supports they need? Or is the teacher mostly dictating which supports students will be offered?

If we are truly dedicated to creating an equitable learning environment, then we understand that not all students need all the same structures and supports. Therefore, classroom systems should have an element of universal access and self-selection of the structures and supports students use.

If we are truly dedicated to creating an equitable learning environment, then we understand that not all students need all the same structures and supports. Therefore, classroom systems should have an element of universal access and self-selection of the structures and supports students use.

Empowering students to have a voice in how they learn comes with the need for both autonomy and rigor.

As the teacher releases autonomy, students begin to take on more responsibility and learn to work together with peers, building on one another’s strengths and growing their capacity to take on more rigorous learning tasks.

For example, a student may have high self-confidence but struggles with respecting others.

>>  In this situation, giving students universal access to clear team roles can help this student respect the strengths their peers bring to the team, while continuing to exercise self-confidence. An example of a role that may work well for this student is the team facilitator, who takes responsibility for supporting all team members to participate equally (Toth & Sousa, 2019, p. 46).

Another example is a student who is strong in their communication skills but needs support with their impulse control.

>>  In this situation, teachers can support both autonomy and rigor with a simple tool like Agree/Disagree Cards, which allow each student in a team to express their opinions simultaneously and then take turns speaking. Students are more likely to participate appropriately in academic conversations with their peers without frustration and conflict.

Once students have started working together, the teacher might think about which social-emotional learning (SEL) skills would further support students to contribute and develop their strengths and talents.

For example, are there students who struggle with identifying their emotions or need support expressing empathy?

>>  In this situation, a conflict resolution protocol will support those students to engage socially. The protocol is a written resource that includes guidance such as how to clarify a disagreement, explore options for a resolution, and come to an agreement on how to best resolve the conflict.

After student teams learn the conflict resolution protocol, they are encouraged and expected to access this protocol in times of conflict rather than expecting the teacher to mediate all classroom interpersonal issues.

Once the teacher has several different supports that students know how to use, it’s important to help students understand that they have the ability and the responsibility to self-select when to use each resource.

Once the teacher has several different supports that students know how to use, it’s important to help students understand that they have the ability and the responsibility to self-select when to use each resource.

To help students prepare for this responsibility, the teacher might create some scenarios for the student teams to talk about and decide how best to respond to the scenario and which support might help them.

As we head toward the finish line of this unique school year and prepare for next year, it is essential that we think about what we want for students as a result of equity and to make a concrete plan for how to ensure we achieve those results.

At Learning Sciences International, we are focused on supporting leaders and teachers to increase engagement, ensure equity, and close achievement gaps through student conversations and rigorous learning.

If you would like support implementing the ideas you have read in this blog, I recommend the following products:

Resources

 

References

The Aspen Education & Society Program and the Council of Chief State School Officers (2017). Leading for Equity: Opportunities for State Education Chiefs. Washington, D.C. https://ccsso.org/sites/default/files/2018-01/Leading%20for%20Equity_011618.pdf

Chicago Public Schools (August, 2020). Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Equity Framework: Creating and Sustaining Equity at the Individual, School and District Level, Chicago, IL. https://www.cps.edu/globalassets/cps-pages/about/departments/office-of-equity/equity-framework.pdf

Toth & Sousa (2019). The power of student teams: Achieving social, emotional, and cognitive learning in every classroom through academic teaming. Learning Sciences International.

 

Thank you

I would like to send a special thank you to my colleague Camile Earle-Dennis for creating space for me to learn and grow in every conversation we have and who sparked much of the thinking in this blog post. I am especially thankful that you push my thinking and gently offer different perspectives so that I end every conversation with you wiser and more empathetic.

– Deana Senn

About LSI

Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.

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