By Rosita Apodaca
IFL Executive Director
Disrupting inequitable practices, examining biases, creating inclusive and sustainable school environments for students, and finding and cultivating the assets and interest that every student brings to school are part of what is needed for all students to develop to their full potential in and out of school. Lauren Resnick, cognitive psychologist and founder of the Institute for Learning (IFL), believes we can teach all students to reach or exceed world-class standards.
Resnick knows that, in practice, it is proving hard to meet the twin goals of equity and higher achievement. This is because schools are trapped in a set of beliefs about the nature of ability and aptitude that makes it hard to evoke rigorous academic effort from students and educators.
Students who have not been taught a demanding, challenging, thinking curriculum do poorly on tests of reasoning or problem solving, confirming many people’s original suspicions that they lack the talent for high-level thinking.
Students cannot learn what they are not taught, and depriving them of high-cognitive-demand curriculum and instruction is not an equitable education.
For decades, Resnick and others have advocated for thinking and problem solving to be the “new basics” of the 21st century. Still, the common idea that we can teach thinking without a solid foundation of knowledge had to be abandoned, as does the idea that we can teach knowledge without engaging students in thinking. Knowledge and thinking must be intimately joined. This implies a curriculum organized around major concepts in each discipline that students are expected to know deeply. In short, in every subject, at every grade level, the curriculum has to include a commitment to a knowledge core, high-thinking demand, and active use of knowledge.
Despite widespread support for disciplinary literacy, not all students have been given opportunities to achieve this high standard. Ramón Antonio Martínez (2019) believes that building on the assets students bring to school can support them in accessing and participating in a high-cognitive-demand curriculum. Changing how we view learners is also critical to improving the educational experience of students of color and those who are labeled upon their entry in school. When we view students as struggling or “at risk,” we make assumptions that they are students in need of remediation. When we begin to see students’ multilingualism as an asset and their use of multiple languages as tools to help them access high-cognitive-demand work, we can turn the dime on its head and make small modifications in learning plans that will enable emergent multilingual students to access complex text and engage in high-cognitive-demand activities.
Practitioners have made arguments that mediating instruction does not need to be labor-intensive; it is about making decisions while teaching a well-designed lesson. Teachers focus on the goal of the lesson and find ways for every student to meet that goal. Knowing and building on the students’ assets should serve as a guide to making the small modifications to support students. Simple supports, such as offering a student the text in a language the student understands or allowing a student to write the argument about something familiar, are ways to make modifications that allow for access. We can begin by abandoning deficit thinking and keeping our minds open to see our students’ situations as opportunities to try ways that will support them where they are and enable movement toward the goal.
Martínez (2018) argues that for emergent multilinguals, we may have to “learn to see students anew—to imagine them as competent readers and writers and to treat them accordingly.” The labels students are given in school, more often than not, are not helpful. Martínez thinks that for us to “recognize the richness of bi/multilingual students’ linguistic repertoires requires that we think beyond the convenient labels that serve to mask their brilliance, their competence, and their tremendous potential.” Martínez’s recommendation may serve us well once we decide that high-cognitive-demand work will be made available to every student.
In a similar vein to Gutiérrrez and Martínez, Dr. David E. Kirkland reminds us “rigor in education cannot be about broken students but about supporting students who are vulnerable to broken systems.” Before we can address the systems that support inequitable practices, we have to acknowledge systemic root causes: “Rigor often codes a set of hierarchal social and cultural values that reinforces a narrow concept of learning and achievement. Too often, rigor is about who is recognized and who is not. By flattening rigor in the image of the seen, a narrow version of us gets baked into educational success—a version that is incomplete, favoring an intersection of cis, heteronormative, White, abled, English-speaking, monied, and Judeo-Christian—or put simply, privileged—identities. I’ve learned the farther away students are from this identity, the less likely they are seen to be ‘rigorous;’ the less likely the classroom works for them.”
While being keenly aware of systemic disparities in equity and rigor, Kirkland aims for a hopeful solution: “…teaching and learning must be about preservation—the incredible acts that help people preserve our languages and cultures, to tell history on our terms, to preserve it too, to preserve ourselves by preserving the congregation of ideas that will make the world better, that will free our bodies and heal our souls. Thus, academic rigor comes close to equity when it connects teaching and learning to acts that are meant to sustain us.”