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37. Curriculum Series #1—The Research on Teaching for Justice

by Lindsay Lyons
July 6th 2021

This is Episode #1 of my Curriculum Development Mini-Series. I am discussing the research and rationale behind why we create units, what the research says, and how we create a step-by-step process.... More

in this episode, we are diving into teaching for Justice. This is going to be episode one of our curriculum development series for teachers who want to develop justice centered, project based mastery graded curriculum for leaders listening, how you can support teachers and give them the steps to take, to be able to create and design curriculum that is engaging for students and exciting for teachers to teach. Here we go, Hi, I'm lindsey Lyons and I love helping school communities envision bold possibilities, take brave action to make those dreams a reality and sustain an inclusive, anti racist culture where all students thrive. I'm a former teacher leader turned instructional coach, educational consultant and leadership scholar. If you're a leader in the education world, whether you're a pro principal Superintendent instructional coach or a classroom teacher excited about school wide change.

Like I was, you are a leader and if you enjoy nerd ng out about the latest educational books and podcasts, if you're committed to a lifelong journey of learning and growth and being the best version of yourself, you're going to love the time for teacher ship podcast, let's dive in, this is episode one of the curriculum series teaching for justice and in this episode, I want to look at the research so we want to give a really strong foundation as to the ration. Now, why would we create units and the way I'm going to share that. I've created units and that I encourage others to create units. What does the research say about it, why are we doing it? And then in the series later on, we'll get into the how of how we create and what is the step by step process for creation. So let me frame this by saying what my big dream is for curricula. So I ask guests all the time, what is their big dream for education with the lens of Dr Bettina Love dreams grounded in the critique of injustice.

My big dream is that students are able to identify and critique injustice. They're able to learn and also apply in their lives strategies for resistance to injustice and activism. I want to create curriculum that enables students to develop and create their own unique, authentic projects. When I say authentic, I mean for an authentic audience, someone beyond the teacher will see it. It has a purpose beyond the grade and the purpose often advances justice. They also want to have students be able to have real voice in the unit. So I want to co construct the unit where the project with them. I would like for students to be able to choose the topics or at least the sub topics maybe within a broader topic area that they can pursue and when it comes to developing what the projects are, I want students to have a real voice in what that final product looks like, what they're actually doing to advance justice or apply what they're learning. I also want to design curriculum that is rooted in mastery based grading and so sometimes we talk about equity and equity frameworks and approaches from the lens of just pedagogical strategies.

Sometimes we talk about it just in what we're teaching or the content of our curriculum, but I also want to talk about the grading bias that often occurs and so we'll get into that a little bit today. Again, my hope is that we are creating curriculum that is based in a mastery approach includes mastery based grading that is also aligned to standards, right? We need to teach those and it values skills that are central to justice and with regards to that, I'm thinking about the learning for justice, formerly teaching tolerance, social justice skills that they have a rubric for, they have scenarios to practice. And that's what I'm thinking about when I'm thinking about the skills or standards that were teaching for and finally that students are engaged and they're actively practicing student voice, student leadership, advancing justice activism. They are leaders not later after they graduate, but while they're in the class as well and they have a real excitement that they bring to the class. The class culture is one of, you know, a productive hum that buzz, that excitement of, I want to be here.

I'm doing work that matters. And I also want to see teachers write myself as a teacher. I want to see other teachers that I work with, be really excited to be a part of that experience as well. And so I want the joy not just for students, but for teachers and for family members who get to hear their students talk about the really cool projects they are doing in class with, that want to take us into the research. So let's start with this idea of student voice or student centered learning. This is also known as personalized learning. There's a lot of different things out there, a lot of different language that means similar things. And so I'll just kind of define what I'm talking about here before I get into the research and that I'm talking about students co creating the learning. That frequent phrase, be here with the teacher is the guide on the side, not the stage on the stage, I'm talking about instruction that's personalized for students needs and interests that students have choice and voice and not just what they learn, but also where they learn when they learn how they learn and students get to progress, not because they're rushed because we've gotten to this certain time point, but after they demonstrate mastery.

And so there's kind of a personalized path forward. Now, the research, when it talks about the benefits of students owning the learning in this way, the voice that can come out in a curriculum designed to be co constructed, at least in part with students, is that students have demonstrated improved agency, a sense of belonging in the class in school, increased feelings of competence. So they feel like they can do it. They are skilled and ultimately all of this agency belong incompetence all these things lead to academic performance increasing as well, which ultimately is what a lot of schools look at when we talk about data. So all of these things build up to improved academic performance. So we do want to include more student voice and co construct, not just the curriculum and the lessons and the content, but also the projects themselves. What's really cool about this is the research has also found student voice increases the quality of relationships between teachers and students and also students to students. Students also increase their critical awareness of the world and their context and improve their civic engagement and activism.

Another really neat piece of the research here is that when we find sharing power with students can be scary for some teachers, right? For most of us, because we're taught in teacher school that we need to control the class, sharing power actually generates more power. So there's this growth of community capacity or what researchers call cascading vitality. So these hierarchies when they're flattened when our leaders in school settings or teachers in class settings share power with others. They actually, in the researchers, words become power generators from which their constituents draw energy. So we're actually increasing the capacity, increasing the total amount of power in the class, we're not giving something up. Another really cool piece of the research is this idea of post traumatic growth and so given all of the things that our students experience in their lives, we know that trauma is a large piece of this and we talk about trauma informed teaching and social emotional learning a lot more this year than in previous years.

And there is this concept of post traumatic growth of that agency being reclaimed and bouncing back from a traumatic experience in a way that is generative and healthy and healing. So this idea of developing coping skills when students face a challenge, which is often very common in project based learning and when we give students a little bit more ownership and voice in the process instead of telling them what to do, there's a lot of challenge there. And so there's a great possibility in this, of developing some coping skills and also for that post traumatic growth when we center students in terms of literal voice, When students get an opportunity to share in the teaching of one another. In having, you know, students enter dialogue, we find that there's an increase in acceptance and awareness, there's an increase in respect of other students and even people beyond the class. It also affirmed students as co creators of knowledge and it can be a really transformative experience to teach with biologic pedagogy irish or talks about this as being really democratic empowering and shifting the power dynamics when we center dialogue and have students have a lot more talk time than teachers, youth adult dialogue has also been found to strengthen community relations more broadly.

So we're talking about the whole school system and perhaps even outside of the school as well. Bell hooks talks about the opportunity for students in our dialogue as healing. We get to teach whole human beings and we get to facilitate students being their whole selves in the classroom. So healing often happens in relationships. This idea of integrating care and social emotional learning and trauma informed teaching in the class is a great opportunity for healing as well. Researchers have also found that an open classroom climate, one of dialogue, one of student voice actually predicts future activism, particularly for students of color in the United States. This is a really powerful idea here because I was argue students are already leaders and activists in the class while they're in the school years. But also this is really important if we're creating this ideal society where people are advancing justice and they're capable of doing so if their experience in a classroom is predictive of that later in life.

Now, let's take a look at project based learning. So we know why student voice and student leadership and co constructing curriculum students is good, right? We looked at that research, but why project based learning. So just a quick definition of PBL and then we'll get into the research of that project based learning when we look at the kind of hallmark elements, the gold standard elements from PPL works, there's a challenging problem or question, the inquiry is sustained over time. So it's not just a project that happens at the end of the unit, that's one day long, it's a sustained increase of students can kind of dive into different paths of interest. There's authenticity. So again, the authentic audience, that authentic project that matters beyond the grade, their student voice and choices. We just spoke about, there's opportunities for reflection. So if students receive feedback, it's not just here's a grade and here's why, but here's an opportunity for you to revise and resubmit critique and revision is another piece of this and then finally related to authenticity a public product. So why project based learning? Why is this a good approach authentic Project based assessment has been found to close the quote unquote achievement gap.

Many different school settings with many different demographics. Students in PBL classrooms have improved attitudes towards learning so they want to be there. They want to learn, they're more engaged, they're more self reliance and they actually have better attendance than teachers who do not teach with PBL PBL also increases content retention and deepen student understanding. And so if we look at the testing data and the test scores. Ultimately, many of us have to teach to tests. Students in PBL classrooms actually do better on standardized tests than students not in PBL classrooms because there is that increase content retention and that deep understanding that transcends a quick memorization of facts. Also speaking to my dream earlier PBL teachers are actually happier and more joyful in terms of their their work life than non PBL teachers. Now another piece of designing just a centered curriculum is that equity is really at the core and I mentioned this earlier, it looks like, you know, not just how we teach but also what we teach.

We talked a little bit about some of the pedagogy. We want to take a PPL approach, we want to make sure that we're student centered. We want to center students literal voices as well as their ideas and their co construction of the units. So we want to have dialogue as well and that's a lot of how we teach. That's a lot of the pedagogy. But let's also talk about what we teach the content and for this. I love the frame. Dr Goldie Mohammed gives us her historically responsive literacy framework where she really talks about these four pursuits of identity skills, intellect and criticality and I would argue that identity and criticality are the ones that we often skip over. We often are talking about student skills, we're often talking about intellect or the application of student knowledge, but too rarely are we talking about identity. And the guiding question that she poses for this is asking yourself, how will my instruction, So how will my unit, how will my lesson, how will my years worth of curriculum helps students to learn something about themselves and or about others. So that's your guiding question for identity.

And when we think about identity, I want us to think about intersectionality and the fact that we all hold a multiplicity of identities. Sylvia worth has a wonderful image of all these different identities called the Wheel of power and privilege. If you google it, there's this multi colored wheel that shows kind of proximity to power, just structural power in our society and all of our different identities. And so you can kind of look at it through a self reflective lens. You could also look at it through the lens of who's in my class and who's not in my class and who we should be talking about the other piece Criticality. The guiding question that dr Mohammed poses here is how will my instruction engage students thinking about power and equity and the destruction of oppression. And so that's really important that we center power, equity and disrupting oppression in our classes. Finally, I want to talk a little bit about dismantling grading bias. So when we think about how our grading practices impact our student achievement and the data that we look at the outcomes of students being in our class, the grade that goes in the grade book, we often find a lot of grading bias, when we look at how grades are given and the grading policies that are in place in schools and districts.

We've found in the research that outcomes based grading or mastery based grading or competency based grading however you want to phrase it, that is actually more equitable than a more traditional approach to grading. So here's what the research has found. Mastery based grading results in a 34% gain in student achievements. It increases student learning, there's a less stressful class climate, including better student and teacher relationships in mastery based grading classes and also, again, quote unquote, achieve makeups decrease. Mastery collaborative is a wonderful organization that works out of new york city public schools and they have some great information on their website and blog. I'll just read a couple facts from one of their tables on one of their blog posts online. This is comparing again, traditional grading with more equitable mastery based grading, just to give you a sense of how mastery based grading really differs from that traditional grading.

So in traditional grading grades are final and really what they're doing is they're penalizing students whose previous school may not have been able to prepare them when we look at this through a lens of racial justice. These are disproportionately are black and brown and indigenous students. So again, there's layers of equity here or layers of inequity in traditional grading approaches. We switch over to a more equitable solution. We have multiple opportunities for students to revise, resubmit and demonstrate mastery in various ways, our outcomes or the skills or standards that we're assessing for each unit actually persist unit to unit. So throughout the course and even across grade levels within a department, students are practicing the same skills again and again and we really get to see progress over time. Sometimes in traditional grading, we give grades that don't really reflect learning things like compliance, participation, attendance, which are more susceptible to cultural bias.

In mastery based grading, formative assessments don't even go into the grade book. So if someone doesn't complete a homework assignment or they don't complete a class assignment that doesn't actually get entered into the grade book because we want to see what students can do at the very end after they've gotten all the practice and gotten all the feedback because when they're still in practice mode, they don't deserve to be penalized for not getting it perfectly right. So it doesn't deserve to be a grade that counts in the final grade calculation. Traditional grading can promote low expectations and students might actually be able to pass the class without learning much that is problematic. In master based grading, growth is tracked and emphasized. So growth is a really big piece, not perfection, but growth over time and the grading language is more one of approaching standards or kind of not yet versus your failing the class, there's no grading of kind of habits of work, homework, any of that stuff that might be more susceptible to teacher bias. Traditional grading also places students on a hierarchy.

So students internalize the labels that may contribute to feelings of inferiority or superiority in a mastery based learning approach, feedback is skill based, it's actionable, it's not a judgment of the student, but it's really that idea of mastery and growth developing over time, approaching the standards. We're all on our own individual journeys. We look at traditional grading in terms of standardized testing, they emphasize content over skills and they don't honor all the variety of intelligences that are students possess. That does happen in a mastery based classroom where we're really focused on those high level skills like reasoning and analysis and interrogating the source bias instead of teaching memorization of content to prepare for a standardized test. We have covered so much. We've talked about equity pedagogy, student voice, project based learning and mastery based grading. We've talked about the research and all of that. And if you want a one pager that kind of synthesizes all of that stuff.

You got it. I'm gonna give you that freebie in the show notes for this podcast episode. It's my Equity one pager that kind of synthesizes all of that down in to one page. This is great for also sharing it with teachers with your leaders, making sure that you have backing to be able to offer a rationale for why you might be changing away from some traditional practices or trying something new with your curriculum this year. Also in line with the curriculum mini series, we're going to continue on this path. Stay tuned for the next episode and if you're interested in a deeper dive, I have my online self paced curriculum boot camp available for purchase for individual teachers or for leaders who want to buy it for a department or a grade team, check it out, I will link to that in the show notes and for teachers who are feeling a little cash strapped. I have gotten so many requests for just the protocols module of that curriculum boot camp course. I have been hesitant to do that because I do think it's really important to get that larger picture of full curriculum transformation.

But if you are interested in just checking out one module of the course for a lower price, I'm going to go ahead and link to that in the show notes as well with details and how you can get it and all the templates that are a part of it. Make sure that you tune in next week for our episode on rubric development, for quality, project based learning and mastery based grading curriculum. Thanks for listening. Amazing educators, If you loved this episode you can share it on social media and tag me at lindsey Beth alliance or labor review of the show. So leaders like you will be more likely to find it to continue the conversation, you can head over to our time for teacher ship facebook group and join our community of educational visionaries. Until next time, leaders continue to think big, act brave and be your best self.

37. Curriculum Series #1—The Research on Teaching for Justice
37. Curriculum Series #1—The Research on Teaching for Justice
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