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35. How to Teach for Justice When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter

by Lindsay Lyons
June 22nd 2021

Get ready because today I am discussing theory and practical steps for teaching for justice while being able to differentiate between questions of fact and questions of policy.

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in this episode. I'm covering what to do when you are teaching for justice, you're teaching social studies, english, math science, whatever class it is and the facts just don't seem to matter, How do you teach for justice when the facts don't seem to matter. We're going to dive on in bringing in theory and practical steps from a variety of brilliant scholars get ready for a great episode. 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. One of the most frequent questions which I have talked about before on this podcast several times that I get when I am facilitating with a group of teachers, a group of instructional coaches or school or even district leaders is how do I teach for justice when it feels like I am indoctrinating my students or that's the response that I get from parents or I'm fearful of that response from family members or from students and so this idea of how to what I've heard phrased as walk the line between teaching for justice and remaining neutral or whatever other words that we throw in. There is a real concern for many teachers and many leaders. And so as I continue to search for answers and find strategies and approaches to handling this situation that many educators find ourselves in.

And so what I have today is really focused specifically on the idea that facts don't matter or that the facts themselves are being challenged. And how do you teach and facilitate discourse in a class setting or even a larger school setting when we're thinking about colleagues speaking with one another and discussing matters of justice, how do we do that if the facts seem debatable, are up for debate or we're bringing in facts that are actually not factual, How do we handle that? And so I want to bring in a bunch of different scholars to speak to this. The first person I want to bring in is dr Ayo Magwood, her amazing article, which I will link to in the show notes kind of summarizes her approach as she speaks with edge and facilitates professional development on how to have a historical approach also rooted in an economic approach and behavioral science approach to anti racist education. So how do we do this when facts are kind of up for debate?

She says, quote, I do not allow classroom debate over whether structural racism exists as Hess and Mcavoy argue that is inauthentic and problematic to allow students to debate settled empirical questions. And so what she's saying here is she divides kind of these issues that often come up in conversations about racial justice into two categories. And that's what she is referencing there with Heston Mcavoy, right? This idea that some of the questions, some of the things that we're going to discuss, those are empirical questions. So there is a factual solution. We can cite facts, we can answer those questions. We have a clear answer for them, and then there are policy questions. And so those policy questions are questions about what to do with the facts in front of us, Right? So open policy questions are a matter of opinion and ideology. We can debate them settled empirical questions have a clear answer.

There's a lot of credible experts who have brought to light and researched the evidence around these. So we don't debate those questions. We can debate the policy questions How do we respond to the facts in front of us to the situation in front of us that the facts support? I think that in and of itself is a huge shift in thinking when we ask that question, how do I teach this? When facts don't seem to matter? Well, facts have to matter. We're an educational institution, facts have to matter. And that is a clear delineation of we have a clear answer, right, for example, structural racism exists. We can see that here are the numbers. And as dr ragweed says in her article, right? She doesn't just say structural racism exist. End of discussion. She provides all sorts of sources and information for people to dig into the students uncover this. They realize that the evidence is there and there's actual discourse about it.

It's not a debate of the facts, but it's a conversation about maybe source credibility or research methods. Or, you know, what other questions come up. And how do I find those answers? And where do I go to get those answers? So that it becomes this real investment on the part of the students in uncovering what those factual things are. And then we can debate the policy implications. So how do we actually solve this problem? Once we know structural racism is real? How do we solve it? And there are a variety of options to go about doing that. We can discuss those and have those matters of opinion. So that clear delineation, I think is very critical as we're thinking about teaching for justice and as leaders facilitating conversations for justice amongst our colleagues as a way to also model how teachers are going to do this with their students. The other piece to that right, she says, uh the empirical questions, right? The question of does structural racism exists? We want to teach that history provide the economic backing, all of those pieces that are missing from students awareness, We want to teach that, right?

Because those have real factual answers. But for the policy questions, right? The question of what should government do about structural racism For this? She says it's really helpful to take a perspective consciousness approach. This perspectives consciousness approach was coined by Robert Handy in the 1976, in reference to cross cultural communication. He talks about how our differing viewpoints are really products of our position, al itty right? So are different identities, the intersection of those various identities, our experiences, our cultures, those experiences that position al, itty those identities. That's how we are able to understand various issues, and we need to seek out the perspectives of other people instead of what often happens. Universal. Izing our own personal perspective. So, if I didn't see it happen, it didn't happen, kind of thing. We hear that a lot in student discourse, we hear them not an adult discourse as well, right? If this is my personal experience, I haven't personally seen this, it doesn't exist. And given all of the things that dr Raglan talks about and facilitates professional development about right, that history and economic context that were often missing the factual pieces, right, that were often missing.

To answer these empirical questions, tells us that, you know, redlining and segregation, and a lot of these different facts are the reasons that we don't see perspectives that are different from our own We don't see structural racism in our face. If we're living in a predominantly white community, right, that is something that we need to seek out information for. We can't universalize our perspective. And so that's a perspective consciousness approach which I think many social studies teachers, many teachers generally are advocating, but just to be able to delineate right. This is something that is applied to the policy solution question. It's not applied to a factual question or an empirical question because then we run the risk of universal izing our personal perspective if we say this is my truth and therefore it is true for everyone that becomes problematic. So being able to delineate those two things I think is a huge jump in the right direction. Now is also reading dr john morgan's book Deep Learning in a disorienting world, which is a phenomenal read.

And he talks about truth decay. He talks about a lot of things and a lot of reasons why deep learning is really critical and how to achieve deep learning. So, I will definitely be speaking about that on the podcast later, maybe even inviting doctor working on for a conversation, but he talks about how researchers have identified four major causes of truth decay and this is from the research of cabin on rich one. Humans proclivity to cognitive bias, right? We have cognitive bias. We all do to changes in the volume and dissemination of information led by cable news and social media leading to quote self reinforcing feeds of information. So that's the second thing we are constantly, particularly because of algorithms and social media and that cognitive bias we talked about in point number one, all of these things are contributing to us having self reinforcing feeds of information. So we lose out on that perspective consciousness piece that we were just talking about three and this I think is really critical for educators.

Again, we're talking about the causes of truth decay here. Our educational system has reduced the emphasis on civic awareness and critical thinking. Critical thinking is something that we often hear in educator speak, but it is often divorced from the perspective of power and I would add related li that it is divorced from civic action or activism. So civic awareness, civic engagement, civic action, activism. Whatever word you want to use. This is a critical piece. When we look at the Foundation of education and what we often say that we're doing in education, we're preparing students to exist in a democracy. This is a huge component, but we often shy away from it. That fact is one of the reasons that we have truth decay. Just take a moment to let that sink in. And finally, number four polarization of the electorate into isolated communities, each with its own narrative and worldview again, back to dr magnets point right about knowing our history, knowing the economic background of structural racism.

We know this isolation is rooted in white supremacy. That factual piece of information helps us to understand why this polarization is happening, why perspectives consciousness is difficult to attain. Now. Dr Wigand goes on to talk about embodied cognition to paint the picture of what is a powerful learning experience. And he talks about Kolb's experiential learning theory. But what I think is really powerful is this sense of embodied cognition which comes from a carny, Sharon Miriam and her colleagues found when we take on issues of social justice and they looked at college settings here. But I think this applies to high school as well when we as teachers and as educators take on issues of social justice, but we only do it in kind of this academic, abstract disembodied way. It's not connected to students personal experience, not connected to civic activism and engagement. Like we talked about before, What that leads to is, yes, students can analyze critically, become very adept at this, but they're not able to actually apply those skills so we can analyze, but we can't actually take actions even when the researchers simulated real life.

It wasn't even real life, it was simulations of real life, students didn't really know what to do, how to act. And so this piece of civic engagement and civic awareness and activism is really critical. We can't just talk about it and academic sense and this reminds me of a chapter that Dr Sherry bridges, Patrick and I recently authored, which takes a figure from juan Carlos cycles is facing difficult conversations figure from his book adaptive capacity and it talks about the four different quadrants of discourse and we want to get to generative mobilizing discourse that is liberating transformative. It's discourse that engages our emotion offers challenge and promotes racial justice. And so that's where we all want to be, that's where we want our students to be, that's where we want to be as individuals, That's where we want to be with our colleagues and facilitating this kind of mobilizing discourse, culture and our organizations. But what often happens is we fall into one of the other three which either keeps us in an equilibrium that reinforces patterns of the past or kind of kicks us into this disequilibrium that is not generative, it's not mobilizing, it doesn't lead to action or change.

One of those quadrants is intellectualizing discourse. And so when we have discourses that intellectualize, they keep things very academic, they are ignoring the root causes. They are looking at theory and scholarship and reading books, but there's no link to emotion, there's no link to application that keeps us in this equilibrium state. We need to kick start a little bit of dis equilibrium so that we can have generative change and generative conversations that lead to change. And so emotion is a big part of that. One of the things that Dr Worthen writes about in his book is that motivation we often talk about student motivation in school, right motivation is the link between emotion and action and I found that really helpful as a frame. So we have to have that emotional connection.

We talk often about engaging students by having real life projects or authentic assessments or at a very minimal level word problems that you know, incorporate students names or interest. And so what we're doing there, what we're trying to do is to motivate students to latch onto that emotional peace and support action, the motivation to complete the worksheet or to complete the project or to apply the skills or whatever it is, but that emotion is really critical motivation comes from that emotion. And one of the things dr morgan talks about is there is an optimal tension or there should be an optimal tension in a really powerful learning experience. When we're talking about deep learning, we have an optimal tension between challenge in dr bridges, Patrick's generative mobilizing discourse, it has challenged as a key feature of this type of discourse. The optimal attention kind of points here, one is challenge, the other is confidence.

So, when we think about the God sees zone of proximal development as educators, that perfect amount of challenge that enables students to not get super frustrated to not make the task impossible, given their specific level of skill, in the given moment we want to be supportive, we want to create the conditions for the students to be successful. And again, we also want to do this as leaders with our colleagues as we're facilitating conversations about justice at a collegiate level at an organizational level. So we want to have the challenge. We want this to be something that is difficult and challenging and pushes us. But we also need enough competence. We're in the zone of proximal development and we're not falling flat on our face so that we never get back up and try it again. This optimal blend of kind of supporting competence and also pushing a challenge is really critical for students, adults, everyone really to be motivated to engage. That's another piece of this question that always comes up. It's not just how do I, you know, remain neutral and teach for justice.

Another underlying part of that question that often remains a nonverbal ized is how do I not turn off the people who are not willing to engage just like all of us, we are caught in that cycle of information that reinforces our existing beliefs right? Because of the social media algorithms, because of the cognitive bias that we all have as human beings. How do we engage all of our students and all of our family members honestly in this conversation without completely shutting them down. First. Just to recap these points, Doctor Magwood tells us to really think about that idea of empirical questions versus policy questions, teach the facts. We don't debate those and then we open up conversation for the policy solutions using perspective consciousness and the idea of position Al Itty from Dr Wiggins book that idea of embodied cognition, the importance of application, not just academic intellectualizing, recognized that truth decay is happening.

A huge piece of this is because there's a missing civic awareness, civic engagement activism component. The optimal tension needs to exist between challenge and competence and what we're striving for is what Dr Patrick calls a generative mobilizing discourse. Organic, liberating, transformative discourse engages our emotion, it challenges us and it promotes racial justice and we have to build capacity and we can build capacity for those pieces. In an earlier episode of this podcast, a intro dr Sherry Bridges Patrick about the four capacity building practices that folks can't apply and practice both by themselves and with others. And so this is something to encourage students to do, to encourage ourselves to practice both in professional and personal capacities and as leaders of an organization to encourage colleagues to practice as well. I also think it would be great for families to be able to practice these capacity building practices. Schools could invite family members in as kind of a school facilitated conversation.

Family members could facilitate those conversations themselves, we could have students take home some assignments that involve having generative mobilizing discourse or practicing given capacities at home many of these, their interpersonal and so these practices could be something that students practice with families at home. Thus bringing family members into the practice as well. I know that there are many questions that remain unanswered. This podcast episode is not going to address all of those questions, nor is it going to make the idea of teaching for justice to the practice of leading for justice easy, It is not easy, it is challenging, it is complex. There are many points which we are probably feeling uncertain or unsure of how to proceed. There's a lot of questions that go unanswered, but hopefully this gives us a frame to be willing to engage and get started in this work challenge one another, think big these things are possible and doable now I'd argue must be done. Act brave when we recognize that these things can be done and must be done.

It takes bravery and courage and you all have that to teach and lead with bravery and courage and make sure that you're taking care of yourself so that you bring your best self to the class to the workspace your families, that's what it's going to take to engage in that generative mobilizing discourse with one another. 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.

35. How to Teach for Justice When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter
35. How to Teach for Justice When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter
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