On Equity of Thought

Let’s talk for a moment about educational equity. Presuming you already have a strong sense of the difference between equity and equality, I’d love to dive straight into some of the trends on which I feel qualified to comment, which (of course) is but a small number of the trends we must discuss as socially-responsible educators.

Before introducing these trends, let me give you a brief overview into my personal background. In 12th grade, I once got sent to the principal’s office for reading a book on the biological family delphinidae in Spanish class. Before leaving on a month-long trip to Panama at 23, I became proficient (enough) in Spanish through self-study. I guess I’ve always needed purpose embedded in my learning… As a sophomore in University, I received a C on what I considered to be the best argumentative paper I had ever written, with the reason being that I presented a controversial argument not yet common in Conservation Biology (the topic later became an argument that researcher Dov Sax derived independently and on which he wrote several papers). I guess I’ve always been one to push back on conventional wisdom…

Other than that, I was what has conventionally been considered to be a ‘good student.’ I now teach mathematics at a high school firmly planted in middle-class America, having become a teacher after receiving a degree in Biogeochemistry and finding that teaching was perhaps a better way to promote ecological sustainability than working in the lab.

Much to the chagrin of my high-school self, I have become a true lover of mathematics – an academic who loves to ‘geek out’ on the outlandish uses for quadratics, the intricate patterns of cubics and rationals, and – in general – the theoretical and abstract. When I arrived at my current school after a year of studying, writing about, and implementing Montessori practices at the Secondary level, I found the embodiment of a Montessori high school science teacher in the room next door. We got along swimmingly, and complimented each other perfectly. He was the catapult to my projectile motion lessons, the aquaponics system to my rate-conversion problems, and the Rube Goldberg machine to my ‘World of Functions’ lessons.

Whereas he would pop over to my classroom to ask for help on a theoretical and abstract problem he was to teach later that day, I would do the same in his room to ask about how I could make an idea for the classroom come to life in physical reality. He was brilliant in terms of inhabiting the real, physical world in front of us, and creating what he needed in it. I was the same (I fancy, at least) in the much-less-useful abstract.

And this is the part of the story in which equity arrives. He – though very strong in mathematical and abstract thinking – is not quite as theoretical as I; on the other hand I am generally, to put this softly, pathetic in the realm of bringing real products to life, whereas he is a master in the craft. Combine this with the fact that I am an introvert capable of sensing people’s inner emotions to a high level while he is an extrovert capable of bringing excitement into people’s lives, and I find that neither one of us, alone, is an educational savant; together, I believe we come a lot closer to that lofty goal.

Why is it, then, that with no greater ability to ‘be successful’ in the real-world than he has (actually, less ability I would argue), I was able to dance through ‘prestigious’ schools, making myself feel ‘smart,’ whereas my counterpart, though not intellectually disadvantaged by any means, had to work hard to show his knowledge of the abstract? Let me go on to say that because of his personality, this worked out quite well for him, causing him to create his own path towards impacting the world. But what if he had been even slightly less adept at school, and been forced into working at the family bakery? Knowing him, he would have found a way to make it the pursuit of a lifetime, but I and many students believe the world would have one less truly impactful teacher had that been the case.

On another level, it feels like the case of the engineer and the field technician. The engineer comes up with a design for the machinery, on his computer, from his office, that works well enough in theory. The technician, in the field, knows that the design is elegant in theory, but is flawed in practical application because of the one bolt that is too small for the long term stress it receives (when grease, wear, and tear begin to be factors). Yet, because we give the engineer top-dog status, the technician has to live with the fact that he will be fixing the stupid bolt forever, because he knows his suggestion to re-design the machine for practical application will be ignored. Engineer’s word goes. Don’t you think we may be creating this social dynamic through the perceptions our society gets early in life – in school?

Because of my life situation and privileged background, I am not qualified to comment on issues of equity in terms of race, gender, or privilege – in those realms I hope to listen and understand. Instead, here I hope to be able to shed light on issues of equity in thought and skill.

The advancement from the view of educational equality – focused on fairness – to educational equity – focused on providing access to success given that learners are starting from different places with different skills – was a huge leap forward. However, my subjective opinion is that the focus on access is not complete without looking at how we are defining success. It seems to me that there is a common narrative of success in our educational system, and that it does not resonate with the biological and physical processes underlying our world.

In the field of biology, a foundational principle is that high levels of biological diversity lead to a more stable and resilient ecosystem. Without getting too far into the dynamics and concerns of human impacts on ecosystem functioning, I feel it safe to say that stability and resilience of a resource that human beings depend on is a good thing, and that many parallels exist in the field of education. “Nonconformity is the highest evolutionary attainment of social animals” wrote ecologist Aldo Leopold in his timeless work, A Sand County Almanac.

I once had a dream (after reading Sir Ken Robinson before bed) in which I played a part in getting the United States to abandon standards for schools – instead, each school decided upon their curriculum depending upon the dynamics of their locality and the needs of their students. The country began to experience a flourishing of economic productivity because schools were asking the questions ‘what do we, as a group, want to create for the world, and what do we need to learn in order to get there?’ Innovations in disparate areas were cropping up, fueled by students’ desire to learn with visible purpose and the diversity of backgrounds resulting from the non-standardized education.

The currently predominant narrative of education (again, my subjective opinion) is that life is a rat race with checkpoints to pass through, specific obstacles to navigate, and a finish line. I am not saying there is not a foundation for this narrative – just that it is an interpretation that has quietly and implicitly embedded itself in the fabric of our educational structures. The checkpoints to pass through (as you may remember from your own days in school) are largely academic, philosophical, dealing with pen and paper and abstract thought rather than physical skill. Again, there is a foundation for this development of thought in young folks; however, my counterpart’s ability to create is a skill that I find as (if not far more) valuable in the world than my knowledge of quadratic equations. In his book Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax uses the German definitions of the words wissenschaft and kenntnis to help describe this paradigm – wissenschaft being knowledge learned in an academic, scholarly nature as opposed to kenntnis being knowledge gained through experience.

Just imagine if, instead, the checkpoints in our narrative were the opposite of standardizing human knowledge: that diversity of thought and skill is our most valuable resource! This, of course, would have to do away with the idea of standardization, of the factory model of education, and move toward an organic model where the purpose, at the end of the day, was for students to realize their unique, innate potential. Of course, I must now admit the ending to my dream: the nation began a troubling period of unrest, fueled by intolerance for different perspectives. “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences,” poet and activist Audre Lorde noted. Perhaps celebrating the different modes of thinking and doing would put us on the path towards changing that.

The narrative of the rat race becomes most damaging, in my opinion, when students are faced with the obstacle of college, which has become a seemingly essential part of any student’s school experience, oftentimes for reasons they know not. It seems to me unequitable to say to a student who has always struggled in academic classes but is brilliant at creating or fixing items around the school ‘well, if you were to become an apprentice plumber you could make as much as 50k right out of high school, and when you become a master plumber even more. But, that’s not success – you must go to college and take on 50k of debt in an environment that doesn’t guarantee your eventual degree in order to achieve success.” Obviously my anecdote is extreme and mocking, but I hope it provides perspective on the tinted shades through which society views success.

The other component of unequitable practices caused by standardization and the predominant narrative of success is summarized by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education recommendations for educators of students with diabilities:

The pressures teachers feel to “get the job done” in the current accountability climate […] are also factors that affect achievement. One unintended consequence of the pressure to show increased student performance on academic achievement measures has been an increase in the exclusion of students who do not do well on these measures.

Had our predominant narrative been the value of each student discovering his/her own unique potential and offering it to the world, I feel it unlikely that so many students would leave school feeling ‘excluded’ from society, or belonging to a ‘lower class,’ or simply feeling indifference, apathy, or active hatred towards the educational system.

Let me give you one more anecdote before I get to the point. Last April, I was taking a timed practice SAT exam alongside my students (I think taking an exam at the same time as students can be very powerful in giving them insights into your thinking process), I got totally engaged in the design of tricky questions on the SAT, solving them in different ways and looking for the common qualities of those excellently tricky questions. Before I knew it, time was up. As a math teacher I had been unsuccessful in finishing the math SAT section! Would you blame me for having a different purpose than the SAT intended?

So what I am advocating in terms of educational equity is that we, as teachers, are aware of our biases; we need to take a critical look at the structures that are in place and who they benefit, even if those structures served us as kids. Are they intended to open doors and create opportunities for all kids, no matter of aptitudes (or language or gender)? Are there supports there for kids to develop their identity? Their confidence? What effects on ‘future success’ or life satisfaction do grades have versus relationships with a mentor or person who cares about the learner? Can we allow students to develop their unique, innate potentials, and do we celebrate cognitive diversity as a resource?

To do this, in practice, is both really challenging, and really simple. The short answer in terms of the simple side of it is that we need to be self-reflective as educators every single day. I have a set of questions on my desk that I answer at the end of every day, as follows:

Did I do my best to value cognitive diversity today?

Did I do my best to engage in dialogue rather than discussion today?

Did I do my best to build positive relationships today?

Did I do my best to expand my perspective and make meaning today?

You can simply answer these at the end of each day, or you can also begin to graph responses to the three questions on a daily basis by simply rating yourself on a 1-10 scale and entering it into a spreadsheet. This can be a fun way to analyze your long-term commitment to this lofty aspirations, and to understand when and why your equity process breaks down.

The answer to the ‘challenging’ component is that this is why we teach. In order for an educative experience to be transformational for a learner, it must also be transformational for their guide. Students feel our energies, and know when we ourselves are deeply engaged and when we are just asking for engagement from learners. So the challenge is that in order to become better educators, we must become better, more fully engaged people. This, of course, is a lifelong task.


“The other component of unequitable practices caused by standardization…” Blanton, L. P., Pugach M. C., Florian, L. (2011). Preparing General Education Teachers to Improve Outcomes for Students With Disabilities. Available from http://www.ncld.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/aacte_ncld_recommendation.pdf

“In the field of biology, a foundational principle…” Cardinale, B. J., Duffy, J. E., Gonzalez, A., Hooper, D. U., Perrings, C., Venail, P., & … Naeem, S. (2012). Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature, 486(7401), 59.

“ ‘Nonconformity is the highest evolutionary attainment…” Leopold, A. (1987). A Sand County almanac, and sketches here and there (Special commemorative ed.). New York: Oxford University Press

“ ‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability…” Lorde, Audre. (1986). Our dead behind us : poems. New York :Norton.

“In his book Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax uses the German definitions…” Sax, L. (2016). Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men / Leonard Sax (Revised and updated edition.). New York, N.Y.: Basic.

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