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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Equity, Opportunity, and Real Learning

I was recently asked in an application  what my interest in K-12 STEM education was.  Here’s my response, along with an additional paragraph with some questions I am considering right now:

I remember the fascination I had in high school when I took physics and chemistry. I remember watching and being absorbed in the first trip to the moon, and I also remember vividly the Challenger explosion. I remember my older brother getting me interested in science fiction and loving to think about the ideas I was reading. I remember the expression on my Kindergarteners’ faces when playing the back-to-back Duplo game and they realized how important precise language was. I remember how much fun 9 college hours of Integrating Physical Science for Elementary Teachers (IPSET) was at UVA. I remember being a V-QUEST teacher, charged with helping other teachers find excitement at exploring and hypothesizing and looking for patterns and relationships in both math and science. I remember teaching simple machines through my antique eggbeater collection to Kindergarteners and seeing their interest–and their skills at observing and classifying–grow as they figured out how the eggbeaters had changed over the years.

I also remember sitting on my deck on September 12, 2001 and looking at the night sky and wondering how our world would change if air flight had to always be restricted. I know how much I, as an adult, suddenly understood the world’s time zones better from seeing my Aussie tweeps saying goodnight as I was rising to get ready for work. I know how crucial life experiences are to understanding–deeply understanding–events and concepts such as oil spills and seasons. I know how much kids like exploring sounds, gears and how things work.

So why don’t all kids have those experiences? Why don’t all students have teachers who are passionate about learning and exploring and discovering ? Why don’t all kids have an opportunity to explore digital fabrication, or to visit UVA when Hod Lipson is explaining what is being done in that field in the real world? I rode on a bus full of 10 year olds back to school last spring thinking that these children had a better sense of possibilities with digital fabrication than any of their parents. I thought about the fact they had had this experience–but it was only HALF of our fifth grade. There wasn’t room for everyone, so some kids got left out. How many of those kids could have envisioned the next big use for digital fabrication–or looked at the three-D fabricator and built another, yet just as powerful, machine for envisioning potential help in the future?

Not only do I believe in the power of STEM thinking and activities to support other areas of learning, and to promote deep thinking and figuring, but I also am a firm believer in providing equitable opportunities and lessening–no, eliminating– opportunity gaps. To help students be able to reach their potential, we need to provide them opportunities to question, to learn, to explore and to think about the world, both in all its glory and in all its messiness. And we need to make sure ALL kids have these opportunities!

So, how do we do that?  How do schools set themselves up to make sure all kids get exposure to not only similar activities, but also life experiences they haven’t had? How do we make sure every child has the same opportunity to learn the “guaranteed and viable curriculum” so that his or her education does not depend upon which path of adults s/he has had going through school?  How do we reduce the variance between teacher and classrooms to ensure equity of potential outcomes while encouraging use of strengths and passions and allowing, and even encouraging, differentiation and variation in teaching styles? How do we assess and teach and learn so that students don’t leave our classes with major holes, but having had authentic learning experiences? How do we provide choice, how do we eliminate the opportunity gaps, how do we ensure all kids have equal opportunities for real learning?

(See “What Does Reducing Variance Mean in Education?” from @beckyfisher73 for more food for thought.)

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


7 thoughts on “Equity, Opportunity, and Real Learning

  1. It’s hard to argue with your premise. I was thinking something along a similar lines, which was how terribly unfair it is that some schools have concrete playgrounds, and some schools have professional quality football fields.

    How is this fair? It is the responsibility of society to ensure that learning opportunities exist for all students. We won’t solve the problem of education in the US without solving the underlining problem of social inequity.

    The funding formula for US schools needs to change.

    Posted by dwees | December 18, 2010, 10:32 am
    • I often use this picture from Ben Grey’s Flickr stream in presentations:

      I describe the small boat as my life growing up–basically the east coast of the USA, growing up in VA, taking yearly vacations at Myrtle Beach, SC and visiting relatives in VA and NC.

      I describe the bigger boat as the experiences of today’s kids who are connected–skypeing with grandparents in a faraway state or even another country, or traveling to another country on school breaks, etc. The size shows how completely different our outlooks are, based on our life experiences.

      Doing this with my fifth graders last year, one African American girl said, “Oh, I get it–and the mountains are our dreams, aren’t they?”

      ALL kids need to be able to see that and envision it, and make it real to themselves.

      Posted by Paula White | December 18, 2010, 10:57 am
  2. This is really the crux of our problems in public education.

    Eliminating the achievement gap between students who score well on tests and those who don’t is not the same challenge as eliminating the opportunity gap between kids resourced to learn about the world and those doing all they can just to survive it.

    I suspect that correlation between learning about how things work and income would be at least a significant, if not more so, than the correlation between getting a diploma and income. If only we’d measure the former in pursuit of the latter.


    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 18, 2010, 10:33 am
    • So, Chad, what would you think would be the effect of elementary (probably upper) providing kids with tons of virtual field trips, opportunities to interact globally and interactive production? Would that help in leveling the playing field, and if so, how do we go about setting that up? I’m thinking ALL classes should have opportunities to blog/do wikiwork and participate in working with other classes somewhere.

      IF all kids came to you in middle school with those experiences, how would you expand that?

      (not meaning to challenge you, but trying to move us all to specific ACTIONS we can take right now to change the status quo! 😉

      Posted by Paula White | December 18, 2010, 11:11 am
      • Fair question, Paula – please do challenge me.

        In a humanities classroom?

        I’d pull down astrophysics, anthropology, archaeology, authoring tools, biology, civics, chemistry, games (including AR), geology, GIS, invention, marketing, modeling, programing, service, social media, and visual arts (it would look like middle-school version of some of the work done now in the digital humanities) to have students create and annotate responses to reading that go past print ones. I’d base informational text reading and writing around the disassembly and re-purposing of commercial products into homebrew inventions. I’d turn persuasive writing into civic action campaigns and marketing for tinkered products. I’d work to make architecture and design of all sorts our primary mode of expression and encourage students to pursue parallel tracks in self-expression sharing and intertwining both their STEM work and narratives of inquiry, discovery, and problem-solving. I’d ask students to build multi-modal simulacra of the novels we read to interrogate and remix. I’d favor self-direction, self-discovery, and self-expression through art and technology over the monoculture of printed word. To put it expression-ly: (CATEC + democracy + differentiated technology + experiential learning + inquiry + service)(generalist classroom – walls).

        I try to design lessons, assessments, and “work” around the fringes of these ideas (I’m enjoying the mission model), but what stops me from going further isn’t what elementary schools do or don’t do. What stops me would make a good conversation over coffee during break. At the very least, I’d need a co-teacher/hybrid PLN to help with time, to push me on executing the vision, and to cover my details blindside. That and the removal of sanctions for abandoning the status quo in favor of learning of lasting worth. I’ll bottle up the rest of my energy and fear regarding the issue for now.

        All the best,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | December 18, 2010, 4:48 pm
  3. Two thoughts/queries…

    -We accept a great deal of inequality, seemingly as a matter of course, in American education–unlike many much higher performing countries much in the news at the moment. We have become inured to it. We protest weakly against it; in fact do little about it. Why? This, to me, is a big question, at the heart of our national character and what we believe the purposes of education are. (To sort the wheat from the chaff? To prepare some kids for dead-end jobs at Burger King and others to be kings?) At any rate, we accept this, and assumptions about inequality are built into the way we DO the work.

    -If MOST teachers in the United States had half the wit and drive of Paula and Chad, we’d be in really different conversations. I wish you guys would own up to your extraordinariness. One of the things we are really lousy at doing in this sector is recognizing great talent, great imagination, and great force in particular practitioners. I say you have a lot to teach colleagues. Do it. Will you?

    Posted by Kirsten | December 20, 2010, 4:43 pm
    • We should talk about the how sometime soon in the New Year. I have some stories and ideas to share that aren’t developed enough to merit public comment, but that are at the right stage of development for feedback from critical friends. I’d also love to hear your suggestions, Kirsten, Paula, and colleagues.

      I wish there were more nuanced career opportunities and opportunities for leaders to acknowledge the many types of extraordinary work many schools do apart from making gains in pass rates. That would make it more comfortable to stick-out. But comfort’s not really the point.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 21, 2010, 6:32 am

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