Intersecting Thoughts

I recently worked through two books on education: How I’d Wish I Taught Maths, by Craig Barton and For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too, by Christopher Emdin.

Barton’s book is part personal narrative, part research compendium about how Barton radically changed how he taught math despite being lauded for his high test scores and use of group work, open-ended problems, class discussions, and productive struggle. Barton draws heavily on Cognitive Load Theory, which says that teaching should be structured to avoid overtaxing people’s limited working memories. He highlights differences between novices and experts, defends explicit instruction as useful when students are first learning a topic, and lays out pretty good strategies for dealing with students who are not novices but are not yet experts. His book mentions lots of other theories from cognitive science, including variation theory, self-explanations, and interleaving.

Emdin’s book is also deeply personal and well-researched, which makes sense considering Emdin is a former science teacher and now professor at Columbia Teachers College. Emdin’s work is an outgrowth of his experiences teaching in Harlem, where he had a rough first few years because of the disconnect between him and his students. Emdin’s central thesis is Reality Pedagogy, which aims to meet students on their turf. His proposed strategies for doing so, especially among urban youth, include borrowing practices of engagement from pentacostal churches and barber shops, forming cogenerative dialogues with students, positioning students as teachers in a co-created classroom, and entering students’ cultural contexts.

I want to be cautious against painting overly broad strokes here, but I’d dare to say that these are two different types of books about education. Sure, they’re both about how we as teachers can teach our students better. But there’s something fundamentally different about them. And before anyone gets the wrong idea, it’s not because I think Emdin’s book is about culture, politics, and race whereas Barton’s book is about more “neutral” topics. I definitely don’t think that. The cognitive science in Barton’s book can just as much be viewed under the lens of critical theory as anything else, raising questions such as “Who benefits from the research of cognitive science? Where is cognitive science silent and how do its results help perpetuate the status quo?” Both Emdin and Barton talk about politics, it’s just that the cognitive science in Barton’s book is way more subtle about it.

I think what makes them different is that they touch on separate (yet overlapping and interconnected) aspects of who our students are. Barton touches on the side of our students that can be informed by cognitive science research. Students are not “calculating machines”, but there are general patterns that can be gleaned about how people think and what amplifies thinking or inhibits it. Emdin on the other hand is concerned about our students’ membership and participation in cultural, social, and political spaces. Of course, these two aspects of our students are not mutually exclusive. Working memory fails if students are stressed about bleak living conditions and the realities of urban youth. Racially relevant pedagogy can increase engagement and capture students’ attentions, which makes it more likely that knowledge in working memory will transfer to long term memory.

It’s also important to note these two aspects of our students are not complete. There are lots of things to say about our students’ relationship with technology, their use of social media, their dealings with bullying and peer pressure, and their participation in a dozen different discourse communities.

In short, students are multidimensional and teachers get better at teaching when they tend to the various aspects of their students’ being.

I keep thinking about the term intersectionality, which was first given its name by law professor Kimberle Crenshaw. It’s a way of thinking about how interlocking systems of power impact people who are marginalized by society. It considers how class, race, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation are interwoven in ways that render certain classes of people invisible, even to movements that traditionally serve marginalized populations. The origins of its naming has an interesting backstory, which Crenshaw talks about here. The summary is that in 1976, a group of black women sued GM for discrimination. They couldn’t work on the factory floor because they were women, and they couldn’t get secretarial jobs because they were black. The court dismissed their claim because the court believed that black women should not be permitted to combine their race and gender claims into one. Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to “highlight the multiple avenues through which racial and gender oppression were experienced so that the problems would be easier to discuss and understand.”

I think there is a kind of “intersectionality” that occurs in education. But it isn’t intersectionality, exactly. It’s more about all the physical, neurological, social, cultural, and political realities and practices through which learning and knowledge is mediated. In one sense, what I’m thinking about generalizes intersectionality by considering aspects of our students that are not necessarily exclusive to marginalized populations, such as cognition and youth culture. In another sense, it narrows intersectionality by focusing on aspects that commonly arise in education. This is not to say that I’m not also thinking about race and gender and sexual orientation, and I’m also not saying we can ignore issues of power and privilege. I’m saying our students are wrapped in layers of interwoven social, cultural, psychological, sociological, economic, and linguistic contexts, and it’s our role as teachers to create conditions where students can learn about/embrace/come to terms with/leverage the many dimensions of themselves.

Practically, this means that as teachers, we ought to be trying to make ourselves as versatile as possible. In my first year of teaching, I labeled myself as “someone who was good at math and read a lot of books on cognitive science.” Sure, I was allowed to have my own style, but I know I limited myself in my ability to connect with my students on multiple levels of their being. The reality is that teachers shouldn’t have a “shtick”, even though I know some of them say they do. I’ve learned that it’s not enough for me to have one or two or even three different ways of forming connections with students.

I used to play lots of D&D (Dungeons and Dragons, hello!) When you start off, you choose a race and class. Regardless of race, I preferred to be a Bard. Bards are part-warrior, part-mage, and part-thief with lots of charisma and musical ability. The common characterization for Bards is that they are “jacks of all trades and masters of none.” I think the best teachers are Bards. But I fear a lot of them want to be mages. That is, they want to be master technicians who are well-versed in pedagogical techniques. I used to think this way and I think it’s how my school views our “best” teachers.

Since then, I’ve learned the value of versatility and the viewpoint that teaching is a situated practice. Lots of it I picked up by listening to people on Twitter. People like Ilana Horn, who say  “teaching problems are locally defined”, have helped me see myself as someone more than a “technician of best practices.” David Coffey talks about trying “to prepare teachers to think like researchers [and] not just follow the research”. llona Vaschchyshyn and Michael Pershan had a nice conversation about how hard it is to resist generalizations and simplifications in education, and that ideas–no matter how well-researched–can’t take the thinking out of teaching.

Having read Barton and Emdin’s books, my goal is to continue to read about, think about, and talk about a wide range of educational perspectives. And of course, to bring them into the classroom, get to know my students better, and create an environment where they can learn about themselves better. Reflect, and then repeat.



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