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Inclusive School and District Culture

Debriefing Beliefs

Each pair of perspectives in Box A is treated as a pole on a continuum. To understand why the perspective on the left-hand side of each continuum is less likely than the perspective on the right-hand side of the continuum to promote high levels of learning, we need to unpack each statement on both the left and right-hand side. It’s also important to think about these perspectives not so much as views held by individuals but more as premises on which entire schools and school districts operate. Our debriefing then asks, “What happens when a school or district operates as if this belief statement (i.e., the one in the left-hand column or the one in the right-hand column) were true?”

First, let’s look at beliefs about expectations. The belief statement on the left assumes that students have fixed rates of learning and that these rates of learning provide evidence of learning capacity. In other words, a student who now seems slow to learn will always be slow to learn and will not end up learning as much as a student whose learning now seems quicker. This belief corresponds to what Carol Dweck (2006) refers to as a “fixed mindset.” Based on this assumption, good teaching involves matching the pace of instruction to the fixed learning rate of each child. The belief statement on the right assumes that students’ rates of learning can change and also that “rate of learning” is not a good measure of capacity to learn. Moreover, it assumes that rate of learning is not all that matters. Depth of learning and transfer of learning, for example, might be just as important as rate of learning. These assumptions fit with Dweck’s characterization of a “growth mindset.” Good teaching, according to these assumptions, involves the presumption of competence: expecting students to learn competently and giving them learning experiences that allow them to demonstrate they can learn competently. It also involves seeing learning as something much more than speed and accuracy of recall. Evidence indicates that much higher levels of learning actually occur in schools and districts that hold beliefs that are more like those on the right-hand side than like those on the left.

Second, let’s think about caring. In the left-hand statement, caring involves consistent and impartial application of rules and procedures. The benefits of this perspective seem self-evident when we think about how many students teachers work with and the chaos that inconsistent treatment would seem to produce. But caring involves more than the application of rules in response to explicit behaviors. Caring requires that we strive to understand the reasons behind students’ behaviors and help them learn to act in ways that both meet their needs and promote civility and care for others. Rules in this context are statements of expectation, and our aim as educators is to help students meet behavioral as well as academic expectations. We undermine the process, though, when we set arbitrary rules or force compliance through harsh punishments. Students need to understand the reasons for behavioral expectations and view our behavioral interventions as strategies for helping them meet these reasonable expectations.

Next, we consider differences in perspectives about curriculum uniformity. The left-hand statement implies that the curriculum is sacrosanct, taking precedence over individual interests and capabilities. By contrast, the right-hand statement treats curriculum as one guide to instructional content and students’ interests as another. It imagines a middle ground between what adults believe are important things to learn and what children and youth believe are important things to learn. Whatever educators believe, evidence shows that students learn only what they think is important enough to learn. Fortunately, children and youth do take advice about what’s important to learn from adults whom they respect, and they learn almost effortlessly the things that spark their interest. The tug-of-war required to force unmotivated students to learn something they view as unimportant always ends badly (in low grades, diminished self-esteem, feelings of being disempowered, anger on the part of the adults, and so on).

Similarly, the fourth statement on the left, which focuses on competition, seems self-evident until we remember that children are not adults and, in fact, that the adult world is often far more forgiving than the world students confront in the classroom. Even if competition were the norm in the adult world, though, preparing students by forcing them to compete with one another on tasks that represent a relatively small domain of performance tends to produce one, predicable outcome—a populace divided into winners and losers. Unless we value some students more than others, it does not make sense to support an educational system that allows some students to exit it as losers. By contrast, teaching children how to cooperate and provide support to one another is an approach that serves them well both in school and in most situations they encounter as adults.

Finally, the last of the left-hand statements—the one referencing cultural uniformity—rests on two assumptions that turn out not to fit with the aim of preparing students for life in a democracy. The first assumption is that one “mainstream culture,” which is both uniform and unilateral, actually exists. The second is that the so-called “mainstream culture” has more value than the diverse cultures in which many of us are raised. The alternative to this perspective acknowledges that a complex country such as the United States encompasses many cultures—all of which have assets, offer valuable resources to the nation as a whole, and confront life’s challenges in different ways. It also acknowledges that schooling can provide the connection between a child’s home culture and a wider, more pluralistic set of cultural meanings. Rather than supplanting the home culture with the dominant mainstream culture, good education can help students understand themselves as members of a widening set of cultures that are in productive conversation with one another. Calling this perspective “inclusion” helps us see it as an educational stance that will prepare students for meaningful participation in a democratic way of life.