Helping novice teachers foster equity in everyday instruction 

This blog post is part of an ongoing series highlighting the work of our Learning by Scientific Design (LbSD) Network, a group of 10 educator-preparation programs focused on equipping teacher-candidates with our best scientific understanding of how students learn. Here, we explore how LbSD programs are supporting candidates to explore the relationship between learning science and more equitable instruction for P-12 students.

In the classroom on the left, kindergarteners are engaged in a close reading of a complex text, Come On, Rain!, using rich vocabulary to describe how characters changed after a significant event: the first rain, marking the end of the dry season. In the classroom on the right, third graders are asked to draw “Missing” posters for a character after a read aloud of Miss Nelson is Missing. While the kindergarteners are encoding vivid language and knowledge of plot and setting, the third graders in the ‘reading comprehension’ lesson at right are thinking deeply about…coloring.

Many novice teachers’ lessons look more like the class on the right, chocked full of ‘fun’ activities that only tangentially relate to the intended learning — in hopes of engaging students and ‘meeting them where they are’, not realizing that choices like these can exacerbate inequities and miss opportunities for richer, more meaningful learning.

So at Deans for Impact, we wondered: what if, before being asked to write their own lesson plans, candidates were asked to reflect on tasks like the ones above:

      Describe what students are likely thinking about during each of these lessons, using the model of the mind.
      What might a teacher be thinking in designing a lesson like the Miss Nelson missing poster? How might this relate to teacher bias in the expectations they hold for students?
      And how would this impact equity of learning opportunities for their students?

Over the last two years, we have worked with a cohort of educator-preparation programs (EPPs) to strengthen and align the work they do to prepare their teacher-candidates for classrooms. Their coursework redesign efforts were built upon a core set of learning science principles, to help novice teachers make instructional choices through a research-supported understanding of how students learn.

While this approach is no panacea for the inequities, injustices, and outright racism of our education system, we have learned and reflected, alongside faculty, candidates, and their students, about how to bend this piece of the system just a bit closer towards justice. This is work without a finish line, but as our first two-year improvement cycle in the Learning by Scientific Design Network closes, we want to take the opportunity to share the thinking that emerged from these efforts thus far — and to share some of the thinking that candidates are doing as they look at lessons like the literacy classes above and unpack how those choices impact equity for their future students.

Teaching for Justice in Educator Preparation

Questions of how to prepare novice teachers to disrupt educational inequities have long challenged educator-preparation programs. But in the last year, in the wake of a national movement for racial justice, these questions have come into starker focus.

We have heard faculty and candidates share the sense that culturally responsive pedagogies are siloed away in a “Multicultural Education” course, treated as a one-off rather than an essential ingredient. Or they are understood as a body of theories, disconnected from the realities of daily lessons.

Many have grappled with the balance between wanting to help teacher candidates understand structural inequities — the funding disparities, the school-to-prison pipeline — and wanting to focus on novice teachers’ locus of control, their classroom instruction; both essential understandings for teachers entering a field of historic structural, interpersonal, and instructional injustice.

And when the focus turns to instruction, as observers have bemoaned since Gloria Ladson- Billings’ seminal essay, “Yes, but how do we do it?”, too often candidates seem to emerge with a grab-bag of culturally responsive moves — provide students with books whose characters look like them, celebrate all holidays in your classroom — pieces that are important, to be sure; necessary, but insufficient. Too many enter the classroom without a deeper lens through which to consider how they might facilitate learning experiences that affirm and challenge all of their students.

Our work with Learning by Scientific Design Network programs has focused on addressing this last gap: to provide novice teachers with opportunities to connect theory to their own classroom practice, to think critically about equity and justice in “the details of teaching and learning.”

Equity and Justice in Everyday Instruction

Through thoughtful coursework redesign, programs have begun supporting candidates to consider the equity implications of their instructional choices, knowing that every one of these decisions can either perpetuate or disrupt historical patterns of injustice: the tasks they design, the questions they ask, of whom and how they ask them — even down to the examples they choose.

Candidates reflect about the core activities in their lesson plans and whether or not they challenge students to think deeply about ambitious content, understanding that students of color are often offered less challenging tasks and asked less rigorous questions — and that it is their responsibility to disrupt this pattern of inequity.

Through lesson plan revisions and rehearsals, candidates consider the ways their questions are delivered, learning that unconscious bias can affect teacher moves as subtle as where teachers direct their gaze during questioning or who gets called up to the front of the room to share their answers (hint: it’s the boys).

Novice teachers know, in the abstract, that students’ funds of knowledge are a key to unlocking new learning; yet they sometimes struggle to leverage these priors in meaningful ways, privileging those who happen to recall the points on the teachers’ mind or leaning on problematic or superficial assumptions about students’ interests and cultures to make connections to content. Candidates in the LbSD network explore the cognitive mechanisms by which new knowledge is linked to prior understandings — and the ways that elaborative questioning can help learners leverage what they bring to the lesson — so that they can support all of their future students in drawing upon their cultural, linguistic, and academic knowledge to engage successfully in new learning.

So often, we see both novice and veteran teachers lean into common misconceptions about teaching and learning — myths like learning styles or the idea that effective differentiation involves offering a simplistic “lower level” text to readers with unfinished learning. Yet with opportunities to link knowledge about the basic mechanics of the mind with instructional choices, and unpacking these choices through a critical lens, even early stage teaching candidates show the possibility of making more equitable lessons for their students.


Cognition and Equity, Year One in the Classroom

These everyday instructional decisions are all the more important given the reality that shortcomings in the preparation of new teachers have impacted historically marginalized students the most. Decades of research have found novice teachers placed in more under-resourced schools and in the classrooms of students with the most unfinished learning.

The Learning by Scientific Design Network is working to combat this layer of inequity, by providing novice teachers with a clear understanding of how students learn, and by weaving a critical lens into the very fabric of their instructional decision-making.

This kind of equity thinking is not the only work that teacher candidates need to do to counter the many manifestations of injustice in our schools.

But it is an essential part of the equation — so that from the outset of their careers in the classroom, new teachers understand that both their lesson plans and the way those lessons are delivered are a matter of equity and justice.

Callie Lowenstein

Senior Program Manager

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