Equity, Teaching

Achieving Equity: New Ideas for Teacher Education

To be honest, we’re uncomfortable with the topic of equity in education as popularly framed. We don’t disagree with the goals or guiding sentiments, of course. But there are so many instances of disparity, so many varieties of difference, so many gaps and discontinuities that, from our vantage point, it doesn’t seem productive to catalogue them or to take them on one at a time.

And so, rather than approaching issues of equity from the tack of critical theory, we move in from the angle of learning theory. To frame our comments here, we first summarize five of the many game-changers that have emerged from the research into learning over the past decade. We then speak to innovations to teacher education that are intended to embody these developments, looking toward a model of teacher education that addresses issues of equity and inequity through new understandings of learning. 

Five game-changers

Definitions of ‘learning’ and ‘learners’ are evolving rapidly.

Educators now acknowledge that the concept of learning is immensely complex and poorly understood. That’s a change from the belief rooted in a demandingly empiricist version of behaviourist psychology that prevailed 50 years ago and that still lingers in the forms of measurement-based outcomes and tight management regimes. 

Perhaps the biggest influence in current research into learning is a complete rethinking of the notion of learner. While the developments are much too complex to summarize here, the word learner is no longer synonymous to student. Rather, any dynamic, adaptive, coherence-seeking and coherence-maintaining entity can be construed as a learner – including students, bodies of students, bodies of knowledge, societies, and anything else that might be described in ecosystemic terms. At first glance this development might seem the opposite of helpful, but consider the possibilities of recasting a class of students as a collective learner rather than a collection of learners.

Intelligence/ability is more (l)earned than bestowed.

In everyday common sense terms, intelligence and ability are all about predetermined limits and fixed brains. In many ways, this belief has been institutionalized in schools – through intelligence testing, differentiated streaming, gifted classes, and so on. In the face of such structures, it can be difficult to appreciate a troubling recent assertion: Intelligence and ability are neither pre-set nor given; they are learned. Several elements have been identified as vital in the emergence of “genius”, including starting early in life, practicing intensively, and constantly engaging in “effortful study”.

“Effortful study” is the sort of practice that happens at the limits of current competence, where there is a genuine likelihood of failure. An obvious implication – that learners should be challenged to the limits of their abilities – is almost diametrically opposed to popular notion that teaching is mainly about facilitating (i.e., literally, making easy). On the contrary, to support the development of great ability, teaching must challenge, push, provoke, stretch, demand, make difficult.

One of the long-standing assumptions in formal education, deeply rooted in western philosophy, is that humans are logical, rational creatures… humanity’s main strategy for drawing inferences is actually analogy – analogic not logic.

Learning/knowing is more analogical than logical.

One of the long-standing assumptions in formal education, deeply rooted in western philosophy, is that humans are logical, rational creatures. The implicit image here is that of a building, starting with the basics/foundations and proceeding systematically through a sequence of incremental logical steps to the top. But humans aren’t logical beings. Our ability to be logical is a learned capacity that rides atop our ability to make connections among widely disparate phenomena and experiences. Humanity’s main strategy for drawing inferences is actually analogy – analogic not logic.

There are many implications for formal education here. For instance, centuries-old structures for curriculum that are founded on the model of a mathematical argument need to be interrogated, as does the question of teacher knowledge. Shulman was among the first to suggest that teachers’ understanding of a subject matter is not simply a matter of “more of” or “deeper than” what is expected of their students; rather, it revolves around “the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations – in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others.”[1] The call is for an associative curriculum for teachers, not a logical one.

Teachers participate in creating the type of learning and learners they encounter.

Marton and Säljö made a major contribution to the educational literature when they offered a distinction between “surface learning” (extrinsically motivated and oriented to fulfilling explicit requirements) and “deep learning” (motivated by the excitement of uncovering or creating new layers of insight).[2] More recent research by Dweck suggested that the key element differentiating learners is their belief about ability.[3] She distinguished between learners with a “fixed mindset” (who believe that ability is static, and therefore strive to prove or validate their ability through impeccable performances) and those with a “growth mindset” (who see ability as learned, and so strive to stretch and develop their ability).

For educators, Dweck’s major contribution is her research into the role that teachers play in creating learners’ mindsets. For example, the simple act of praising ability (“Good work, Sonya. You’re brilliant!”) supports fixed mindedness, whereas praising effort (“Good work, Sonya. I can see that you really worked hard at this”) contributes to growth mindedness. Other facets of teaching that contribute to the creation of learner attitudes include how new topics are framed (as fixed knowledge versus emergent knowledge and insight) and how classroom tasks are designed (incrementally graduated and uniformly assigned, versus open to differentiation and inviting of effortful study). 

“Good” teachers do make a big, big difference.

The No Child Left Behind initiative in the U.S. has been justly criticized for its many flaws. However, there is at least one positive element in its legacy. It has provided an immense database on teacher effectiveness. It turns out that some teachers, regardless of circumstances, are much more successful than others in prompting their students toward school success – year after year.

It’s important to emphasize that it’s the teacher, not the general circumstances that is the critical variable here. Controlling for almost every factor under a school’s control (class size, per-pupil funding, time per class, curriculum, classroom resources, break time, etc.), only one proves to have a large impact – the teacher.

Implications for Equity and Teacher Education

What’s multiplication?

Over the past decade we have asked this question to nearly 5,000 people, including students, parents, teachers, and researchers. The responses have shown a stunning regularity across populations: virtually everyone who is willing to answer is adamant that multiplication is repeated addition and/or some sort of grouping process. Full stop.

Unfortunately, this “definition” is inadequate for topics and applications that arise as early as the middle grades. How, for example, does one add ⅝ to itself ¾ times, –2 to itself –3 times, or d to itself π times? It gets even worse by high school with topics in algebra and geometry where conceptions based on grouping and addition are not only limiting, they can actually force students into not understanding.[4]

We see this as an issue of equity and justice. A person who does not have access to a more nuanced education on multiplication will almost certainly be compelled to use rote memorization and procedural application in order to get through more sophisticated topics. The concern isn’t limited to mathematics. We might just as easily have drawn our illustration from reading, the sciences, the arts, or physical activity. The simple point is that inherited practices and assumptions – of the sort challenged by the game-changers presented in the preceding section – are principal contributors to cultural inequities and educational injustices. As such, there are sound educational responses.

In this section, we speak briefly to shifts in structures and emphases in teacher education that might help to address issues of equity and justice simply by avoiding creating them in the first place.[5]

Shifts in structures and emphases in teacher education that might help to address issues of equity and justice simply by avoiding creating them in the first place.

Learning about learning

Physicians are experts in medicine; lawyers are experts in jurisprudence. What is a teacher’s area of expertise?

We offer here that teachers should be learning experts, an assertion that begins with an awareness that any deliberate effort at teaching presupposes a theory of learning – and so, first and foremost, prospective teachers have an obligation to be aware of the most recent research in learning and learners.


Initial teacher education programs tend to be organized around distinct separations of primary/elementary and secondary levels. With few exceptions, teachers in the elementary division are prepared as generalists, while those at the secondary level are typically expected to specialize.

The dearth of specialist offerings for those interested in the lower grades creates some problems, however. It is readily explained in terms of the everyday realities of an elementary school, but such an approach does not incorporate a broad cultural and academic shift toward a “new” interdisciplinarity through which teams of specialists collaborate, nor does it take into account the increasing difficulty in becoming a competent “generalist”. Expecting individuals to develop an adequate mastery across domains might border on the ridiculous.

Linking Initial and Ongoing Teacher Education

Initial and ongoing teacher education are often disconnected. At the University of Calgary, we are attempting to address this gap by offering experiences to support educators in their first years of professional practice. The aim here is to go beyond introducing prospective and practicing teachers to the results of the latest studies; we are also seeking to engage them in the ever-unfolding project of identifying and understanding the work of an educator in a rapidly changing world by finding ways to engage pre-service and practicing teachers in ongoing research into learning.

An Integrated, Developmental Curriculum

Our guess is that most teacher education programs were originally developed around coherent, comprehensive, and integrated sets of ideas. As time passed, these curricula became fragmented, more resembling accumulations of courses and field experiences than careful movement through ideas and responsibilities.

In the model that we are exploring at the moment, topics of study are sequenced and field experiences are structured as movements through studies of different learners, starting with neurological and psychological research near the start of their programs and broadening the discussion to include social, cultural, and ecological perspectives on learning and learners as specialist expertise is developed.

Partner Research Schools

The practicum is a consistent and persistent problem for teacher education programs. We are interested in re-conceptualizing the field experience as a deeply collaborative, research-rich setting in which university-based and school-based educators engage in ongoing shared work. We are in the process of exploring possibilities that might arise when a field experience site is not seen as a “host school” but as a Partner Research School in which faculty are seen as legitimate community members, engaged in intense collaborative specialist-based research.


Our central goal is to dislodge public education from its rut of common sense – from its unquestioned structures, un-interrogated practices, unnoticed disparities. We believe that the shifts in emphasis suggested here will help to move the cultural project of education away from an ethos of segregated action and separated interests into a space of mutual challenge, joint interest, collective production – a more equitable learning experience. Importantly, the principal site of this cultural project is teacher education.

EN BREF – Pour arriver à l’équité en éducation, il faut mieux comprendre la théorie de l’apprentissage, notamment les constatations de recherches actuelles qui changent la donne en enseignement : les définitions en rapide évolution des termes « apprentissage » et « apprenant »; la conscience que l’intelligence et l’habileté sont plus apprises qu’innées; la reconnaissance que l’apprentissage et le savoir sont plus analogiques que logiques; la notion que le personnel enseignant contribue à créer différents types d’apprentissage et d’apprenants; les preuves claires que les « bons » enseignants font une différence considérable. Il semble évident que des changements aux structures et aux priorités de formation des maîtres pourraient régler de nombreux problèmes d’équité et de justice en évitant de les créer au départ. Ces changements comprennent une meilleure formation sur l’apprentissage, une spécialisation accrue, la cohérence de la formation préalable et continue du personnel enseignant et l’élaboration d’un curriculum développemental intégré.

[1] L. S. Shulman, “Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching,” “Educational Researcher 15, no. 2 (1986): 9.

[2] F. Marton and R. Säljö, “On Qualitative Differences in Learning,” British Journal of Educational Psychology 46 (1976): 4–11.

[3] C. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine, 2007).

[4] For a more fulsome treatment of the multiplication question, see B. Davis, Mathematics Teachers’ Subtle, Complex Disciplinary Knowledge, Science 332 (2011): 1506–1507.

[5] For elaborated discussions of each point, see O. Chapman et al, Bachelor of Education Task Force Report (Calgary, AB: Faculty of Education, University of Calgary, 2010).

Meet the Expert(s)

Dennis Sumara

Dennis Sumara is Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary. His areas of research include curriculum theory, teacher education, and literacy education, as oriented by conceptual interests in hermeneutic phenomenology
, literary response theory
, and complexity science.

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Brent Davis

Brent Davis is Professor and Distinguished Research Chair in Mathematics Education at the University of Calgary. His research is developed around the educational relevance of developments in the cognitive and complexity sciences.

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