Equity, Policy, Teaching

Complexities of Teaching and Implications for Equity

Challenges to learning opportunities and life course outcomes associated with race/ethnicity, class, immigrant status, and gender exist in virtually all nations, but we have strong evidence that in some nations and in some institutions such demographic markers are associated with excellence in educational outcomes.[1] What factors contribute to their success? What role can the teaching profession play in fostering equity in educational outcomes?

Unfortunately, despite its rich nation status, the U.S. has unacceptable disparities in educational outcomes, predicted by race/ethnicity and class. In her book, The Flat World and Education, Linda Darling-Hammond documents the conditions contributing to high achieving educational systems: universal access to quality health care, adequate housing, child care for working parents, early childhood education, high academic standards that address conceptual learning aligned with rigorous curriculum and authentic assessments, equitable funding across schools, and systematic, long-term supports for teacher learning.[2] The challenges to developing and implementing these conditions differ across nations. In the U.S., they include a decentralized system of education and a legacy of racism. In addition, policy debates around social supports – such as health care, financial supports for those in need, and education – are influenced by long term folk beliefs about individualism and cultural belief systems about intelligence versus effort.

In other words, historical, political, economic, and cultural conditions help determine

the degree of educational equity in different societies. So do the level of teacher knowledge and learning, and the opportunities for professional growth which, to encourage equity, must be responsive to cultural, structural, economic, academic, and epistemological differences in local conditions.

Both the U.S. and Canada wrestle with racial, ethnic, and class differences across student populations, but the two countries take different approaches, particularly with regard to linguistic variation and social supports for families. In this cross-national context, my discussion of teacher knowledge and teacher learning focuses on two dimensions: (1) the foundational principles that should guide instruction despite differences in local contexts and (2) the ways these foundational principles are shaped by local conditions.

This discussion is based on academic studies of learning, identity development, motivation, life course development, cognitive and social neuroscience, and expert knowledge; my own research in the design of instruction that is both subject-matter specific and culturally responsive; and my experience of 20 years as a classroom teacher at the primary, high school, and community college levels, and 40 years in the development of African centered elementary schools and a high school in Chicago.[3] This integration of theory and practice is central to understanding the demands of teaching.

Teacher knowledge involves a complex network of inter-related domains, including cognition – or how people learn, both generally and in specific subject areas; differences in learning strengths for primary and secondary school students; social and emotional development across the life course; motivation; language acquisition and socialization; curriculum design and assessment; and classroom management.[4] These domains do not operate independently, but rather as an integrated nexus in which learning is an outgrowth of a dynamic psychological system; thinking and feeling are intertwined; perceptions of people, tasks, and settings influence goals and effort; and prior knowledge provides a foundation for new learning.

This idea of learning as an outgrowth of a dynamic psychological system is complex, but important for teachers to understand if they are to design instruction responsive to the various and unpredictable needs of students. How, then, do teachers learn both the discrete bodies of knowledge required and how to integrate them into the real demands of the classroom? The variation in students’ responses to designed learning environments involves both individual differences and differences arising from their various cultural communities of practice, defined by language, nationality, ethnicity, cohort culture (e.g. youth culture), or hobbies and interests (e.g. video games, sports, music, etc.). This complex combination of factors is further complicated by the demands of teacher planning and the need to respond in the moment to the teaching situation.

The underlying logic addresses the cognitive demands of subject matter learning, the role of culturally rooted prior knowledge, and motivational principles that position students as competent learners.

Cultural Modeling

Cultural Modeling (CM) is a framework for the design of instruction that builds on the intuitive knowledge that youth – particular minority youth – construct from everyday experiences to scaffold subject-matter-specific learning.[5] The underlying logic addresses the cognitive demands of subject matter learning, the role of culturally rooted prior knowledge, and motivational principles that position students as competent learners.

CM involves the use of cultural data sets. These are texts from everyday experience that require modes of reasoning analogous to those used in the target discipline. The following example is from a unit on symbolism in literature for 12th grade students using Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Instruction takes place in an underachieving, low-income, African-American high school.  The cultural data sets include rap lyrics as well as a three-minute film called “Sax Cantor Riff” directed by renowned African-American filmmaker Julie Dash. The film is replete with symbols. The assumption is that students have an intuitive understanding of the symbols in the film from a popular television series, and that the prior knowledge required to interpret the symbols is available from cultural scripts in the students’ everyday lives.

While the film is playing, Taquisha is reading from a local newspaper. I am the teacher in the following exchange.

T: Other questions? Taquisha you have a question inside that paper there?

Taquisha: Yup.

T: What’s your question?

Taquisha: …What does the film have to do with anything we’re studying?

T: Well that might be a question for me.

Taquisha: Well what does the book have to do with the girl and the man singing?…  

T: That is a beautiful and sound question. Found it in the Sun-Times too, didn’t you?

Taquisha: Yup.[6]

In this exchange, I am confronting a classic problem: student resistance. Our culturally focused and cognitively guided instructional plan did not anticipate that students would resist attending to cultural data sets. However, it appears on the surface that Taquisha is not paying attention to the film, but rather is reading the newspaper. I draw on multiple domains in interpreting and responding to Taquisha:

  • Typicality of resistance in adolescent development
  • Taquisha’s individual strong personality
  • The role of ritual insult in signifying in African-American English (AAE) so that verbal play with Taquisha is inviting and not combative
  • Literary heuristics about the salience of parallel actions

Knowledge of literary heuristics helps me understand the relevance of Taquisha’s observations to the novel Beloved, even though she articulates a localized response to particular details in the film. Taquisha notes parallels in the actions of disparate characters and infers a coherent explanation for the parallelism. Engaging Taquisha in a game of signifying (e.g. “Taquisha you have a question inside that paper there?”) allows a challenge that invites verbal playfulness, but is not personally attacking. She understands the cultural volley (e.g. her response in line 2, “Yup!”). I am surprised in the moment that she has actually been attending to the film. These bodies of knowledge – drawn upon in the moment – are integrated in this interaction.

The problems in this scenario – understanding sources of vulnerability, recognizing disciplinary representations not fully developed, invoking cultural scripts as resources for supporting student learning – are common to teaching. Addressing them requires an integrated and dynamic response to cultural contexts (e.g. AAE speakers, histories of low achievement, adolescents with particular histories and individual personalities). How does such a response develop over time? What foundational principles inform this kind of teacher thinking? How does one learn to adapt such foundational knowledge to the demands of specific teaching environments? The ways in which social and educational systems conceptualize these questions have a direct impact on the quality of learning opportunities available to youth who face the greatest systemic vulnerabilities. 

Foundational Principles

An effective response to cultural contexts requires effective learning environments that:

  • position the learner as competent;
  • anticipate what in the learner’s experiences (i.e. history of schooling, life outside of school, perceptions of ability, of tasks, of settings, or people) may pose vulnerabilities for the student;
  • anticipate and plan for the range of resources that learners bring to instruction (e.g., experience with analogous problems; epistemological beliefs and dispositions – such as AAE speakers’ appreciation of language play as a disposition relevant to literary interpretation; specialized interests);
  • build trusting relationships;
  • make problem solving explicit;
  • make public the social good of the problem solving tasks;
  • provide supports and feedback as learners are engaged in problem solving;
  • create multiple pathways through which learning can take place;
  • build informative representations of learners’ understandings, including both developing representations as well as formal disciplinary representations.

Designing for and understanding informal and incomplete representations requires complex, integrated teacher knowledge. For example, the Algebra Project asks students to create pictorial representations of algebraic relations before introducing formal algorithms;[7] and, unlike their U.S. counterparts, Chinese 5th grade math teachers explain multiple mathematics concepts involved in conceptually dividing fractions with unlike denominators.[8] Deep understanding of mathematics allowed these teachers to support multiple pathways through which students could wrestle with these problems.  

Students from stigmatized groups rarely have teachers who can incorporate these foundational principles – first, because they are less likely to have teachers with such deep knowledge and second, because societal stereotypes about race/ethnicity, class, and ability influence teacher perceptions and create complex challenges for these youth. The potential impact of stereotype threat – the self-fulfilling belief that one will be judged by some external stereotype rather than by actual performance – is a well-established phenomenon.[9] However, the implications of stereotype threat are nuanced. Older children are more likely to be impacted than younger children, and positive socialization can mediate the impact. 

The combination of negative societal stereotypes and inequities in social and economic supports make the foundational principles for effective learning environments all the more crucial in the quest for equity. 

The combination of negative societal stereotypes and inequities in social and economic supports make the foundational principles for effective learning environments all the more crucial in the quest for equity.

Learning to Adapt to Local Contexts

How do teachers learn to integrate these knowledge domains? And how do they learn to adapt these principles to the variations in local contexts?

Medicine offers an example. In medical school, students learn basic knowledge in a number of domains. The long-term medical internship involves guided practice with direct feedback from experts. Such a model in education would require transformation of both pre-service training and the conditions of professional practice. I am particularly interested in what such learning looks like once teachers are working full time in schools.

With a cultural focus, pre-service education in the following domains can orient new teachers to the wide variation in human learning and development: basic theories of human development; motivation; language socialization; the role of prior knowledge and perceptions in cognition. With multiple internships in diverse sites – supported by videos of teaching dilemmas involving diversity and specific subject matter – teachers would enter the profession better oriented to diversity in learning.

Such teaching cases can be available as well for in-service professional development. They can serve as powerful socializing resources, and teachers constructing their own cases, responsive to their own local circumstances, can contribute to building schools as learning communities. However, for such a model to work, each school must have a cohort of master teachers steeped in research methods and foundational domain knowledge, and with a record of designing effective learning environments embodying foundational principles.


If democracies are to create successive generations prepared for the civic, intellective, and democratic dispositions required to maintain and expand equity in our societies, they must have teachers capable of integrating foundational principles of learning and development in ways responsive to the diversity of local contexts.

EN BREF – Les connaissances du personnel enseignant combinent un ensemble complexe de domaines interdépendants : la cognition; les différences entre les capacités d’apprentissage des élèves au primaire et au secondaire; le développement social et émotionnel; la motivation; l’acquisition du langage et la socialisation; la mise au point de curriculums et l’évaluation; la gestion de classe. De plus, face aux problèmes qu’apportent en classe de nombreux élèves de groupes stigmatisés, il leur faut savoir comment composer avec des contextes culturels de façon intégrée et dynamique. La conjugaison des stéréotypes sociétaux négatifs et de l’iniquité des soutiens sociaux et économiques de ces groupes rend l’application des principes fondamentaux d’un environnement d’apprentissage efficace encore plus essentielle à l’équité. Ces principes comprennent la compréhension approfondie de la pluralité des contextes sociaux et des matières afin d’offrir de multiples parcours d’apprentissage. Une solution partielle pourrait consister à instaurer des programmes de stages encadrés comportant une rétroaction directe. Un tel modèle nécessiterait la transformation de la formation préalable et des conditions de pratique professionnelle.

[1] PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background. Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes, vol. 2 (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2010).

[2] Linda Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future (NY: Teachers College Press, 2010).

[3] C. D. Lee, Culture, Literacy and Learning: Taking Bloom in the Midst of the Whirlwind (NY: Teachers College Press, 2007).

[4] J. Bransford, R. Stevens, D. Schwartz, A. Meltzoff, R. D. Pea, J. Roschelle, et al., “Learning Theories and Education: Toward a Decade of Synergy. In Handbok of Educational Psychology, eds. P. A. Alexander and P. H. Winne (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006), 209-244; L. Darliing-Hammond and J. Bransford, Preparing Teachers for a Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and Be Able To Do (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2005).

[5] Lee.

[6] Ibid.

[7] R. P. Moses and C. E. Cobb, Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

[8] LiPing Ma, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1999).

[9] C. M. Steele, “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance,” in Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education (2nd ed.) eds. J. Banks & C. Banks (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 682-698.

Meet the Expert(s)

Carol D. Lee

Carol D. Lee is the Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She is a former president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), member of the National Academy of Education, and an AERA fellow. She is also a founder of three African centered charter schools in Chicago.

Read More

1/5 Free Articles Left

LOGIN Join The Network