By: Elizabeth Chun, Site Coordinator
It’s been about 200 years since free compulsory education was created in the United States. While some things look quite different in American education, others do not. It is not always necessary to update the way things are done just because time is passing, however a closer look into the roots of education in the United States reveals that it was not created for many of the people that now receive it.
At its beginning, education in the United States was created to teach citizens how to become “good, productive members of their society” (A Brief History, 2016). Formal education was not created for the benefits of students, but rather was built by those in power for the benefit of those in power (A Brief History, 2016). In colonial times, only the wealthiest boys went to school (A Brief History, 2016). Eventually, textbooks were created in order to unify the nation in reaction to the Revolutionary War which began in 1775 (A Brief History, 2016). While the textbooks standardized pronunciation and spelling, they also were meant to “instill patriotism and religious beliefs in students” and included inaccurate stereotypes of Native Americans and certain immigrant groups (A Brief History, 2016). It was not until over 100 years later in the late 1800s that free compulsory education was developed allowing additional kids to go to school, though still not all kids, and a major purpose of this free compulsory education was to “prevent immigrants’ values from corrupting ‘American’ values” (A Brief History, 2016).
Fast forwarding to today, the American education system struggles to close the achievement gap that stands between the students the early education system valued and those it did not. Research proves that schools, overall, do an inadequate job of providing equal learning opportunities for all students and instead benefit white students to a greater extent (Flores, 2018). If educators “are not proactive about mitigating racial exclusion in social networks, curriculum, pedagogy, course participation and extracurricular activities,” this gap “will continue to permeate schools” (Flores, 2018).
There are many remedies educators can use to increase equity for their students in order to override the colonized past of American education. Using teaching strategies of decolonized pedagogies has the potential to create a large impact towards decreasing the present inequities. The pedagogies of bell hooks, Paulo Freire and the Raza Womyn de UCLA all lend themselves well to this. Though it should be noted that the following teaching strategies cannot be separated from the beliefs and worldviews of the people who created them. Moreover, understanding the overarching purpose of each pedagogy is vital for impactful implementation.
The pedagogy of bell hooks (2013) works to undo the way “white-supremacist thinking informs every aspect of our culture,” she writes. This includes “the way we learn, the content of what we learn, and the manner in which we are taught” (hooks, 2013, p. 25). To combat this, hooks suggests educators encourage and emphasize the process of learning for their students, the inquiry and questioning that comes with learning, and the feeling of uncertainty that comes with not knowing something (hooks, 2013). Focused on avoiding a learning environment in which students become “indoctrinated” with any type of ideology, hooks believes educators should work towards helping students learn to open their minds and think critically (hooks, 2013).
Brazilian educator Paulo Friere developed his pedagogy in order to seek “ways to offer an education to impoverished and illiterate adult students in his country that would help them improve their situation and thus transform their lives and the society in which they lived” (Wright, 2019). His teaching strategies aim to transform power dynamics present in education in order to liberate students from oppression (Wright, 2019). To do so, he recommends teachers explore new knowledge and open themselves to new ways of seeing the world. In addition, Friere believes teachers should avoid teaching in a way that merely “passes” information from teacher to student. Rather, teachers should create an environment in which teachers and students are both seen as learners who, together, engage in dialogue and collaboration.
The last pedagogy included here is the Mujerista Pedagogy used by the Raza Womyn de UCLA. Created in reaction to experiencing alienation and discrimination as Chicana and Latina students at their university, the pedagogy aims to destroy “the many ‘isms,’ such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism that attempt to dismantle [their] communities” (Revilla, 2014). Their pedagogy developed out of student group meetings, but quite naturally works for classrooms or other learning environments. The Mujerista Pedagogy includes beginning each meeting with time to “catch up” and freely talk (Revilla, 2014). Then, there is an “opening ‘icebreaker’” for the members to answer that ranges from funny to serious, changing by the day (Revilla, 2014). Additionally, the members sit in a circle for the whole meeting (Revilla, 2014). At the end, talking circles close the meetings (Revilla, 2014). Similar to how they started, this creates a second opportunity to share how they are feeling or something about their lives (Revilla, 2014). While talking circles seem like an easy aspect of the pedagogy to eliminate when things get busy, consistent inclusion of this practice prioritizes community and is said to be “the single most unifying strategy that Raza Womyn use to maintain a ‘safe space’” (Revilla, 2014).
The inequitable structures in education may not be going away as fast as we’d like due to their historical entwinement with colonization and exclusionary beginnings. However, educators can control their learning environment and the dynamics and practices that take place within them. With each individual teaching strategy comes an opportunity to create a learning environment that is increasingly inclusive of the students the early American education system tried to keep out.
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The Counternarratives of Three African American Women School Leaders. Journal of
School Leadership, 28(3), 344–373. https://doi.org/10.1177/105268461802800304
hooks, b. (2013). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
Revilla, A. T. (2004). Muxerista pedagogy: Raza Womyn Teaching Social Justice Through
Student activism. The High School Journal, 87(4), 80–94.
Wright, W. E. (2019). Foundations for teaching English Language Learners: Research, theory,
policy, and practice (3rd ed.). Caslon.