When classroom populations are culturally diverse — and students often technologically savvier than their elders — teachers are faced with the challenge of finding ways to engage them in meaningful learning. Gloria Ladson-Billings, a nationally known educator, urges teachers to immerse themselves in the cultural lives of their students to improve teaching practice.
Ladson-Billings delivered her message as the featured speaker for the 2013 Lee Gurel ’48 Lecture on Education, held on Dec. 6 in Tilton Hall. The lecture, “Stakes is High: Educating New Century Students,” was sponsored by the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise, the Jacob Hiatt Center for Urban Education and the Adam Institute for Urban Teaching and School Practice, all at Clark University.
Ladson-Billings, assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, is known for her work on culturally responsive teaching. She is author of “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children,” “Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms,” and “Beyond the Big House: African American Educators on Teacher Education.”
Reflecting on her own teaching experience, Ladson-Billings explained that her research into the cultures of her Puerto Rican and Mexican students helped her plan learning activities, increased her communication with the parents, and boosted student success.
Ladson-Billings argued that a cultural disconnect between teacher and student can lead to mistaken assumptions about why that pupil is underperforming. She offered as an example the “achievement gap” problem, the tendency of African American and Hispanic students, as groups, to lag behind their white peers on measures of academic attainment. According to Ladson-Billings, many people mistakenly place sole responsibility for poor achievement on the individual while ignoring the important role social structures can play. In the case of African Americans, she suggests that the phrase “achievement gap” be reframed “education debt,” a reference to the many barriers that for centuries denied generations of African Americans equal access to education and self-determination, despite the critical role they played in nation building.
“When I argue that what we really have is an educational debt, I’m speaking of the historical, economic, socio-political and moral components of inequality that shaped the contours of this nation,” Ladson-Billings said. “The juxtaposition between the magnificent founding documents — both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution — and the reality of black life in America raises the serious moral and ethical questions about who were are as a nation, and the nature of our commitment to equality and justice.”
Ladson-Billings also highlighted the important roles teachers play as models for students who share their cultural traditions. She noted that many minority students rarely, if ever, are taught by someone of their own racial or ethnic background, noting that the percentage of African American teachers within the total U.S. teacher population has declined from approximately 10 percent in the late 1960s to less than 5 percent today.
The popularity of hip-hop culture among young people across a variety of racial backgrounds provides an opportunity to help students understand larger issues, Ladson-Billings said. She showed a hip-hop style video about the Arab Spring titled “Stakes is High” that she’s used in her own classroom. By presenting the problem of civil rights in Egypt in a cultural form that engaged her students, they were able to connect with similar issues affecting minorities in the United States.
Ladson-Billings questioned whether current teaching practices are up to the task of educating what she characterizes as the “New Century Student,” who holds a worldview in many ways different from that of his or her teacher.
She finds that the New Century Student:
- Thinks that multitasking is the most efficient way to work;
- Views education as a commodity to be purchased;
- Advocates social justice, but is less certain about social welfare;
- Acquires much of his or her information through digital media;
- Places high value on staying digitally connected, even in the car or classroom; and
- Has a different conception of copyright, intellectual property and plagiarism.
Teachers need not go so far as to adopt the cultural standards of their students, Ladson-Billings was careful to emphasize. Rather, she said, “It’s important to know where [the students] are, so that we can do a better job of understanding them and assisting them in the classroom and beyond. Educating our children is the most important task we face.”
The Dr. Lee Gurel ’48 Endowment, through the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise, supports research in and discussion around the field of urban education, including the annual Gurel Lecture on Education. Dr. Gurel, a generous and enthusiastic supporter of Clark and the Mosakowski Institute, grew up in Worcester and went on to a distinguished career as a research psychologist.
~ Anne Gibson, Ph.D. ’95