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Disrupting our default settings

Achieving true equity will require that we rewrite social codes. Here's how to get started.

8 min read


Disrupting our default settings

Ruha Benjamin (Photo credit: International Society for Technology in Education)

People, not technology, is the answer to resolving issues of equity in education, said Princeton professor Ruha Benjamin during her keynote address at ISTE 2016.

“It is not scientific and technological development in and of itself that we have to thank,” Benjamin said to the crowd of educators packed into Bellco Theatre. “Rather, it is the revolutionary potential of an awakened citizenry that demands more of itself.”

Benjamin — whose work focuses on innovation and equity, among other issues — challenged attendees to consider the parallel reality in which many students live, “where some are nurtured and others are crushed.” She argued that schools must acknowledge and address this “apartheidlike reality” before adopting technology or risk exacerbating the situation.

“[T]he gap in educational opportunities and life outcomes will be even wider than today,” she stated. “To do nothing is to choose the default settings of this failing system.”

To this end, Benjamin outlined four provocations aimed at helping schools muscle their way through these issues.

Imagine indeed

Combating inequity in education begins by imagining that a new social reality — absent bias and injustice — is possible, Benjamin said. This ideal, she maintained, is not as far-fetched as some would have us believe.

“Why is it that we can imagine growing heart cells from scratch in a lab but not growing empathy for other human beings in our everyday lives, and even more, in our institutions?” she asked. “Imagine indeed!”

But as we pursue this reality, Benjamin continued, we must confront “the unevenness of imagination in educational innovation” and acknowledge that opportunities to make “dreams come true is distributed in radically uneven ways.”

She cited the example of Ahmed Mohammad, the 14-year-old Texas teenager who was arrested after a teacher mistook his homemade clock project for a hoax bomb. Instead of receiving praise for his ingenuity, the high-school freshman was interrogated by police and suspended from school. The incident, she said, underscores the prevalence of toxic mindsets in our society.

“It is doubtful that Ahmed would have ever been arrested for his homemade clock if his name were Adam,” Benjamin said. “When fear and discrimination run amok, as they do in every corner of the world, this doesn’t just harm those who are directly targeted, but all of us who are denied the fruits of knowledge that ‘The Ahmeds’ of the world are eager and ready to share.”

Design matters

When it comes to integrating technology into the classroom, we should consider more than just access but also design, said Benjamin. Stereotypes can influence technology and technology design, she asserted, pointing to the widespread use of data mining and predictive software, in all sectors of industry.

“And when software makes decisions based on data, like a person’s zip code, it can reflect, or even amplify, the result of historical or institutional discrimination,” she argued.

She urged attendees to reflect on questions of design, specifically, who is developing the technology, to what end and who benefits — and who might get in the way.

“Another way to put this is to ask: Whose voices are missing when decisions are being made about technology in education?” she said.

Schools must perform this type of due diligence when considering technology tools and services. Educators and students should foster a socio-technical literacy that sees past the “shiny advertisements” flashed in front of them. Failing to do this is to open the doors for continued inequity, said Benjamin.

“Without thoughtful consideration, it is likely that current forms of inequality based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, class, disability and nationality will be unwittingly built in to the design of new tools and practices,” she said.

Rewrite the code

Benjamin described a practice called “code switching,” which refers to the way people change how they speak and interact, depending on their social environment. She said this practice — which she called “social lubrication” — is honed in us at an early age.

“Code switching is one of the many ways in which we ‘play the game’ of life — garnering respect and advancing in school and work life … all while maintaining connections to community, friends and family outside of work,” she said.

Behind this practice, though, hides an uncomfortable truth.

“Not all codes were created equal, because not all social milieus can exert the same power, rewards and consequences over those that conform and those that do not,” she said.

Creating equity and fostering true educational innovation will require us to change the social codes that perpetuate bias, Benjamin said. She also suggested that educators reconsider their definition of technology — not simply as material technologies but also in terms of “social technologies that will help transform the status quo.”

“When we begin to rewrite codes rather than simply code switch, we can set out to embed new values and new social relations into the world,” Benjamin said. “Whereas the idea of code switching is about fitting in and ‘leaning in’ to play a game created by others, what we really need right now is for more people to stretch out the arenas in which we live and work to become more inclusive and just.”

Create a new normal

Training students to fashion new systems will require mastery of current systems, plus commitment toward collaboration and creativity, Benjamin said. Rigorous imagination is important, she said, as it ensures schools avoid the common trap of creating “a shiny new version of the same old thing.”

To this end, Benjamin outlined five ways schools might unintentionally limit imagination as they engender social change.

Ahistorical fallacy. This is the tendency to consider historical events and actions as irrelevant and having no effect on current systems. The passage of time does not equal progress, Benjamin said.

She cautioned schools against letting the promises of technology — often cloaked in marketing rhetoric, such as “breakthrough” or “cutting edge” — divert their attention from seeing important historical patterns that could reproduce inequity. Moving forward will include struggle and setback, she said. “Time is nonlinear, and social change is not a given,” Benjamin said.

Legalistic fallacy. This idea assumes that altering policy and laws is sufficient for achieving social equality. Not true, Benjamin said. Policy change must accompany the deep transformation of social and cultural standards. Schools are good places to struggle with this. “Educators are cultural workers, on the front lines of either reproducing the world as it is or empowering our students to create it as it can and should be,” she said.

Individualistic fallacy. This concept says that society reflects individuals’ intentions, for better or for worse, Benjamin said. It also places the responsibility for rectifying inequality on the shoulders of those affected by it. She called on educators to rally for change here. “Rather than grooming people who have been actively kept out of STEM to be ‘less susceptible to discrimination,’ how about we expect those who currently monopolize power not to implicitly or explicitly discriminate?” she said.

Fixed fallacy. This idea sets parameters on how we define measures of progress. She cited as an example the entrance of women and minorities into jobs and social arenas that were historically reserved for white men of a certain class and religion. While this was certainly a move forward, Benjamin encouraged educators to imagine new opportunities that go beyond a fixed notion of progress and nurture intellectual agility and resourcefulness in students. “The point is not simply for students to have jobs, but also to have purpose,” she said.

Tokenistic fallacy. This notion states that the mere presence of women and people of color in places of influence is adequate proof of progress. Our goals should be bigger than “expanding the gender and race diversity on a company’s pie chart.” Instead, she said, we should provide all students labeled as less than proficient with opportunities that allow them to become masters of their own worlds. “These young people are not simply individual players learning to win at the game of life. But they are learning to work together to design alternatives to the status quo that will impact us all,” she said.

As she wrapped her presentation, Benjamin again encouraged educators to be vigilant in their use of material technologies to make sure they don’t widen social divides and to also invest structures that grant students more agency and opportunity to engage. Above all, she said, remember that people and relationships are the keys to true equity and change in our social climates.

“Love is, in fact, the most powerful technology at our disposal, with its ability to reshape human relations as we know it,” she said. “Let us commit to turning it ‘on’ often and in abundance, in service to humanity.”

Kanoe Namahoe is the editor for SmartBrief on EdTech and SmartBrief on Workforce.


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