Learning to Unlearn How We Think about Teaching and Schooling

James M. Loy, Miami University

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She only had three minutes. That’s all. Three minutes to convince the M.I.A.M.I. WOMEN Giving Circle to provide grant funding during the inaugural 2018 Hawk Tank event.

But Megan Cremeans, a Miami University sophomore studying integrated social studies and political science, didn’t even need that long. Her persuasive fast-paced pitch about a promising new project was finished in just over two.

“I was going to let you in on a little secret, and I decided against it,” she began by addressing an audience of donors. “Because you already know the secret. It’s that some kids hate school. They hate school. Our teachers recognize this problem and they are really trying their best. They have their best intentions. But it is not working.”

The voting was equally fast-paced, hosted online, in real-time. And afterwards the Giving Circle awarded Cremeans and her team nearly $10,000. 

The grant will go toward creating a new Community-based Action Project for Future Teachers (CAP), which promises to help educators become more critically-minded, culturally relevant, and better equipped to help more students succeed.

Starting this fall, CAP will be piloted in a class called EDT190, an introduction to education course offered by the College of Education, Health and Society (EHS), where the focus on diversity, empowerment, and transformative teaching and learning is already underway. 

Rethinking schooling

During her pitch, Cremeans also offered an eye-opening statistic, one that underscores a growing problem.

“Historically, 84 to 90% of teachers in America are white women,” she said. “Currently, 84 to 90% of teachers in America are white women. Clearly, our students don’t look like that. In 2014, our students passed 50% non-white. This is a problem. We recognize that we need experiences to better deal with diversity in our communities and find better ways to help our students.” 

So why do some students hate school? Why is school not working?

Megan Cremeans on stageOne reason, in part, is that traditional schooling often prioritizes the needs and interests of certain students, while ignoring or underserving others. When considering students across race, class, gender, and orientation, many public schools still abide a system that unintentionally reinforces an array of inequitable cultural biases. 

Non-white students, for example, who don’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum can find it harder to relate to, or engage with the content. In other cases, some learners may fall behind in classrooms that stress memorization and standardization over curiosity, active participation, and the kind of personalized engagement that they may otherwise need. 

When viewed through a critical lens, these trends become a story about who gets included? Who gets excluded? And why? Which can have big implications for the future of schools, especially when considering those who may be attracted to the teaching profession.

“It’s pretty intuitive that if you are good at school then you might decide to be a teacher,” says Dr. Scott Sander, EHS clinical faculty instructor and CAP team leader. “But if school becomes this place that is very alienating and marginalizing, you wouldn’t even think twice about teaching.”

This a problem that both EDT190 and the forthcoming CAP project are designed to address. Both reflect the EHS mission to create transformative leaders, as well as the department of teacher education’s mission to challenge students to become “critically conscious curriculum makers” who embrace social justice and diversity.

Both are also about recognizing a need to update the standard K-12 educational system by exposing future educators to new ways of thinking about teaching, learning, and schooling. The goal is to get new teachers to better understand how to engage all kinds of different students, especially those who are alienated in some way.

Sander sees much of the class as an “unlearning” process. And it involves breaking down and critically exploring many of the cultural assumptions and common narratives that most students are “told and sold” about schooling. 

Through EDT190, he asks students to thoughtfully consider and ruminate upon the historical contexts of school, the philosophy behind education, what it means to actually “learn,” and why embracing diversity through culturally relevant teaching can help marginalizes students succeed.

It’s a progressive approach. One that diverges from most introductory teacher preparation courses. Here, the very basic fundamentals of teaching are not about creating lesson plans or grading papers or making tests. It’s a class where student can begin contemplating the fundamental role of teachers, as well as the past, present, and future purposes of schooling. 

“EDT190 is breaking that mold and saying, actually, no, there is so much more to it,” says Cremeans. “You are dealing with growing and developing minds, and we are going to teach you not how to teach at kids. But learn and grow with kids. And help to become really critical and empowered teachers so that you can teach critical and empowered students.”

EDT190 is about planting these seeds. It’s about building a foundation. It’s the first step EHS teaching majors take along their four-year journey toward becoming future teachers. And CAP will advance this mission by expanding the course far beyond the classroom. 

Taking action, getting involved

“This CAP project is giving you the experiential tools to be immersive and to be critical and to look at your surroundings and to be culturally relevant, and all these things that we talk about,” Cremeans says. “But for real life. You really do it. So it is more powerful and it’s more direct and it’s really hitting at that heart of EDT190.”

people accepting a check on stageCurrently in an initial design phase, CAP is being overseen by Sander, Cremeans, and a team of five additional EHS student who are now connecting EDT190 course content with people and places across Miami and Oxford, Ohio.

Recently, Cremeans met with Rodney Coates, Miami University professor of black world studies, to discuss existing campus resources that can link Miami’s history with social justice with contemporary issues occurring today. 

Similar efforts are exploring additional connections that will give students an opportunity to, Sander says, “develop a deeper sense of place at Miami as they explore customs, culture, and history.”

These opportunities will incorporate content and activities around the Western College for Women, which was established in 1855 and merged with the university in 1974. Oxford's role in the 1964 civil rights voter registration drive known as Freedom Summer. The university’s partnership with the Native American Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. A local national historic landmark and museum celebrating the life and work of educational scholar William McGuffey, and more.

“The idea of service learning was the impetus for this project,” says Sander. “I think it’s important that students know more about Oxford, this space they infiltrate nine months a year. What do they actually know about it? So I wanted to create this home for some of the stories that have powerful implications for future teachers.”

Among these implications being: How do you work alongside a community? How do you feel more connected to your environment? Why were these organizations and events originally established? What do they help us understand about ourselves and about each other? 

And even though it won’t officially become part of a restructured EDT190 until the fall of 2019, the Community-based Action Project for Future Teachers has already begun to prove it’s worth.

“It’s been reaffirming” says Cremeans. “As a student who has taken the class, we learned that teachers listen to their students and then help them learn and grow. And now we are seeing a real life example. When Dr. Sander says, ‘Hey, you were my student, but let’s take this on together and let’s learn how to change it,’ that’s been really impactful for me personally.”