This paper explores ideas around the construction of culturally empowering learning spaces that mitigate constraining structures in public education, erected in large part by the motive force of racism. I also discuss how advanced collaborative technologies can be deployed to facilitate the construction of these learning spaces, and accomplish the transformation of said constraining structures. My premise is that public schools have embedded in them thick structures engaged by minority students in such a way that reproduces arrangements of their domination and subordination in society. Bakhtin’s concepts of the dialogical discourse and “ideological becoming” are applied to the delicate process of positive identity formation through collaborative discourses and knowledge construction, that can take place in a culturally empowering learning space. I also borrow heavily from Bourdieu, Sewell and Tobin, their theories and concepts of cultural structures and their transformation. Any project addressing the transformation of educational praxis must be grounded in a socio-cultural theory of action that accounts for the structures of the school environment, the motives of the groups involved, and dynamics of social change.
Relations between Culture, Education and Social Transformation
In assessing school policy and praxis, one must first place the school in the context of the wider socio-cultural field that it is situated in. Learning activity in any school setting are mediated by the macro and meso structures that the schools are situated in. Schools a primary sites for the reproduction of the larger cultural values and motives, which often have much to do with reinforcing a stratified class and racial system of relations. It almost goes without saying that these macro and meso structures will deeply shape the educational practices, experiences, and outcomes that occur.
Early in his book, “The Culture of Education”, Bruner takes this very same relational view …
In the culturalist approach to education, the “first premise is that education is not an island, but part of the continent of culture. It asks first what function “education” serves in the culture and what role it plays in the lives of those who operate within it. Its next question might be why education is situated in the culture as it is, and how this placement reflects the distribution of power, status, and other benefits. Bruner, J. (1996).
Bourdieu (2000) intimates in his works that schools are sites where the reproduction of the structure of power relationships between classes occurs. This happens through the mechanisms of distribution of cultural capital. Implicating education systems as primary sites where the reproduction of power relations in a stratified society occur, Bourdieu says, “this means that our object becomes the production of the habitus, that system of dispositions which acts as a mediation between structures and practice; more specifically, it becomes necessary to study the laws that determine the tendency of structures to reproduce themselves by producing agents (students) endowed with the system of predispositions which is capable of engendering practices adapted to the structures and thereby contributing to the reproduction of the structures.”
One idea embedded within this statement is that action by actors is tied up with an engagement of structures (“engendering practices”), which can lead to a reproduction of existing structures. This suggests to me that there must also be other side to the coin, that agents can engage structures in a way so as not to reproduce them, but rather transform them according to their own goals. It is this prospect that I consider in a project to use technology resources to support a higher ordered educational praxis for African American youth in public schools.
My premise is that the macro structures of globalization, racism, and classism severely limit the educational outcomes and potential of minority students in public education, particularly so for African American students. It is commonplace for those who benefit within a society where the distribution of resources is stratified along racial and class categories, to deny the reality that racism and classism still deeply impinge on the learning outcomes and potential of minority students in public education. This denial serves the purpose of maintaining these limiting structures and shielding their macro and meso level transformation. Bell In her book “Teaching to Transgress”, Bell Hooks references the need to transform educational institutions into sites of liberation …
“If we examine the traditional role of the university in the pursuit of truth and the sharing of knowledge and information, (Resources), it is painfully clear that biases that uphold and maintain white supremacy, imperialism, sexism and racism have distorted education so that it is no longer about the practice of freedom. .. The call for a recognition of cultural diversity, a rethinking of ways of knowing, a deconstruction of old epistemologies, and the concomitant demand that there be a transformation in our classrooms, in how we teach and what we teach, has been a necessary revolution – one that seeks to restore life to a corrupt and dying academy. Hooks, B. (1994).
Racism is not the only force to be reckoned with. Classism, excessive capitalism expressed through globalization and manifesting structurally in local in schools, is also a force in need of countering and transformation. Ken Tobin in his paper, “Global Reproduction and Transformation of Science Education”, also makes the link of macro level structures impinging on the local school structures and limiting the educational outcomes / potential of minority students.
“The Neoliberal demand expressed through Globalization and reaching down to the public school system, tends to define education for mostly African American and Latino students in such narrow terms that are not in my view compatible with their overarching goals of becoming independently successful by their own definitions.” (Tobin, K. 2009)
Tobin asks, “How should access and appropriation of resources be included in a theory of freedom in science (any) education?” Tobin (2010). I extend this same question here by asking, how can technology resources be accessed and appropriated in culturally empowering ways to support freedom in education for African American and other minority groups of students? I propose that collaborative spaces using interactive technologies can enhance learning for minority students, if constructed in culturally empowering ways that take up the challenge of developing positive student identities as agents for personal and collective uplift.
Bakhtin’s Dialogical Discourse and Identity Development
Agency involves an actor using available tools, structures or resources to carry out actions to obtain a goal. My unit of analysis from this perspective is not the actor (African American student) in isolation. Too often this kind of focus produces deficit theories, finding the problem of under achievement by African Americans in their own bodies, minds and ethnic culture. It is not the African American student in isolation, even connected to advanced tutorial software applications that I consider. I consider activities of groups of students in collaboration through interactive technologies for the purpose of increasing their agency to offset much of the limiting structures of racism and classism. I consider how through their collective activities they can proactively solve problems that are relevant to their groups. I consider how having access to timely, relevant, and up-to-date knowledge capital and processes afforded by interactive technologies can enhance the learning experiences, outcomes and potential of minority students, if these are deployed in a culturally empowering manner.
Furthermore, collaborations in online learning spaces involving a community of students tend to make the construction of knowledge less centered on the teacher, and less an exercise of reproducing established knowledge and power structures. That is, knowledge production in interactive environments would be less authoritative, monological and passive as Bakhtin (1986, 2004) describes it. They would rather be more in keeping with Bakhtin’s concept of inner persuasive discourse where participants actively scrutinize, challenge, change, reject and argue over, existing knowledge to suit their needs and evolving understandings. Multiple “utterances” or dialogues are then considered, synthesized or otherwise reshaped as needed. New products that students appropriate and generate can be acted upon to support their agency and identity formation. Existing knowledge and relational structures will be reproduced only if they support the motives of the collective. If not, these structures will be targeted for transformation, thus providing for agency and liberating education.
Students will no longer fall into serving the intentions of dominant groups, nor channel the words, ideologies, goals, and problems of dominant groups. Students become critical thinkers, not just in their ability to analyze data and problems, but to do so in relation to their uplift and that of the community. Without this critical facility, they would simply implicate themselves in sustaining the reproduction of their own subordination in society through a mis-educational system. They would “recite by heart” other people’s voices or structural rules. They would, in the Bakhtin sense, parrot Authoritative discourses, rather than retell their stories in their own words. Learning to privilege one's own critical voice is what Bakhtin (1981), refers to as “ideologically becoming”. This is education proper and is sorely lacking in public schools where African American students predominate. A culturally empowering learning space would encourage this kind of critical thinking and development of “voice” or ideological self through the process of sharing with and building upon ideas of others with liberating motives in a collaborative space.
Turner (2007) expresses a concept of social change through emotionally charged act emanating from the micro level of the human encounter, and cascading through meso and macro structures … “emotional arousal at the level of iterated encounters spreads through networks of meso structures, changing key corporate and categoric units or perhaps creating new meso-level structures, that change macro level structures. … For most encounters however, the culture of mesostructures is reinforced and reproduced which in turn, sustains culture at the macro level of social organization.” It is my hope that through the enactment of transformative education through the construction of culturally empowering learning spaces locally, will have a cascading and enduring transformative impact on how education is practiced on maro and even global levels, in this country and beyond its boarders.
Attributes of a Culturally Empowering Classroom
Below are listed essential attributes of a culturally empowering classroom. By culturally empowering, I mean what I’ve already discussed about the development of “voice”, the ideological self, and the facility to use resources to accomplish individual and group goals. If these are lacking in some critical degree in the classroom environment where African American students predominate, then old epistemologies and relations of dominance will persist.
Teachers are not only highly qualified in a given content area, but know how to use the technology to enhance the curriculum.
Ideally there are consortiums of collaboration with other people who are involved with the same learning topics, or who are otherwise stakeholders in the learning process. The classroom is not “walled in”, but is extended in its reach through micro, meso and macro contexts. The collaborative technologies facilitate this synchronous and asynchronous cross-pollination.
The teacher is aware of structures at play that will tend to limit the educational outcomes of students, such as racism, globalization manifested locally, and the push for national standards.
Focus is given to curriculum design that mediates the tension between the push for standardized testing, and the deep need for African American students to develop skills that address problems specific to their local community developmental needs.
Technology tools, particularly those that foster online collaboration, will not only be deployed to elevate the efficiency and effectiveness of problem solving, but will be directed to solving problems that are relevant to the African American student and his/her community. Thus there will be a real-world (from the perspective of the African American student) focus to the construction of the curriculum and activities that ground the course principles.
Not only are technology resources made available for appropriation by students, but also the ideologies that support the positive identity formation of students as agents capable of achieving goals relevant their community. There is recognition that identity is central to the education process. The identity formation the individual African American student is tied inextricably to the motives of the wider community to achieve equality in American society of all levels. The process of enhancing education of the African American student does not begin and end in the mind of the student, but is in a dialectical relationship to the problem of community uplift.
The instructor is capable of guiding this mediated action of the student with this aim always in mind.
There will always be a wrestling with competing ideologies at every in this educational process. There will be the authoritative ideologies that have been established by the limiting motives of racism and globalization. These ideologies will be present in the bodies of administrators, teachers, peers, and adopted by students themselves. In these culturally empowering learning spaces there will be countering liberating ideologies that come from students, teachers, and other stakeholders. These ideologies will compete for predominance in the minds of teachers and students at any given moment. The environment will have the resources, physical, virtual, and mental available to the student, to fashion solutions to individual and collective problems, whose solution(s) will empower the individual and the collective.
Incubating in such culturally empowering environments, developing the mastery over the resources available to them, becoming grounded in liberation ideologies that can disarm constraining ideologies, students will establish positive identities as agents for self and collective uplift. Students will gain the facility to examine problems and seeing them in relation to wider structures that tend to reinforce the problem of their subordination and domination in society at large. With the development of the “ideological self”, a positive affective identity formation, students will gain the agency necessary to counter and transform limiting ideologies and structures (internal and external. As students are afforded opportunities to appropriate the resources in a culturally empowering learning environment, they will simultaneously develop identity constructs that will persist even in the face of more deeply constraining structures established on the meso and macro levels. There is even a chance that their enhanced agency will position them to participate in efforts to transform these structures.
Collaboration, Collective Competence and Knowledge Capital
The following is a discussion on how classrooms where African American students predominate can be enhanced via infusion of interactive technologies. Interactive technologies in education offer powerful tools for addressing field trip and meeting constraints, access to experts in a given disciple with video-based problems, computer simulations, electronic communications systems that connect classrooms with communities of practitioners and experts in science, mathematics, and other fields. This all allows students to collaborate in wider collaborative learning communities. In these spaces, students can use shared collaborative and visual tools and see how their local data fits into a larger model. (e.g. local environmental studies of climate issues). Integrating this approach into the curriculum results in positive student attitude towards and engagement with complex problems.
Students can be engaged in online learning communities for creating, sharing, and mastering knowledge: exchanging real-time data, deliberating alternative interpretations of that information, using collaboration tools to discuss the meaning of findings, and collectively evolving new conceptual frameworks. Knowledge and meaning is obtained through the synthesis of multiple dialogues and points of view, where each “utterance” in the Bakhtin sense, is predicated on those that came before. In an interactive virtual learning space, these utterances can be contributions to a threaded discussion on a discussion board. To accomplish this I have for example, used the Moodle collaborative software as a collaborative tool in my high school math classes. The outcomes of this collaboration benefit not just the individual student, but can become a repository of relevant knowledge capital, by and for the community at large. It becomes a collective competency, directed at meaning making that is meaningful to both the individual and the community the individual comes from. It will remain a collective competence so long as the discourses and knowledge produce remains directly relevant or synchronous to the common problems faced by the collective. Once this golden rule is violated, then the environment has been compromised. An accumulation of compromises past a critical point will render the collaborative environment ineffectual in the uplift of both the individual and collective. This possibility has to be vigilantly mitigated by both the participants and designers of the learning space.
Technology can make it easier for teachers to give students feedback about their thinking and for students to revise their work. It creates opportunities to incorporate into curricula a reflexive approach to instruction that helps students see where they are in the inquiry process and to act in ways that oppose harmful influences of socialization and social structure. Processes called reflective assessment can be used, in which students reflect on their own and each other’s inquiries. Opportunities to interact with working scientists, as discussed above, also provide rich experiences for learning from feedback and revision. These processes can make students’ reasoning more visible and encourages reflective thinking. With support from the instructor, these processes engage students in dialogues that integrate information and contributions from various sources to produce knowledge. Using powerful Graphical User Interface (GUI) tools and forth generation computer languages (4GL), students can construct a model of a problem along with a possible solution set and submit it for collaborative review. A teacher can in the same sense as a text document, markup the model or otherwise point out to the student areas where the model may be enhanced for a better solution. Students can then explore the suggested solution path.
This aspect of scaffolding is critical for students who are weaker in a given learning domain and who are struggling to navigate it. It also enables students to become more reflective and aware of successful strategies in navigating the given field of study. Technology thusly creates opportunities to incorporate into curricula a meta-cognitive approach to instruction by using an inquiry cycle that helps students see where they are in the inquiry process. The end result is that students learn the processes of becoming adept at a particular learning domain. They develop identities as authors / designers who not only adequately function in the semiotic domain, but also advance the learning domain to wider frontiers through unique authoring / designing contributions. Students engage in guided, reflective inquiry through extended projects, and with the use of sophisticated concepts and skills embedded in models, generate ever more complex products. Students become actively engaged partners in meaning making by considering and building on multiple perspectives.
Research Questions and Authenticity Checks
My aim is to create and study culturally empowering learning spaces where students, can leverage interactive technologies to enhance learning on the behalf of students, particularly African American students, their communities, and society at large. I generally judge the merit and benefit of this study based on how well I can synthesize answers to the essential questions posed in this study for myself for one. Then the data, analyses and insights produced through the study must position participants and stakeholders to answer these questions for themselves. My overarching rational for these questions is that student achievement must be assessed in relation to their developing identity, critical sense, knowledge construction towards self-relevant problems, and developing agency to achieve individual and community goals. A synthesis of ideas from the various cultural theories mentioned will hopefully afford a deep understanding of the processes of meaning making, and growing agency of participants to appropriate resources (interactive technologies) that will advance their individual and group goals. The below is a restatement of the essential questions that I hope to answer through this study, along with their corresponding authenticity and validity checks.
1) How, if at all, do these student's discourses and authored products express the development of their ideological self, privileging their own “voices”; meaning their own ideas of what learning activities will benefit themselves and their community. This question is meant to ascertain if students feel free to counter ideologies and structures that impinge on their agency in education. Data that will answer these questions are: synchronous and asynchronous dialogue; student journals; individual and group interviews, authored products, as in essays. So the first authenticity check for this study is that students will experience an expansion of their own “voice” to express what knowledges and activities are beneficial for themselves. They will be less likely to accept and follow uncritically, ideas and practices that do not serve their own defined criterion for what benefits their self-defined goals. If most students on the other hand consistently express the sentiment that they feel imposed upon by using Moodle and that using it encumbers their ability to effectively perform the tasks necessary address the learning objectives of the course, then this would indicate a need to reevaluate the effectiveness of the project.
2) How, if at all, do these students’ discourses and authored products express development of their affective identities as competent actors in their semiotic domain? This question builds on the first and tracks the students’ agency to proactively appropriate resources as needed to accomplish their individual goals. Data that will answer these questions are: authored products as in concept models, discourses, topic selections, all produced over time and demonstrating the application of concepts learned towards problems relevant to the participants. The second authenticity check then for this study is, students will increasingly identify their constructed knowledges and activities as having benefit to not only themselves, but also to their communities. Local stakeholders in the school and community will likewise identify the collective praxis of participants as establishing an educational paradigm that actually supports educational objectives aligned to the enduring best interests of students. If on the other hand most students and other stakeholders, over the span of the course, consistently express that they don’t see their body of work through Moodle as having relevancy to their community, but rather express that this work actually reduces the relevancy of what they produce to the needs of their community, then that is an indication that the benefit of this project must be reevaluated.
3) How, if at all, do these students’ discourses and authored products express that they identify their problem solving activities and goals as advancing the motives of their group and larger community? This question examines if students associate their individual agency with the goals of their wider group, family, and community. Data that will answer these questions are authored products that result from their activity in projects; extended school activities such as community service co-op courses, mentorship programs, all manner or social activism. A third authenticity check then for this study is that students constructed knowledges and activities actually serve to transform existing educational practice on not only local levels, such as classroom and school, but also on, meso levels such as district and region. The established praxis captured by this study would further serve as a model for transformative education on macro levels, as in urban education for minorities across districts, states and throughout the entire country. If this transformation does not occur after implementation across departments in the school for at least three years, despite being fully resourced materially and with teachers with supportive ideological perspectives, then the project must be reevaluated as to its benefit to students.
Other validity checks
The students may express positive sentiments towards using Moodle because they think this will get them a higher grade in the course. To avoid this students must be allowed to submit their responses anonymously to the instructor of the course.
There are problems/validity threats using focus groups – that certain students will dominate discussion/sway opinion/set a certain tone for conversation. I would respond to this by mixing up the groups that are interviewed. Sometimes there may be a group of only females or males. Other times there may be only students who are not as vocal. In addition I would cross reference student interview narratives with submitted written narratives. If it asppears that some students don’t have a chance to fully express their views because of the group dynamic, I would invite some of those less vocal students to private interviews.
Student responses may reflect their positive valuation of the instructor who is highly qualified, and this may give a false positive valuation of the Interactive technology environment itself. My response to this validity threat is that having a highly qualified teacher, who is knowledgeable of the interactive technology and the content, are both requirements for the project.
Transformative results on the meso levels of school, district, region etc. are not visible after two years. My response to this validity threat is that it generally takes two or more years for organizational structures on the meso levels to become synchronized to new paradigms, and to work in ways that maximally leverage the new practices. This is assuming that there is agreement across these organizational structures that the goals of the project will be uniformly adopted and pursued. The project could not be assesses as a failure unless it is adequately resourced across the meso levels of the educational system, and simultaneously implemented, which would express its universal acceptance as a common organizational goal.
Educational Transformation, From Meso to Maco Structures
What becomes essential in the deployment of interactive technologies is not the technology itself, but the meaning making, liberating ideologies, and problem solving that are all directly relevant to the participants acting to their own benefit and that of the wider collective from which they come. New forms of computer models coupled with increasing ease and power of modifying and sharing these models without regard for distance or time, makes possible a broader, more powerful repertoire of pedagogical strategies that can be pressed into service to accomplish common goals of the collective.
Culturally empowering learning spaces that utilize advanced interactive technologies, coupled with liberating ideologies embedded in the curriculum, have the potential of producing educational experiences for African American students in public schools that are transformative of existing constraining structures in public schools, affording agency for both individuals and collectives. These spaces are not isolated enclaves that locate the problems facing African American students in the bodies of the students or in their ethnic practices. Rather, there is a recognition that agency of students is interlinked with how students and stakeholders access and manage available resources to construct meaning and knowledge that can be applied to their collective problems and motives. These learning spaces can serve as models for a public education generally, for not only minority students, but for all students. So these learning spaces in particular localities can have a transformative effect on meso and macro level structures of education and society as a whole. Sewell, in his Logics of history, conceives of meaningful events as “sequences of occurrences capable of causing transformations in existing structures. … Most events are neutralized and reabsorbed into preexisting structures in one way or another – they may be forcibly repressed, pointedly ignored, or explained away as exceptions. … An occurrence only becomes a historical event when it touches off a chain of occurrence that durably transforms previous structures and practices.”
Turner (2007) expresses a similar concept of social change through emotionally charged act emanating from the micro level of the human encounter, and cascading through meso and macro structures … “emotional arousal at the level of iterated encounters spreads through networks of meso structures, changing key corporate and categoric units or perhaps creating new meso-level structures, that change macro level structures. … For most encounters however, the culture of mesostructures is reinforced and reproduced which in turn, sustains culture at the macro level of social organization.” It is my hope that such a model project of creating culturally empowering learning spaces, and the accumulated knowledge capital that it produces, will touch off cascading series of meaningful events that will durably transform educational practices. My vision is that this will afford minority groups an equal education in its most egalitarian sense, thereby creating a more just society.
References Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays by M. M. Bakhtin (C. Emerson, & M. Holquist, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays (V. W. McGee, Trans. Vol. 9). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bourdieu, P. (2000). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In R. Arum & R. Beattie (Eds.), The structure of schooling: Readings in the sociology of education (pp. 56-68). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.
Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom (p29). New York and London: Routledge.
Sewell, H. W. (2005). The logics of history, social theory and social transformation (p227). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Tobin, K. (2010). Global reproduction and transformation of science education. Cult Stud of Sci Educ DOI 10.1007/s11422-010-9293
Turner K. (2007). Human emotions. A sociological theory (p73). New York and London: Routledge.