Challenging Conventional Wisdom to Effect Change
Common sense is hampering the ability to provide quality education to the country’s multicultural student population, says Kevin Kumashiro, founding director of the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education and president of the National Association for Multicultural Education. What’s more, this conventional wisdom is fostering a breeding ground for bias in our country’s classrooms.
Kumashiro, who is also a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of “Bad Teacher: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture,” has focused much of his work on encouraging others to question common ways of thinking. He says challenging assumptions is as valuable in corporate America as it is in the classroom.
Kumashiro will be exploring the commonalities between addressing diversity in education and business during his closing keynote address at the Network and Affinity Leadership Congress in Chicago on September 7. Diversity Best Practices’ Editor-in-Chief Angela Johnson Meadows spoke with Kumashiro about the challenges in educating multicultural students, why people from the classroom to the boardroom need to question conventional wisdom, and why is critical to get comfortable with discomfort.
What is the diversity challenge facing our educational system today?
We like to use words like “schools are about equal education opportunity” or “schools are about leveling the playing field or empowering everyone to succeed.” Those are great goals…but the reality is that throughout the past two centuries that is not how schools have actually functioned…. Historically, schools have served to sort students; they serve to differentiate students. It’s actually been a way that we’ve reinforced a lot of inequities in education—by social class, by race, by gender, and so on. Some of the things that are built into schooling, the systemic aspects of education, are things reforms today are not getting at.
What role does teacher preparation play in these inequities?
If I’m a university student, an 18 year old who says, “I want to go into teaching,” chances are I’m going into teaching because schools worked for me. The people who go into education are people who did pretty well in schools and so we already have ideas of what we think a good teacher is. It’s what worked for us….
If you get rid of teacher preparation, doesn’t that mean that what we’re doing in the classroom is what worked for us? Why is that a problem? It’s a problem because 80- something percent of the teaching force is middle-class White women. It’s a very, very homogenous group. And why is it also a problem? Because we already know that schools are not working for big sectors of our population. There’s an achievement gap by race, there’s an achievement gap by social class, there’s an achievement gap by gender, so clearly we should not be doing things the way we’ve been doing things so far.
In your work, you encourage people to challenge common sense. How can this approach be applied to diversity and inclusion in the workplace?
There’s common sense that has become dominant around the debate of diversity and that’s the common sense of inclusion. There’s a dominant story that tells us the goal that we should have is that our decision-making tables or work spaces should look very colorful. It should have people from all these different groups and that’s our goal. That’s one great goal to have…. The problem I have is that that should not be our only goal because that means that once everyone has gotten to the table our job is done. And we know that the reality is that once everyone gets to the table, there’s still a bunch of other problems, such as what the culture of the place is like. Representation can’t be the only goal when there also needs to be culture changes. There also needs to changes in decision-making processes. There needs to be all kinds of changes, not just representation or inclusion. This is one of the common stories I want us to challenge.
You also address the issue of discomfort as it relates to diversity.
A lot of my writing has been about when you’re in a classroom and you’re trying to talk about racism or things like bias. Those are often some pretty uncomfortable conversations. They’re not uncomfortable because they are controversial. They’re uncomfortable because they force us to think about how we are implicated in those issues. So talking about sexism often leads students to think to themselves, “Ha, you’re naming all these stereotypes about women and, man, I just realized I was believing all those stereotypes up until about two minutes before this conversation.” We often see ourselves as how we’ve been buying into these stories when we have these conversations. There is this whole theory out there that I like to call the theory of learning through crisis….When we learn something it often involves us learning something else. It involves having to giving up what I thought I knew about that topic. And sometimes unlearning can be incredibly uncomfortable.
How does this discomfort impact our efforts to effect change?
Discomfort, I argue, happens all the time, especially when we’re dealing with things around diversity, identity, community, injustice…. What we know from the research, when you feel uncomfortable, you don’t want to continue the conversation. You close down…. We need to create ways for people to work through the discomfort so they don’t become resistant. This is a challenge we see with politics, with the corporate sector, with social services. How do we have conversations about these kinds of issues, where we support people in not becoming so resistant? That’s our biggest challenge.