“Wrong Thoughts” and Other Things to Consider

Nearly at once, both icons have fallen from grace in ways that were unimaginable just months ago.  They are forcing a reckoning with ourselves and our history, a reassessment of who we were and of what we might become.Blog July 2015

So begins Isabel Wilkerson’s New York Times review of Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman, referring to the lowering of the Confederate Flag and the identity of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman character Atticus Finch.

In the review, Wilkerson writes about the complexity of Atticus Finch as portrayed in Go Set a Watchman, as a “gentleman bigot, well meaning in his supremacy.  In other words, he is human, and in line with emerging research into how racial bias has evolved in our society.  He is a character study in the seeming contradiction that compassion and bigotry can not only reside in the same person but often do, which is what makes racial bias, as it has mutated through the generations, so hard to address.”

In his review of Go Set a Watchman for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik sates, “beneath Atticus’s style of enlightenment is a kind of bigotry that could not recognize itself as such at the time….  The problem is not people who think wrong thoughts, since we all think what will, retrospectively, turn out to be wrong thoughts about something or other. The problem is people who give their implicit endorsement to violence or intolerance in the pursuit of wrong thoughts.”

So, as an educator in British Columbia, why am I referencing articles about the soul searching America appears to be in the midst of in response to horrific hate crimes, police violence, and the release of a novel reexamining a beloved character.  As an educator, I believe that the most transformational learning is so foundational to the learner’s identity it just becomes who they are and is not recognized as learning at the time.  The articles are a reminder to me to scan my biases and attempt to identify how they may be reflected in my practice.  And beyond scanning biases, it is worth noting that we may be, as Gopnik writes, unable to recognize our “wrong thoughts,” so ingrained are they from our upbringing including what we learned in school.

In recent years, including Stephen Harper’s 2008 statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools and the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Canadians have begun the process of recognizing historical and current “wrong thoughts.”  We are at the beginning of, what Justice Murray Sinclair notes, “forging and maintaining respectful relationships.”  How else does one go about scanning some of the messages educators and systems (classrooms, schools, Districts, Provinces) share with students and shape their perspectives often in such an ongoing way as to be unrecognizable?

As I question my biases, I’m drawn to some of the work I participated in with several colleagues last year.  We studied learner engagement and came up with an Engagement Profile that educators could use to help learners engage themselves in learning experiences (more on that can be found here).  Engagement_2015

Our Engagement Profile (still under development) asks learners, prior, during and after a learning experience, to ask several questions.  The Engagement Profile could also act as an assumption profile and be a good starting point for examining biases.  So, some thoughts on assumptions follow each question.

1.  Who are you learning with and who are you learning from?

Parker Palmer notes, “We teach who we are.”  An examination of “who” we are teaching includes:  What biases do I reveal to students? What topics/subjects do I show enthusiasm for; what not?

2.  What are you learning about and what are you learning to do?

Provincial policy decisions regarding curriculum guide what students learn about when but classroom policy decisions guide how much time is given to various topics of study and send messages to students about what skills and understandings are important and what are not.

3.  Where are you learning and what are you learning from your surroundings?

This question is perhaps examined the least.   Too often when we think about where we learn, we think about whether the environment is conducive to learning (appropriate lighting, quiet, comfortable…) rather than whether the environment has something to teach us about the topic and or our relationship with the topic.

Gopnik notes that, “we all think what will, retrospectively, turn out to be wrong thoughts,” and I know in 20 years that I might disown and possibly even feel ashamed of some of my current “wrong thoughts.”  But, by asking questions, I can examine some of my biases and, knowing that I will be unable to recognize them all, use these articles as yet another reminder of the importance of not just being open-minded to other perspectives, but to actively seek them out.

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