Student brilliance: “rose-colored schema”

Rose coloured glassesInstead of a general reading response, I ask my students in Culturally Responsive Teaching to complete CSQs–claim, support, question–on their reading.  Because the work of culturally responsive teaching often means knowing yourself, your position on various topics/issues/challenges, and confidence in those positions, it isn’t enough to summarize a reading.  I spend the first 3 or 4 responses getting most students to actually stake a claim. Then we build depth in their support and thoughtfulness into their questions.

But there are usually at least a few students who, though their own life experiences, already have a well-developed sense of cultural responsiveness.  I’m gifted with a few this semester and one, in her second CSQ, coined a term I’m going to chew on for awhile: “rose-colored schema.”

Schema, if you’re unfamiliar because you never had to take an educational psychology course, is one theory for how we learn and remember stuff.  Piaget, who you may know as the guy who first broke development down into stages, is credited with making schema a thing.  Schema/ta are cognitive structures that help us organize information, experiences, facts, perceptions, etc.   A brilliant friend once explained that schema are like a bunch of fishing hooks floating under the surface of a lake.  Each hook represents some kind of knowledge or a topic–about food or driving or movies.  New knowledge must be hooked onto what we already know to stick.  We build schema through our interactions with the world, which are influenced by our culture, language, and a host of other things. (This wasn’t Piaget’s thing, but Vygotsky and folks who came after him acknowledge this important piece of schema.)

When teachers talk about “background knowledge” or “funds of knowledge” they are often relying on an assumption that learning depends on schema.  Each person has a set of knowledge they carry around in their heads, organized into schema that have worked well for them to make it though life.  One challenge that teachers–and their students–face is that the schema students carry around does not always match the curricular standards as set forth by the state.  For example, Texas says that students are supposed to learn about “the siege of the Alamo and all the heroic defenders who gave their lives there” (Really, a direct quote. TEKS §113.19.b.3.C).  But if your family are descendants of Mexican soldiers trying to quash the Texas Revolution, your schema may not allow for a description of soldiers at the Alamo as “heroic defenders.”  You have background knowledge, but it isn’t “the right” background knowledge.

This example circles back to my student’s great phrase “rose-colored schema.”  She was responding to a chapter in our book about teaching the hard parts of history–slavery, Native American conquest–even to first graders.  But we don’t teach those hard parts. Our textbooks paper over the realities of slavery.  They barely mention the conquest and subsequent genocide of the indigenous peoples of the US.  These silences are certainly a national problem, but they are also a local problem.  Like in Texas, there’s no discussion of the Texas Rangers killing of Hispanic Americans during the Mexican Revolution.  Or the strikes and marches of the agricultural workers who suffered with terrible working conditions. These are not happy stories of freedom and democracy, but the challenging, complicated reality of our democratic project that often falls quite short of its ideals.

When this complexity isn’t included in classrooms, two problems–both related to schema–arise.  First, students whose lives and histories include this conflict are silenced.  Their schema–background knowledge–isn’t the “right” kind and they are unable to leverage that knowledge to succeed in school.  These students have to learn a different set of knowledge, one that is valued by the institution.  And they use incredibly thoughtful, creative, purposeful strategies to do that work.  Frankly, they’re using all the skills outlined in most standards to learn knowledge that silences their experience and history.  (For a great overview of one example of students doing this work in ways we often don’t see or value, read this article.)

Second, students whose lives and histories do not include this conflict–whatever it is–don’t know it existed/s.  They have no schema for it.  So, when this conflict becomes known–say their professor uses the word genocide to describe what the US government did to Native Americans– they do not know how to respond.  Or, this new knowledge directly conflicts with the schema they had built so carefully in school.  This lack of knowledge, and the inability to respond constructively to new knowledge, is related to white fragility.  Even more troubling, these students may not realize how they are implicated in the challenges their peers face.

So, it’s time to take off the rose-colored schema and build a schema far more inclusive of the range of experiences and knowledges of this world, grounded in the as-yet-to-be-obtained ideals of our founding documents.

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