In a webinar on the tension of contested power from “Education in the Balance,” Gregg Seaton and Jason Swanson discuss contested power and how education leaders can help rethink systems and stakeholders through examining examples, learner agency, transparency, assessment and accountability, educator workforce preparation and roles of caregivers. Watch the video and read a transcript below.
Below is the transcript for the video of “Bringing Justice and Equity into Education,” which has been edited for clarity.
Jason Swanson: All right, folks. So thanks for joining us. This is, we’ll call it episode two of our “Education in the Balance” series. Today we’re going to be focusing on the tension that we’re seeing called contested power. So joining me today is a new teammate of ours, a relatively new teammate of ours. It’s my honor to introduce you all to Gregory Seaton. He’s the senior director of Impact and Improvement. Gregg, do you want to tell folks a little bit about yourself?
Gregg Seaton: Yeah. One, thank you, Jason and Sean, and good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for taking time to join us. I’m Gregg Seaton, the senior director of Impact and Improvement at KnowledgeWorks and prior to KnowledgeWorks was at Jobs For The Future, helping build equitable pathways. And a little before that was a professor at the College of New Jersey for about 15 years, and really interested in how boys, in particular males of color, navigated both neighborhood and school. And so looking for ways to support young people as they one, addressed school systems, but also addressed what was happening in neighborhood. And the whole idea was to support youth in one, recognizing their own stressors and two, how they responded to them in long-term adaptive ways.
Swanson: Awesome. So welcome, Gregory. Thank you for joining us today. So for those of you who may not have joined us for the previous episode, my name is Jason Swanson. I’m your host. I’ll be here for the duration. I serve as the director of strategic foresight here at KnowledgeWorks. And to just provide a little bit of level setting, kind of how we ended up here in this conversation was about a year ago. The strategic foresight team held just a reflection. It was a conversation on what COVID could mean for the future of learning. And we were really fortunate to have people join us from far and wide.
Individuals from more than 20 countries joined us for an informal roundtable exploring future tensions and uncertainties arising from COVID-19. Watch the video that sparked “Education in the Balance.”
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So we had an international audience to really discuss this idea of this massive disruption and what it might mean for the future. So there was a really, really robust conversation that took place both online and in the chat and coming out of that, we recognized that we had some work to do. So the team and I sat down and we started to think about really COVID, the disruption, and more specifically, those sort of under the hood tensions that were bubbling up beyond just the questions on how we serve learners, right? So how can we continue with education continuity, things like device access, but really what else might be happening? Big issues that could steer futures for learning.
And we created a publication or really some content that we called “Education in the Balance.” And these were a set of future tensions or future issues that allowed us to really look at what we would think of is at least near term critical uncertainties, to then start to make certain assumptions about directionality and their relation to a wide range of futures and outcomes associated with learning. So those included leadership focused, and this is this idea or this tension around, will system leaders bring people together to really imagine drastically different futures, or might we really experience some systems snapback? And will we fall prey to the exhaustion that we’re all feeling and be pushed to really a return to normal and to how things used to be?
We looked at this idea of strained systems and that this idea the education system’s capacity to address the complex problems that it faces is really limited. And even though we’re looking at a really big infusion of resources right now, that idea is that it’s probably likely a one-time infusion. So might we see new approaches and funding that can address these really massive looming challenges or might we see systems continue to rely on really inadequate approaches and structures to meet these challenges?
And then last but not least, the framing of our conversation today and this is one of the reasons I’m so excited to talk to Gregg is this idea of contested power, and that some of my colleagues have suggested we might call this “unyielding power.” And that throughout the past year, we’ve seen communities of color finding new avenues of power and influence in the education sphere for a wide variety of reasons.
So when we look at this trajectory of change, I think we need to ask ourselves, will community activism really have a lasting impact or will established power structures prevail? Another way to look at this is, might this be cyclical where we have an event and we have rightful movement and an outrage around that event? And then we have this return to normal after there’s a little bit of action. So with that, we’re going to dive right in. I’m going to stop sharing my screen. And my question to you, Gregg, is in this moment in time as think about that tension and through the work that you do and have done, what are the ways that you’ve seen this tension start to play out on the ground in the learning communities that you’ve served and with the stakeholders that you talked to?
What are the ways that you’ve seen contested power start to play out in the learning communities that you’ve served and with the stakeholders that you talked to?
Seaton: It’s interesting in that one, I just want to acknowledge the verdict yesterday and also acknowledge how that has both informed and helped frame some of the responses today, at least from my vantage point. And the George Floyd case in many ways sparked an opportunity particularly last year for a lot of educators, intermediary organizations, and even philanthropy to think about equity, racism, systemic structures in very old… Think about old issues with new lenses. I think it was just so stark and undeniable that it forced us to recognize the humanity of others in ways that we really haven’t historically since the civil rights movement. And I’ve been thinking about the cyclical nature of this and wondering how we help those that are institutional leaders and those on the front line one, navigate what it means to be equitable and just. I think that will mean different things in different spaces.
And then two, how that shows up. I know for a lot of last year, because of the dual pandemic of COVID and racial justice, folks have been… COVID revealed what was always there. It just made it more extreme. And I think we are now at an inflection point to either make a decision. The decision is, do we leverage the collective identity or this whole notion of collectivism that the dual pandemics expose? For example, the science of wearing a mask. The mask is not for you the individual necessarily, it’s to protect others. The coming together around social activism. There were people that did not necessarily look like George Floyd front and center.
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I think the lesson is to leverage our interconnectedness, particularly as we foreground equity and understanding how the liberation of others is tied into your liberation. And that’s more than a philosophical ideal, as the numbers or demographics shift in the US. Equity is not just a thing for people of color. I think those White folks are going to have to also begin to think about equity and power sharing differently. And there is a vested interest beyond altruism for equity to prevail.
Swanson: Absolutely. So in a perfect world, there is just the moral argument. Full stop. We don’t need to carry this any further, but to your point, the problems that we have on the horizon. In fact, I would even say the current challenges we face now, they’re challenges that face no border, they’re global in nature, that are going to require us to unlock everybody’s talent and good thinking to really meet head on to create a more livable future for everyone, including the entrenched power structures that be now. It is in our interest to bet big on our collective future by harnessing our collective wisdom. And we cannot do that with the current structures we have at play. And so I’m tracking with you 100%.
Seaton: I would just add to that point, and I think one of the questions tends to lead to the how. How to engage in power sharing with communities of color? And I think part of that is recognizing that many of these communities have so much to share and so much value that the communities can do the work for you in terms of those that are in educational leadership. And the degree to which we are comfortable sharing those spaces will govern the degree to which we are successful.
How is learner agency contributing to systemic change?
Swanson: Absolutely. When I reflect on a lot of the research we’ve done over the past year around the innovations and changes that have sprung up really across the learning landscape, one of the sources of concern I have when thinking through both an equity lens and this idea of contested or unyielding power is that a lot of the innovation has happened in a very narrow band. And I’m not looking to put it down or to get denigrated or to minimize it because it was an amazing list. But that narrow band was around really the how. Now, how are we going to continue to educate kids within the paradigm of the existing system? Zoom, broadband, all necessary ingredients. But certainly George Floyd and what we would think of degree of strategic fit with those innovations should and will push us then to ask about the what and the why.
And I think that we need to move that conversation, even from an equity standpoint, not just how do we think about different ways of resourcing and different areas of opportunity, but what am I teaching and why am I teaching it? At its very core and I think having those conversations really will be transformative. I think when we think about the nature of contested power and having a lot of new voices and new awareness of how… In and of how the system works should push those questions to the floor. So now that we’ve shored up our basis and we have more kids than ever having access to the internet that now we can start to talk about the real meat of the issue and get into systems change and not systems tweaks. I’m sensing that perhaps you’re also seeing the same thing. And so I’m curious to know your thinking around that.
Seaton: In preparation for this was really in a place of hopelessness around the cyclical nature that I think you so eloquently framed earlier around event movement, status quo and not knowing how the [Derek Chauvin trial] verdict would go yesterday was just an incredible weight. And it took a while to share that and part of framing for the future or thinking about where the possibilities lie to create systems that allow young people to actualize their full selves, I just went to history for inspiration and was thinking about Dewey and the Hull-House, Jane Addams. And so early 1900s where this notion of letting youth interest guide their educational journey, but also human development. And Dewey’s premise that in the absence of deeply experiential education that youth never actualize the muscle to become lifelong learners, but also that in the absence of an educational system that promotes criticality, that democracy is not possible.
And so looking to the past to reimagine a future in which humans rethink the space, shape and character of education and how distance learning has allowed youth and parents to allow schools to be much more transparent and thinking about how do we maintain some of that transparency, some of that agency and double down on it? Also inspired by youth leadership in the civil rights movement. How are we creating spaces for young people to make meaning of the historical moments in which they live that go beyond the periodic table or Pythagorean theorem? All important things, but wow, you survived a pandemic. How are we making meaning of that? That so important in that for many of these marginalized communities. And so how do we make meaning of what it took to survive?
Can you say more about transparency?
Swanson: Rita asks, can you say more what you mean by transparency? It’s a word used often, but I’m wondering if you’re talking about the kind that means showcasing our vulnerability to one another or is that what transparency should be?
Seaton: Rita, I think the answer that I would like to give is that it’s I think both. Transparency in this sense of… I think we have to free leaders and people that are in this space grappling with these issues of the notion that they have to be perfect because at an individual level and at an organizational level, we’re both being and becoming and acknowledging the fact that as part of that cyclical process, that we will make mistakes and acknowledge that we don’t have to show up perfectly. I think we then open up our own understanding and it invites other folks in. It allows us to honor different types of knowledge in being in ways that I don’t think we traditionally do.
If principals didn’t think that they had to know everything and do everything, if superintendents didn’t think that everything was up to them to make happen, this notion of transparency is freeing and it moves us more to a collective mindset where I think we could get much further.
As we think about learning loss, accelerated learning and opportunities to learn, and discuss pros and cons of testing, how do we seriously consider what students have learned during this time?
Seaton: What I would love to see us giving students structured assignments and let them answer the question. Whether it’s mixed media or how have you changed over the last year? What has been meaningful to you and leave it very open-ended and giving students the freedom to talk about and make meaning of that experience I think would be so powerful and fascinating. While at the College of New Jersey, I was teaching a pre-service course to largely middle-class White female students from Jersey. That should come as no surprise given what we know about teaching demographics, but a lot of these students would go into urban districts.
And the way that the program was set up was that they would not have an opportunity to work with students from urban districts until their junior or senior year. Too late. The long and short of it is, is that working with a group of middle schoolers, the middle schoolers came to the college and taught the class. And so it was an opportunity for middle schoolers to say, “Wow, all of these college students are paying money to hear me talk about adolescent learning and development.” And it was powerful for both populations in that it allowed my pre-service teachers to see the power, the brilliancy, creativity of these kids. And also allow middle schoolers to see their own power and value in terms of education and learning.
Swanson: The question that I am the most curious about from youth perspective is it not only just what have you learned the last year, what have you learned about adults? When we think about developing that criticality and creating these liberatory and emancipatory spaces. Just tell us how you’re seeing this. We need to know that as much as that’s a powerful frame and thinking about change and what we want.
What’s the single most important thing teacher preparation can do differently to be part of this important shift and movement?
Seaton: I think lead pre-service teachers through identity shifting and imagination building experiences. In many ways, we are asking teachers to create environments that they never experienced. And so how do we help de-center their own identities to bring about creativity and thinking about what those experiences may mean for other types of students? So explicitly helping pre-service teachers create the spaces that they would as teachers.
What role do you see for parents and caregivers in this?
Swanson: Janice asks, what role do we see for parents in this? In partnership to drive the innovations that we’ve talked about, maybe just in terms of tapping them for maybe different perspectives and increase visibility as to barriers of learning, but from your vantage point, what role do you see for parents and I’ll say caregivers?
Seaton: Yes, I am fanboying over a researcher by the name of Ann Ishimaru. And she talks about co-design of educational spaces with parents and with the idea of equity at the center. And this is really about principals and educators reaching out, not just for participation or to hear voice, but reaching out to parents to co-construct and co-design the educational experience. Which is radical and very different than what we’ve done in many ways. But I don’t think parents’ community voice has been as proximal as it is now in a long time. So for me to think radically, as Ishimaru suggests, now is the time. Yes.
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