Praxis, teacher education and symmetry: The Lead the Change interview with Sarah Fine

This month’s Lead the Change (LtC) interview features a conversation with Dr. Sarah Fine, an educator and scholar working at the intersection of practice and research. Fine currently directs the San Diego Teacher Residency, hosted at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, and also teaches courses in educational leadership at the University of California San Diego and at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her recent book, coauthored with Jal Mehta, is In Search of Deeper learning: The Quest to Transform the American High School.

Lead The Change: The 2022 AERA theme is Cultivating Equitable Education Systems for the 21st Century and charges researchers and practitioners with dismantling oppressive education systems and replacing them with antiracist, equity, and justice-oriented systems. To achieve these goals, researchers must engage in new methodologies, cross-disciplinary thinking, global perspectives, and community partnerships to respond to the challenges of the 21st century including the COVID-19 Pandemic and systemic racism among other persistent inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems and reimagine new ways of thinking and doing in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Sarah Fine: Paulo Freire offered us the notion of praxis: cycles of inquiry which involve thinking critically about how sociopolitical systems work, taking action to create positive change, and reflecting on the process (Freire, 1970). A number of brilliant folks have written about how educators can take up Freire’s ideas in K-12 classrooms (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008; hooks, 1994). To this work I would add my own conviction that scholars of educational change, too, need to engage in praxis — and I believe that this praxis must involve more than simply galvanizing our students to do good work once they are “in the field.” This enlarged vision is no small commitment. The academy tends to reward thought over action, description over transformation, and theorizing about rather than theorizing with those who lead and work in schools. Plus, postulating on paper or in a lecture hall is comfortable; the world of K-12 public schools — “the field” — is a muddy, messy, imperfect place where elegant theories are inevitably complicated by the human-ness of human systems. Talking about implications for action is vanishingly simple by comparison to the actual work of making change in schools. I would argue, however, that it is imperative for us to do both: to read and write and observe and theorize, and also to enter into long-term action-focused partnerships which become a “text” that informs our scholarship. One without the other is insufficient.

This desire to engage in praxis has been a guide for my own career choice. After nearly a decade spent exploring the notion of deeper learning through qualitative research, I chose to depart academia in order to road-test my ideas by designing and directing a teacher residency program run out of an alternative institution of higher education. I admit that this project sometimes runs the risk of straying from Freire’s vision; my days “in the field” are sometimes so breathless that they leave little room for reflection. But that, too, tells a story about what it will take to accelerate efforts at transformation. We must reimagine what it means to be in practice as an educator, providing support and incentives for those who spend their time in and around K-12 schools to contribute their wisdom and experiences to the field’s knowledge-base. It is these kinds of shifts that can help us all to move beyond patterns of siloing and exploitation and to make good on a collaborative commitment to positive change.

LtC: Through your work as the Director of the San Diego Teacher Residency at High Tech High Graduate School of Education, you support future teachers in creating justice-oriented classrooms rooted in deeper learning and strengthen the pipeline for teachers of color. What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?

SF: In our recent book, Jal Mehta and I explored the idea of symmetry, e.g. the presence of guiding principles and practices which anchor the experiences of both adults and children in schools (Mehta & Fine, 2019). We argued that schools can make headway toward ambitious goals by cultivating symmetry — for example, by seeking to embed opportunities for extended inquiry or apprenticeship into adult learning as well as into classrooms. Based on my experiences designing and running the San Diego Teacher Residency, it turns out that symmetry is equally important in the context of teacher preparation. This is to say that novice teachers need the same things younger learners do in order to thrive and learn deeply: psychological safety, authentic purposes, culturally affirming pedagogy, tasks which lie within their zone of proximal development, modeling and support from expert mentors, opportunities to engage in productive struggle, and pauses to reflect on and celebrate their growth. On top of this, learning to teach for justice requires unlearning many of the normative beliefs and practices that dominate the field. This is true for white teachers and also for teachers of color, who may more easily recognize the myriad forms of oppression and marginalization that dominate traditional classrooms but still need to experience and learn new repertoires of practice by which to resist the pull of doing things as they have always been done. For example, we have found that with carefully designed coursework and expert facilitation, our teacher residents (white and BIPOC alike) are fairly quick to grasp why punitive and exclusionary classroom disciplinary policies are so inequitable. However, understanding what not to do does not automatically come along with the knowledge of what to do instead — and without viable alternatives, even teachers who recognize harmful practice will revert to the status quo. Thus, helping novices learn to “see” the problems of shallow, teacher-centered, eurocentric, one-size-fits- all pedagogy is the tip of the iceberg; the most important work lies in exploring and rehearsing new forms of instructional design and facilitation. This is where deliberate symmetry comes in, because every moment that our residents spend in our care is a moment to “walk our talk” by providing them with learning experiences that assist in the process of disruption and replacement.

“Learning to teach for justice requires unlearning many of the normative beliefs and practices that dominate the field.”

LtC: In your recent book, In Search of Deeper Learning, you argue for American high schools to create opportunities for deeper learning, teachers, administrators, parents, and educational communities need to unlearn ideas about schooling and set up organizational structures that value authentic problem solving and depth over breadth (among many other things!). In the past two years, how has remote learning and other school disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic changed this important work?

SF: During the long months of zoom school last year, those of us who spend our time thinking about teaching and learning looked on with mixture of apprehension and curiosity. Might the pandemic, for all of its awful-ness, finally open the door for the kinds of educational transformations that children so desperately need? Could this be the thing that would finally loosen the chokehold of the “grammar of schooling” that has persisted for more than a century? I wish I could say that the answer was yes — but in reality, the adjustments that I have seen schools and teachers make are subtle rather than dramatic. On the pessimistic side, at least from what I observed, much of what happened during remote schooling last year amounted to a doubling down on traditional practice. Elementary school teachers reverted to non-interactive read-alouds and assigned more than normal amounts of independent work; secondary teachers talked at their students even more than before; and everyone struggled to figure out how to get kids to interact meaningfully in breakout rooms. Things have gradually settled down with the return to in-person schooling this year, but I haven’t seen many examples of experiments or transformations. On a more positive note, however, remote schooling seemed to galvanize many teachers and leaders to make serious commitments to relationship-building, social- emotional learning, and trauma-informed practices. These things have always been essential, but until the pandemic forced the issue, they often took a backseat to academic content. I have been heartened to see this shift in priorities persist during this year, but I fear that all the talk of “learning loss” — not to mention the surge in staff shortages which are stretching all school staff extremely thin — could quickly return us to where we started. Still, I see the whole situation as being in-process. Perhaps there will continue to be opportunities for educators, parents, and policymakers to realize that the status quo isn’t something worth returning to after all. I’d like to believe that the pandemic has at very least increased everyone’s appetite for radical change, which could open the door for visionary educators (and scholars?) to try to do things differently.

“Productive change processes require disrupting traditional power dynamics.”

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?

SF: As a start, I would argue that those who are spearheading educational change should start by focusing on assets rather than deficits. Ask: Where are the bright spots? Who in our system is already galvanized around doing things differently? If students or educators are not succeeding in certain ways or in certain spaces, where and under what conditions are they thriving? How can we develop what already exists into visible proof-points that help everyone imagine why and how to do things differently? Don’t get me wrong — it’s still crucial to explore and map out the root causes of dysfunction — but asset-focused questions are far more energizing and efficacious than their inverse. On a separate note, I would argue that productive change processes require disrupting traditional power dynamics. Get folks from all parts of the system at the table together — not just district and school leaders, for example, but teachers and special educators and paraprofessionals and even students — and construct agreements and group culture that encourages them to listen deeply and speak from what they know. This decision honors the idea that the ones closest to the problem are closest to the solution, and it also positions the change process itself, not just the desired goals of the process, as an equity-focused intervention. Finally, I believe that it is critical that everyone involved in the change process needs to see themselves and be seen as a learner. School and district leaders often feel pressure to know “the answers” and to direct change from arm’s length, but the most powerful processes require new ways of being and doing. In turn, this demands opportunities for everyone involved to engage in productive struggle, to try out new practices without the certainty that they will work, and to experience the kinds of learning and/or culture that is sought for the entire system.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

SF: I began my career as a teacher and (a bit later) my training as a scholar during the first decade of the 21st century: an era which was dominated by an obsession with top-down reforms and narrowly conceived indicators of educational quality. During those years, studying educational change in ways that the academy would validate involved doing research about or on schools and measuring impact using test-score-based metrics. The past decade, however, has seen the start of a long-overdue reckoning with the ways in which education research has too often been voyeuristic, exploitative, racially biased, and limited in its imagination of the possible. The growing visibility of paradigms such as Participatory Action Research and Design Based Implementation Research, along with the amplification of the voices of BIPOC scholars and practitioners and the expansion of Research-Practitioner Partnership opportunities, suggests that the world is gradually recognizing that educational change must involve working with and within communities of practice and defining educational “goods” more broadly. This excites me! As I wrote earlier, I believe that scholars of educational change have an obligation to engage in praxis, which requires forming long-term partnerships with practitioners and learning about the world by trying to change it. I’d like to believe that the structures of higher education eventually will shift to support this expansion of scholarly purposes and positioning. As it currently stands at many major schools of education, however, tenure-seeking scholars are still obligated to focus most of their efforts on producing first-authored publications in academic journals — which are stylistically inaccessible to lay readers and also usually live behind paywalls. Teaching and service to the institution come next, with community engagement and public scholarship treated as side-notes. On the other side of the “research/practice divide,” the work of educators and school/district leaders is mainly action-focused; there is rarely time or material support for doing much more than keeping the train on the tracks. I hope that the field as a whole will continue to elevate research-practice partnerships which can create positive change for educators and children and produce usable knowledge in the process.

Duncan-Andrade, J. M., & Morrell, E. (2008). The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving
from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools (New edition edition). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Freire, P. (1970, rereleased 2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition. (M. B.
Ramos, Trans.) (30th Anniversary edition). New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Mehta, J, & Fine, S. (2019). In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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