Recently (2020), the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences raised eyebrows for implementing new diversity rules that insist in order to be eligible for an Oscar, films need to meet inclusion standards both on camera and behind the scenes. Their point is to increase the representation of underrepresented racial or ethnic groups, LGBTQ persons, and women, onscreen and behind the scenes.
The reaction from both Academy members and the community has been mixed. The Academy has come under fire for this decision because according to some groups, race and gender should play no part in the selection of who is considered the best: choose the best and leave race and gender out of it.
I call this, rose-coloured glasses thinking. It presumes that members of the Academy do choose the best and therefore race and gender should play no part in the criteria because they already do the right thing anyways. There is a vast selection of hard hitting works to be used as a defense as well, so if we put these works front and center, these folks looking at the motion picture industry through their rose-coloured classes can claim that if criteria like this had been in place years ago, these works might have never found their niche in Hollywood.
Those opposed to the new rules feel that the new rules will be abused, Hollywood will simply step out into the street, grab any underrepresented person who fulfills the criteria, but might not actually know what they’re doing, and scream, “Done! Quota filled! Now I’m eligible for the little gold man statue!”
On the other side of the argument, folks who agree with the Academy feel as thought they have been holding their breath for a long time, waiting for the industry to finally make a bold move like this. But, they have also been criticized for being ultra-Liberal, possessing a “everyone gets a gold star or participation medal” attitude — snowflake type thinking, it is called. These people feel that race and gender have been misrepresented in Hollywood for so long, the only way to see more representation on the Oscar ballot is to force all the gears to turn in their direction. They want members of the industry to focus on underrepresented, competent individuals who haven’t been given their fair crack because the spotlight often moves toward predominantly white, male professionals because that’s the way it always has been.
I have a question then. How does one know someone is the best? Generally, strong candidates possess a skill set and a reputation. But if someone has never had a seat at the table, how are they supposed to develop a skill set or reputation? It’s a double edged sword. Someone needs a reputation or resume to get hired, but if they never get hired, how are they supposed to develop their reputation or resume? When someone doesn’t possess the skills set or reputation, many automatically turn them away. We presume incompetence.
I have an idea. Give everyone a seat at the table. Don’t put them at the back of the room. Give them a seat. Give them a chance to show what they have and can do. Presume competence. Let grit, drive, and hustle be the motivator for hiring. Look at the whole person instead of the superficial stuff that often drives poor decision making.
You see, I get where the Academy is coming from and agree with their bold move because I see it in schools. Teachers sometimes make assumptions about children based on how unsuccessful they were the year before, because they have an IEP, who their brother or sister was, what their parents do for a living, where they live, if they have a learning or physical disability, their racial or cultural background and if they’ve spent time in the principal’s office. They put students through a analytical meat grinder, picking them apart, trying to find out how a student cannot possibly fit into their classroom instead of trying find ways they can fit in their classroom. They presume incompetence, instead of presuming competence.
If educators gave every student a seat at the table, if they organized their lessons and activities to meet every single wide-eyed learner where they are at, if they viewed every student as able to move forward on their own learning trajectory, what ultimately happens is magical! Instead of panicking about having an eclectic combination of learners, consider how remarkable and wonderful to have been given the opportunity to teach this variety of thinkers and doers.
Okay, so I guess view my classroom through my own rose-coloured glasses. That’s because I belo that presuming incompetence limits the potential of kids. When educators presume incompetence, they examine students in their room as failing their courses and failing at learning before the class even starts. Additionally, smart is what one gets, not what one is. When students receive equal opportunity to grow and learn, they get the opportunity to reach the bar that is set oh so high. Some of the best athletes, like Tiger Woods, Babe Ruth, and Michael Jorden didn’t show up on the green, field, and court with natural, God-given ability. They had to work for it. They relied on coaches to coach them to their level. These coaches presumed competence instead of judging them based on one swing, first throw, an initial pass.
Give everyone a chance to learn.
The Academy, then, by effectively changing the criteria is going to force individuals to give all individuals, regardless of race or gender a seat at the table. When they have a seat at the table, they have the opportunity to show what they can do, and when they can show us what they can do, future opportunities and honours will land in their laps.
We don’t know what we don’t actively and willingly participate in.
I am not a minority, so acknowledge that I have privileges that many don’t have as a white girl who grew up in a white family. The following personal example, I hope, highlights an example of presuming competence vs presuming incompetence.
When I was a kid, I loved to play basketball. My parents set up a basketball hoop in our backyard over a sandy knoll where I could shoot free throws and play hours of 21, bouncing the orange ball off the plywood backboard. I’d scarf down my dinner and beg to be excused to play, avoid chores to play, and nag family members to play with me. But in the name of transparency, it should be known that I wasn’t very good at basketball. My shot was so-so, I struggled with passing, and I didn’t really have very good basketball sense. But I loved it, and I had drive and determination.
I played for my elementary school basketball team and once I got into high school, naturally played grade 8 basketball because you know, no one gets cut at that age (at least at my school). The following year, by the skin of my teeth, I just barely made the junior basketball team, and then again in grade 10, managed to do the same. I didn’t get to play often, riding the bench a lot. I got really good at chanting and cheering. When I did play, I worked hard, and every so often I made a great play or got a basket. But I also made spectacular bungles that will forever haunt me, like choosing to granny shoot one of my free throws in a high stakes game. Ugh. Not my best moment. Anyways, the writing was on the wall by the end of my final junior season. It would be a long shot to make it on the senior basketball team if I didn’t make a bold move and improve.
My mom and dad encouraged me to practice and improve my skills. That summer, I begged them to enroll me in a high-calibre basketball camp at our local college and after annoying them relentlessly, they agreed. Passion conquered price, so I organized my duffle bag and set off to the two week camp.
At the camp, of the best female and male college and university basketball players from all over Western Canada showed us how to make our game better. I absolutely loved every minute of it! During water breaks, I practiced free throws and during rest breaks I played on my own, working on maneuvers the athletes showed me like, footwork, arm position, and stance. At the end of the camp, I even received a certificate for being the most improved. My confidence bloomed. At home, my family noticed the change in my game, and I started whipping them more often at 21. Ultimately, I knew that if I tried out for the senior basketball team and didn’t make it, I would at least have given it my all, and I might be disappointed, but I would be satisfied that I did everything in my power to make it. My summer camp coaches told me I was ready and that if I kept practicing over the remainder of the summer, I had just as good a shot as anyone. I had developed a growth mindset attitude and believed I could do it.
The school year started, and I was pumped about tryouts. One day, while I was walking in the hallway, I ran into the senior basketball coach. We chatted for a bit about this and that, and I told him I was really excited about tryouts, that I had been working especially hard to prepare. I told him that I had gone to camp and practiced all summer. Then, something quite unexpected happened. The coach iterated words that will forever be etched in my brain.
Shannon, I think it’s time you hang up your high tops.
Just like that. He shut me down. He didn’t even want me to try out. He didn’t even want to see how far I had come over the summer. Naturally, you can imagine, I was upset, angry, and frustrated. my parents were upset, angry, and frustrated. My mom wanted to march to the school and tell the coach off, and till this day, maybe she did, but I told her not to. I had been marked as flawed. It only took me a few hours to decide to never play basketball again. My spirit was crushed, and my summer of hard work and dedication evaporated.
The coach presumed incompetence based on his previous experience seeing me play junior ball, instead of giving me a learning opportunity in the form of a tryout, to show my skill. I didn’t want any favours. I just wanted a chance to show what I could do. The wonderful coaches at the camp met me and my ability where I was at and gave me strategies to improve. I wasn’t compared to anyone else. I wasn’t ranked and sorted. I was appreciated for what I could do and encouraged to persevere, to reach a level I thought I couldn’t. Now I understand that coaches have to make tough decisions and ignoring all historical evidence isn’t realistic, but to tell someone they shouldn’t even bother trying to prove themselves? That’s just wrong. It still stings.
But it’s that sting that fires me up to presume competence in my classes.
When categorized students come into the classroom, their teachers need to try hard not to stereotype them and presume they will fail those mainstream classes. Instead, teachers need to look at each student as being able to do the learning. They need to presume competence.
This means teachers need to turn education on its head and give opportunities for all. This means not giving students with intellectual disabilities, who are in our mainstream classes, a coloring sheet so they can be in the room but not expected to participate with the others, and it really doesn’t mean expecting Educational Assistants and resource teachers to take a one size fits all assignment and refabricate it so it can be geared, adapted and modified to meet the needs of one particular student. It is not the EA’s job to water down our assignments. It means figuring out entry points and next steps for all.
The best way to do this is via backwards design and learning maps. Examine the curricular competencies as I can statements and figure out the pathway from access point to what all can do, what most can do, what a few can do, and then create challenges for those who need stretches beyond that. What happens when we generate a learning map, transparent to all students, is every student in the class sees themselves as aiming for the same target. Every student begins at the same point and moves across the map as needed. Students who require modifications see the entry point as goal #1 and the subsequent step as goal #2. Instead of spending hours creating separate assignments for students on modified programs, these students are all part of the same learning culture and effectively feel included because all students have access to the same learning map. Adaptations that still need to be provided for those students can also be accessed by the rest of the class. Maybe the adaptations can actually be provided by other students in the class, creating a further opportunity for building an inclusive and cooperative classroom culture. The possibilities are endless.
Check out the fine work of Shelley Moore. In her Five Moore Minutes episode, “Dr. Baked Potato: How can we scaffold complexity,” Shelley iterates that goals are connected to concepts not activities. Teachers need to view the curriculum as action word goals and not assignments and projects. Assignments and projects need to be designed as learning opportunities, and learning opportunities need to be provided with voice, choice, and triangulation in mind. Triangulation is a method of gathering evidence of learning through observations, products, and conversations. If the goal is I can eat a baked potato, then teachers need to be open-minded about what kinds of baked potatoes and not insist on just one type of fully loaded baked potato. Students are diverse! When we go to a restaurant, we tailor our orders to suit our needs. I don’t like mushrooms so I ask the chef to drop the mushrooms. My daughter has a gluten sensitivity, so she requests a GF bun for her burger. We are both able to eat at the restaurant, we just want our order to be customized. Maybe a student wants to eat a butter and cheddar potato, or maybe a student just wants sour cream and chives. If teachers present learning opportunities in the form of fully loaded potatoes, like a one size fits all assignment or test, getting our EA’s and resource teachers to pick off the toppings to meet the needs of learners is a haphazard attempt at differentiation. When they provide a variety of toppings for students, we need to relinquish control and let students pick them for themselves. This is empowering stuff. Let students choose what they need based on what they can do not what they cannot do.
What does that look like? The resource teacher and EA’s who have worked with students are very important people to access when creating a learning map of scaffolded instruction. Here’s an example. Student X is in my English 8 class. I found out through their amazing resource teacher, that student X loves to read books about hockey and prefers picture books with few words based on their reading level. Let’s say the goal is I can find information. I might consider using picture books for every student in the class as a means for all students to work on the goal, I can find information, or, I might give these students a picture book and the rest of the class a text book, but create the same goals. Here’s what that might look like:
Every student works on a poster and works on the skill of finding information. The student who might have reading difficulties, can choose a picture book, but the novel thing here is that all students can choose their non-fiction book based on what they like and to start, I can choose a non-fiction book that contains content that is meaningful to me, and then they all have the same goals, I can find pictures that are meaningful to me. While the student is choosing pictures that are meaningful to them, they are looking around the classroom, seeing that their peers are doing the same thing. These other students might be finding pictures in more complex non-fiction books, but the goal is still the same. At the culmination of the learning opportunity, every student will have a poster they are proud of…every student! This is mind blowing. This is a game changer in the classroom!
It’s hard work to shift thinking. I understand how much more work it is for teachers to give up their traditional way of teaching. It’s daunting, especially right now with all the current expectations in pandemic teaching. But what if I told you that with a shift in mindset and teaching structures, you would find teaching more enjoyable? It’s a beautiful feeling to see every student in one’s classroom progress at their own rate. It’s liberating to let go of the worry of students passing and failing. When one’s energy focuses on growth, feedback, and next steps, what happens is the opportunity to change the classroom culture. When educators change the classroom culture, they foster feelings of equality and inclusivity that will follow every student past three o’clock, past June 30th, and past graduation. By creating inclusive environments in their classrooms, theyare teaching all our learners valuable lessons about life.
Let’s work hard giving a seat at the table to all our learners. Let’s shift our thinking to what students can do. Like the Academy, I’m suggesting educators make bold moves because these are important moves. I know educators can do it because I am presuming competence.
Here’s your seat at the table. Let’s get to work.