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Reflections On QRIS 2018: Dr. Sara Lawrence Lightfoot

February 22, 2019

This blog article reflects on Dr. Sara Lawrence Lightfoot's keynote speech at the 2018 QRIS conference about the promise of equal educational opportunity for all of our children.

As we look forward to QRIS 2019: Expanding Reach, Enhancing Impact, Advancing Equity, we are reminded of the plea made by the plenary speaker at the 2018 conference. Honoring BUILD’s dedication of last year’s conference to those working to increase access to high-quality early learning opportunities, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot addressed her plenary to the researchers, practitioners, scholars, activists, policy makers, and advocates focused on the promise of equal educational opportunity for all of our children. If you did not have the good fortune of hearing Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s presentation in person last year, this clip will give you a taste of its impact. We present here a summary of some of her poetic words and powerful suggestions.

Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot noted that as our schools and society have become increasingly diverse, “many researchers, educators, and policy makers have retreated to a view of achievement that is narrow and monolithic.” This “narrowing of perspective and denial of cultural variation,” she said, is particularly problematic in early childhood education, where a child’s developmental journey begins. She wondered how we might help to create school cultures from early childhood classrooms through graduate school training that “forge the connections between excellence and equity, between learning and justice, and between disciplined inquiry and truth telling.”

She offered three “liberating frames” – view, voice, and visibility – as a way forward. Each frame provides a perspective that “challenges the habits and rhetoric, the hopelessness and inaction that too often dominate our educational discourses.” She explained the three frames as follows:

Reframing our View

Social scientists have a long legacy of focusing their investigations on disease and pathology rather than on health and resilience and studying people who are “other,” i.e., poor and marginalized. As Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot said,

They often confuse difference with deviance or dysfunction, conflating illness and identity. In fact, investigators have been much more vigilant in documenting failure than describing examples of success. The relentless scrutiny of failure that continues to dominate our educational discourse has many distorting results. First, we begin to get a view of our schools and the communities they serve that magnifies what is wrong and neglects evidence of promise and potential. Second, this focus on failure and pathology can often lead to despair, a nagging cynicism, and inaction. If things are really that bad and there is no hope of change, then why should we even try to do anything to remedy the persistent problems? Third, the documentation of pathology often bleeds into blaming the victim. It lands heavily on the shoulders of those who are most oppressed and disenfranchised, those who have no voice or visibility in the public debates about their fate. We must vehemently oppose pervasive inequalities and injustices but we must also search for the goodness in educational settings. If we begin to ask the question what is good here, what is working well, what is strong and thriving and worthy, we will discover a different reality. We may even uncover a lever for change, a spark of promise that had been formerly obscured by our well-worn negative prophesies. We must begin to see the resilience amidst the suffering, the agency that resists victimization. And when we find goodness in all of its fullness and complexity, we must invent ways of documenting and spreading it so that the principles and lessons of goodness might be reinterpreted and imbedded in other places.

The Need to Lift up our Voices

Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot urged “the development and amplification of voices that bridge the great divide between theory and practice, that draw the connections between knowledge and action.” She said,

This means we have to dismantle the hierarchy between the thinkers and the doers, the intellectuals and the activists, and create a symmetry of voices that values each perspective. We must listen, for example to the intimate knowledge of teachers and the voices of our children who have a special angle of vision on the world that they inhabit. And we must listen to the voices of their parents and caregivers who know their children deeply and are their best advocates. At the same time we must honor the intelligence and insights of researchers. We must be ready to reckon with the researchers’ evidence that surprises us, challenging our long held presumptions and prejudices. We must listen to all these voices and when by creating this great cacophony we begin to speak to larger and more diverse audiences, we will create a language that encourages more people to join in the conversation, provokes debate, and invites reflection and action. We must disrupt the discourse and reframe the conversation. We must resist the hierarchies of power and language that get in the way of authentic and inclusive representations of a humanistic education.

Everyone Feels Visible

According to Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot, “a real solidarity rooted in intimacy and connection grows out of authentic inclusivity, not tribalism. Diversity and contrast are central ingredients of educational goodness.” She added that,

Education must not be a monolithic experience. It must honor the differences in culture, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation even as it searches for universal values. The real challenges of diversity are subtle and complex. Their very subtlety is menacing. These challenges reside in the building and nourishing of authentic relationships. But instead of embracing the rich diversity among us, I see a rising tendency toward clannishness that has reached a deafening crescendo in the last year and a half, an us against them mentality. We have to argue that pluralism brings a richness and vitality that closed communities can never know. Diversity and authentic inclusivity are primarily about visibility. Visibility is not about over-exposure, not about being identified as the exception, not about standing apart or standing above. It’s about everyone feeling seen, acknowledged and everyone being recognized as worthy. What might get in the way of our seeing others whose development and learning we are nourishing, whose minds we are mining and measuring, whose beliefs and feelings we are interpreting? How can we see with fullness and clarity, unencumbered by the shadows of bias, prejudice, ignorance and fear? How can we see the full humanity of our young children and their families? We can start by interrogating our own autobiographical roots and cultural frames, our own prejudices and fears, our own parochialisms and impulses that get in the way of our seeing others clearly, that distort our ability to build authentic relationships with the children in our charge. To be visible, we must live lives of vigilant observation, criticism, and action. To be seen, we must see. Goodness in education means learning to risk visibility. It means learning to bear public witness.

Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot encouraged us to “see diversity as strength and to make ourselves and others visible.” She said this will “require disrupting the discourse and reframing the conversation” which will invite conflict, resistance, and dissent. She didn’t deny that this is “big work.” But, she said, it is work that we must nevertheless “do together in community with optimism, hope, respect, grit and grace.”

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