Today is Day One of the Center’s fourth annual Equity Institute, which I have written about (and tweeted about—check out #equitableclassrooms) before. Our approach to talking about equity is to use the power of story and the power of art to take people into a third space where it is possible to have deep conversations about the meaning, impact, and obligations of inequity, and the power we have to propel us towards equitable schools and classrooms. We do this in partnership with The Amistad Center at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.
If you have not seen the New Yorker video about Alexandra Bell’s work on race-related stories in the New York Times, you really should watch it. She says, at one point, “It changed the way I viewed the text”, but her work has changed the way I think about my work.
We use the construct of the Ladder of Inference at the Center—a lot. It comes originally from the work of Chris Argyris, who was a giant in the field of organizational development/organizational psychology. This synopsis from MindTools is worth the read. The big idea here is that we cannot possibly pay attention to all the stimuli that confront us and lambast us every day, and those that we do pay attention to are not given equal treatment by our cognitive processes—our assumptions, our cognitive biases, our other biases, our previous experience, and our mental models kick into gear, and the conclusions that we come to frequently reinforce the beliefs we already held.
For more on this, see CL #8 (written during the Equity Institute two years ago—clearly not a coincidence), and CL #72. Also, you should find the time to listen to this recent podcast: The Knowledge Project interview of Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist and Nobel Prize winner. He is the most authoritative and lyrical voice on how our ways of thinking can take us astray, and how we can be vigilant in accounting for our biases.
In my work, I had always spent time challenging people on the upper rungs of the ladder of inference. With my colleagues and many of my coaching clients, I can use the ladder as an intellectual shortcut, as in: “I think you’re way up the ladder here.” The questions that I asked were intended to help people notice what meaning they were making of information, such as, “Are there any other possible explanations for that?” or “What else could have been going on?”. It didn’t really occur to me to ask questions about what data they were paying attention to in the first place.
That’s what the Alexandra Bell video did for me. It brought to my attention, in a way that I hadn’t ever really taken on board before, that the data that we work with are filtered even before we start paying attention to them. Some of the “mistakes” she catches in the New York Times are obvious and egregious and I am confident that I would have had the same reaction—to the coverage of the torch rally, for example. But in at least one other case, she noticed bias in the story that I am not confident that I would have noticed, and that was shocking and salutary. And I am grateful.
We looked at lots of really compelling art this morning, including work by Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall, and Nick Cave (which makes this a big name show, in case you needed another reason to come see it). In so many of the paintings, there is a marked advantage to looking from different distances, because what you notice depends on how close you are. It is a powerful lesson in how to see, and the participants in today’s workshop were clearly able to see that connection and the implications for equity work in their schools and districts.
Finally, it is never too early to start planning to register for next year’s Equity Institute. I know I’m biased, but honestly, it is a profound experience and a brilliantly crafted entry point to talking about race and equity. To make the most of the institute, bring a team that includes educators at all levels of the organization, from superintendent to students. Bear in mind that there are issues that the students know more about than you do—their presence will make the experience broader, deeper, and more real. Thank you to the districts who are here today: Meriden, Granby, Cromwell, Bridgeport, Tolland, Waterbury, CREC, Stratford, South Windsor, Hartford, Bristol, and Vernon.
Have a great week, and let me know if there is anything I can do for you.
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Coaching Letter: StevensonCoachingLetter.org