Achieving Racial Justice in the Classroom through Inquiry

Curiosity is oftentimes the beginning of learning.

When we’re curious, we begin to ask questions. Our questions prompt us to investigate, and our investigations lead to a destination. Sometimes, the destination leads us to a firm conclusion that satisfies our curiosity by answering our original (or newly formed) questions.

 But sometimes, the destination we reach only offers us more questions.

Maybe someone is curious about why some people can afford to live in big expensive houses and others cannot. Upon investigation, they find out that some people have more money and others do not. But that destination isn’t conclusive enough to satisfy the curiosity.

The next logical question is, why or how come?

The investigation into why would lead someone in many different areas, including education and its connection to income inequality and privilege; the connection between privilege, where someone lives and where they go to school. Unearthing those concepts would lead to more questions and more investigation.

All in the hopes of achieving a conclusion that puts us on the path of progress on behalf of people.

That’s what learning is all about; having the curiosity to ask questions, investigate to seek answers, and reach conclusions to open the door to greater understand that can lead to greater curiosity, and more questions. The best teachers not only meet students where they are with their instruction, but they foster student curiosity, leading them to questioning their world and the world around them while cultivating the skills of investigation and research.

It is important for teachers to refine their praxis by evaluating the ways they cultivate inquiry in the classroom. This is especially important because teachers often determine the course of learning by the questions they ask children and the questions they cultivate within the minds of children as per their instruction.

It matters particularly because how inquiry is utilized in the classroom is the difference between a classroom that critically examines systemic racism in the context of their content and a classroom that preaches facts, people, places, theories and explanations to students.

With the racial unrest happening throughout our country, there may be white teachers desiring to teach in culturally responsive and relevant ways; teachers who desire to teach the history of how systemic racism shapes our society. However, to do that, they must acknowledge the implications of the overwhelming presence of whiteness in their pedagogy and their instruction.

That means asking the following questions, what destinations am I leading students to with my instruction and cultivation of inquiry? Am I comfortable leading them to a space where they critically examine the relationship between a white supremacist social order and the circumstances their communities find itself in? Can I explain how we got there as a society and where I am in relation to it?

These are certainly difficult questions to wrestle with for any educator. However, one cannot do the work of empowering students by aiming their acquired skills and competencies to tackle systemic injustices if one is unable to expose students to truth by way of instruction and targeted inquiry.

Teachers can’t be afraid of asking students tough questions to consider. Teachers can’t be afraid of what they may find out. Teachers also can’t be afraid of what questions their students ask.

Fear is the enemy of truth and ours is a post-truth society because many people are running scared of the truth because the truth changes one’s intellectual and moral trajectory. A knowledge of our nation’s truth and the vestiges of its sins prevents the ignoring the harms done to Black and native peoples; we will be unable to live the same any longer.

Teachers, specifically white teachers, must be courageous; courageous enough to ask the right questions.

Asking the right questions means that pedagogy must be one that believes that inquiry is a key way to drive student learning and that inquiry must be rooted in student knowledge and student experiences. All new knowledge is built on the foundation of prior knowledge. Any skill or competency taught to students must utilize what student already know to make it stick.

In order to teach systemic racism, using such lessons to develop student acquired skills in any given content area, pedagogy must center on examining the experiences of students in relation to systemic racism they encounter in the schools, within the communities and outside of their communities.

Teaching and instruction must lead students to make the connection between systemic racism, acquired knowledge that converts to a skill and their experiences to empower them with the ability to change their communities for the better and the belief that they can.

Education is no endeavor simply to hoard information never to be used. Education is no endeavor for the storing of information only to share it to build one’s ego. Education is an endeavor meant to liberate the bodies and minds of those oppressed. Education is the task of asking questions to get answers whereby the needs of the people can be met.

That means teachers must use inquiry to lead students to critical question the conditions of society and the conditions of their community. For example, third grade science lessons detailing that oxygen is released by trees should elicit inquiry examining why some communities have a wealth of green spaces and others do not. Seventh grade math lessons about proportions can elicit cross-curricular work with social studies teachers that ask why politics gerrymander congressional districts.

It’s not rocket science. You just have to ask the right questions. 

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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