The founders of The Dignified Learning Project are sociologists, so it's no wonder that we often, here at The DLP, talk about "structure."
But what exactly is this? At the very foundational level, structure is essentially the way that institutions, people, and groups interact and are arranged in our society. This is why understanding the "macro" and "micro" are so important.
So, what are these? Macro is essentially large-scale social processes and exchanges. These have to do with our larger-scale roles, the ways institutions interact with groups, and other areas that we talk much about such as race, gender, social class, sexuality, and other arrangements. Micro is what takes place on smaller-scale interactions - if we are looking at education for instance, this could be relationships between teachers and students, parents and school boards, rules in the classroom, school dynamics and environments, etc.
What is possibly one of the most insulting and yet also unproductive critiques is that of the teacher. Now, this is, in no way, saying that there are no teachers who make students' lives difficult or that there are no racist teachers in existence. Nor does this mean that workshops, seminars, conferences and meetings have no role. These are vital to the continual growth of educators on all levels in the educational structure - PreK through College. Teachers do come with all backgrounds and biases, philosophical lenses and can have their fair share of oppressive behavior. And this is also in no way saying that we do not have individual responsibility, whether as a student, parent, teacher, or community member. But, one important thing is that we must be careful of conflating is individual responsibility, or agency (the ability to make decisions in a structure) with the responsibility of the structure itself - specifically, the ways that structural oppression and discrimination takes place.
It is important to note that all humans that have learned a prejudice can also unlearn it, though it takes work, and a lot of work at that. Sometimes the job is never completely done, though. And yes, instances of prejudice can very much show up on the micro level. However, these micro-level interactions are in direct connection to the macro-level structure. One thing that I do when I teach sociological themes in my classes is that I have my students play a game of blackjack. We discuss the rules, we deal the cards, and then the game unfolds. Since this takes place the first day, students seem a little discombobulated as to how this relates to sociology, but then we break it down. The hand you're dealt is the macro-level structure, and the choices you make are the micro-level. The choices you make are always related to the hand you're dealt. While the game does have some level of skill attached to it, that is what we call social capital - the knowledge of how to navigate in the social world - your choices are still always connected to what hand you're dealt. Then, we also have to ask - who is dealing the cards? What is their agenda? In a typical game of blackjack, the dealer's goal is to win.
We can use this example for our society, and especially education. The educational system has always been designed for the "laboring and the learned." That concept was talked about by Thomas Jefferson - in 1779. The idea of tracking in education - a micro-level action now - has been in place for just over 200 years. But this idea of tracking is in relation to the macro-level structure - that is, a reliance upon meritocracy and sorting to determine who is the "best of the best" and who will essentially profit within an unjust economic system. So, who "wins" in the game of educational blackjack? Often times it's those in power. Those who make the policies. Those who create rules and laws and reproduce tracking and budgetary constraints and any number of other issues related to education. The choices teachers make are always in relation to this hand they're dealt and depends on who is dealing it. Their biases are the result of century long acts of racism, historical incidents of genocide, and an educational system that was designed to reproduce and encourage conformity and obedience. Yes, they need to unlearn this, yes they should be engaging in a socially just manner, but we must also criticize the structures and institutions that allow this to continue. Schools, colleges, and other actions like the tracking system.
This, again, does not mean that individuals do not have a personal responsibility. To think. To critically engage. To question. However, if we are reproducing an educational system, from PreK through college, in programs designed to train our teachers, our doctors, lawyers, and others, that exist in a system that is discouraging critical reflection and questioning, then when will we see individuals engage in a critical way? With students? With each other? To transform systems rather than talking about them in ways that further harms people who are not in positions of power? We need to introduce more than programs, pilots, and methods that are only navigating, but refusing, to dismantle a hierarchal and problematic structure in hopes to rebuild something more liberating.
This is why at The Dignified Learning Project we encourage critical reflection to take place by educators, students, the community, and especially ourselves. This means that we are questioning our structures, our economic systems, the power dynamics employed in the classroom. The way that we do things, the decisions we make, the actions we take. In addition, while we do interact with teachers and have begun having tough conversations with the educators in our city, we also refuse to criticize teachers as whole, as seems to be the discussion during educational reform and the typical comments of, "What is wrong with our education?" Often times, we hear that our teachers need to be doing more. Teaching is evaluated through standardized testing, they're expected to purchase their own supplies, they work long and difficult hours to ensure that their students are cared for, yet they take the brunt of educational criticism. They are trying their best in a system that is constantly fighting against them and was never designed for them, for you, or me, or millions of our students.
What is rarely discussed is the structure in which they exist. What kind of economic structure is fair and just that requires teachers to purchase their own crayons and markers, or ensure their students have enough snacks for the day? Or even a system that makes it where kids, or people in general, are even hungry? What type of structure requires teachers to teach to a test, rather than critically engaging their students? These everyday happenings are micro-level occurrences that exist in a larger macro-level system - a system that is not fair and just to our teachers, students, or any human for that matter. And as we encourage our educators to be more socially just, to be more aware of race and gender, provide more culturally relevant pedagogy, we, organizations and institutions, must also advocate for them as they are being forced to navigate a structure that is not just for them, either.
Social justice is vital. It is important, especially as we have so many marginalized groups in and out of education. But how can we, in good conscience, continue perpetuating a socially unjust economic system through the creation of certain programs, the abolishment of vital studies, and especially that of continued educational reform that essentially remakes the same thing into a different shape? The analogy I've come up with this is this - if you have a pile of garbage and you wrap it up nicely in a pretty box with wrapping paper and a nice bow, it's still a pile of garbage. Until we introduce new philosophical ideas that can conceptualize something new, we are going to be introducing purely ideas that are a repetition of what we already have, rather than transforming our thinking, our students, our communities, our society. All that we have invented, whether it is an idea or an item, has come from a concept. Cells phone were in no way considered a possibility 200 years ago, and would have very possibly been considered magic, but by conceptualizing this idea, by putting it into action, we see that it is very much "real" in our world today.
Concepts and philosophies are vital. Especially to the transformation of education. If we continue placing blame on teachers without analysis of the structure and in turn the institutions within them, and again, this does not mean displacing individual responsibility, then we will not see true educational change.
Instead, it'll remain a pile of garbage with a different bow on it each time.