Education Design through the Lens of EQUITY

Creating socially & culturally responsive learning environments

By Lori Day, bKL Director of Education
Contributing Authors: Tamara Smith, Executive Director at Teach for America-Delaware & Richard Kuder, Senior Education Design Director of Whittle School and Studios
Graphic Design by Celia Hao

“I believe that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. If you care about promoting opportunity and reducing inequality, the classroom is the place to start.”

-Arne Duncan

It’s a time for second chances. The changes wrought out of necessity by the pandemic created a hard reset on the way we live, learn, and work. And freed from the enormous precedent of “that’s just how things are,” opportunity abounds for better ways of being, and more equitable futures—if we can avoid the trap of slipping back into the cadences we held (or were held to) before. 

This is especially true in the education sector. One positive outcome of the pandemic is that learning no longer happens only in the confines of a traditional classroom. Instead, students can engage through a wide-ranging spectrum from physical to virtual, and all the spaces in between. The freedom and flexibility this provides for students is groundbreaking. Whatever gifts or challenges a student faces, we have the opportunity to build a learning environment that supports their individual needs instead of a one-size-fits-all model.

The spectrum of learning from physical to virtual

Educational Challenges Exposed by the Pandemic

However, as parents, students, teachers, and administrators know all too well, the pandemic’s confinement to only virtual learning had devastating consequences for many. Mental health crises and feelings of isolation and loneliness in students became frequent. The educational system struggled to figure out how to support their students and retain a sense of community across the distance. 

Schools also faced challenges in the very infrastructure where this virtual learning was to take place. Due to the inequitable access to healthcare, income, and disproportionate employment in high-risk essential jobs, Black and Latinx communities suffered the most from the health and economic impacts. In low-income neighborhoods where schools were physically closed, the students were doubly disadvantaged by distance learning. It was the most challenging for the youngest grades, students with disabilities, and those learning English. Rural and low-income students often did not have reliable access to computers or Wi-Fi, making it difficult to access online instruction. Problems spanned beyond just logging in, and were amplified for students who had inappropriate learning conditions at home, limited adult support, lack of food, and housing insecurity. 

In the face of these challenges, teachers and administrators innovated all sorts of ways to make the most of the situation and combat loneliness and anxiety in their students. From embracing new technologies to investing in take-home internet infrastructure to just an old-fashioned emphasis on communication and connection, the workarounds they developed took aim at not just addressing the educational concerns of the student, but of supporting their entire well-being. 

We need to take this shift as a proverbial baton, and run with it. What may appear on the surface as just a logistics matter is actually a chance to rethink how we approach education. It’s a willingness to be flexible, to adapt the space to the student rather than the other way around. And it’s an opportunity to support the students who couldn’t learn within the systems we had previously put in place, whether that’s because of economic class, disability status, or emotional needs. 

Equity: The Emotion, Passion & Purpose of Learning Environment Design

To create more equitable student outcomes in future design, equity must be a core design driver. According to NGLC or Next Generation Learning, equity is the “emotion, passion and purpose” behind future learning environments, whether virtual or physical. To advance educational equity, student-centered learning must value social and emotional growth alongside academic achievement. Additionally, it must take a cultural lens on student’s strengths and competencies, and equip them with the power and skills to address injustice in their schools and communities. And above all, an equitable approach must, by its very nature, cultivate connection and belonging. 

The traditional industrial model of schooling that is still common today often perpetuates inequality by ranking students in oppressive ways that reproduce the opportunity gaps of our broader society. Transcend, an educational consultancy, created a powerful list of “key leaps” to facilitate moving away from industrial-era learning to education that is responsive to 21st century demands. Here’s the four we feel are most compelling:

4 Educational Design Leaps towards EQUITY

LEAP 1 – Marginalization to Affirmation
In the past, learners from marginalized groups were pushed to conform to the dominant culture or risk alienation. Shifting from marginalization to affirmation means that each learner is supported in developing their own unique sense of self without shame and are encouraged to develop a deep respect for the identities of others. 

LEAP 2 – Intolerance to Social Consciousness
The intolerance that may have been subconsciously supported by industrial age practices focused on a learner’s experiences being framed by societal structures related to race, class, gender, sexual orientation and ability. Instead, we need to shift to social consciousness where intolerance is erased and learners are supported in critically examining social problems. Students are encouraged to work towards a more just world that dismantles inequities.

LEAP 3 – Siloed to Anytime/Anywhere
We must move away from the Industrial age model of learning being confined to a singular, physical space with a fixed schedule and singular teacher. Instead, the pandemic has shown us that learning can happen anywhere, anytime and anyplace. It’s no longer confined to a one size fits all model. The teacher becomes a guide rather than an authoritarian figure. The broader community of family and peers plays an equally important role as the teacher. 

LEAP 4 – Isolation to Connection
In the past, learning approaches prioritized individual work and competition that reinforces isolation rather than collaboration. Building strong relationships was not a priority. An equitable leap to connection would mean that learners form meaningful relationships across lines of difference that foster belonging and build social capital. 

These leaps obviously cannot happen overnight, but require an iterative journey marked by conditions that support change and innovative design. 

Why connection and belonging? 

Connection and belonging are not just nice things to have—they are the central tenets of education. When physical cues of acceptance and belonging are absent, then motivation and academic performance decreases significantly. On the other hand, when students feel accepted, valued, and understood as an important part of a connected community, research suggests that students with a high sense of belonging are happier, healthier, and more engaged learners. Not only is connectedness linked to better academic outcomes, but students are less likely to have emotional distress, abuse substances, or be involved in bullying behavior. 

What will it take to convert our own systems to a new way of being? What challenges lie ahead? By examining the current state of the education system parallel to the goals of equity, belonging, and connectedness, we can unlock successful learning environments and strategies for creating equitable spaces, wherever that space may be. 

Creating a Virtual Sense of Place

Research indicates that belonging is linked to a sense of place, or a space imbued with a sense of identity, emotional engagement, and security. This feeling strengthens the connection between people and the places they share. Taking this one step further, “placemaking” is the intersection of the physical, behavioral, social & cultural identities connecting people & place. 

How do we create a sense of place, when we’re a world apart? 

Richard Kuder, a Senior Education Design Director of Whittle School and Studios, shared how they’ve approached creating community while working virtually. When the pandemic impacted in person learning on their campus in Shenzhen, China and subsequently in Washington, DC, one of the mandatory features for the online program they created was ensuring that students had 1:1 or small group time with their teacher. This time each week helped to create the social and emotional bridge from the teacher and the school to the student and the family. 

The delivery of instruction through an online platform also required a revision of teaching practices. Richard stated, “I think many “best practice” teaching methodologies became increasingly essential during Covid.”  For example, we all know that teachers should probably talk (lecture) less and engage students more actively in their learning. This point was exacerbated in a provocative way during online instruction. Teachers needed to use both new and time-tested techniques to keep students engaged and interested that extended far beyond the “talking head” on the screen. Time-honored teaching strategies such as chunking information and formative assessment techniques became essential tools for teachers. Online learning also allowed many teachers to effectively use breakout sessions efficiently and more effectively with students. Techniques such as these and others encouraged teachers to incorporate multiple strategies to address the individual learning needs of students and deepen student engagement.

It follows logically that if we are doing more to address the individual learning needs of students, that how we assess that growth and learning might also change. Online learning highlighted the limitations of more standardized approaches to assessment like quizzes and tests and encouraged and provided “space” for teachers to utilize alternative and authentic assessments such as individual projects, demonstrations, and showcase portfolios. “One area where our students and teachers exceled was in the development of student learning portfolios. Not only was it an excellent opportunity for students to demonstrate what they had learned in a trimester, but it was also a meaningful way for students and their teachers to engage in thoughtful conversations about their learning and goals for the future. Richard shared this sentiment, “At Whittle, we firmly believe that education is not something that should be done to students, but a growth process  where students should have agency, voice and choice.” 

Tamara Smith of Teach for America also shared her personal experience of what their teachers are doing virtually to create community. In a pandemic, she said it’s all the small things that matter. In a virtual world, encouraging personalization of zoom backgrounds to student-selected music are steps they encourage with their students. They allow students to be creative and create their own screensaver backgrounds to encourage their interests and allow a visual way for them to express themselves.

Tamara said they double down on pushing for culturally responsive practices. Their teachers don’t just do this in lesson planning, but they weave it through external topics that bring in students’ identities and backgrounds. For instance, a mathematics lesson can utilize the effects of redlining on resources allocated to various school districts and track how that has shifted over the years. As with any classroom setting, building trust is critical to be able to effectively implement these lessons and reach students through very challenging circumstances.

Connection Issues

No matter how technically advanced we make these virtual spaces, if we aren’t building ways for all students to access them they will never have the potential impact they could. Left out of the conversation of all the ways virtual learning has improved lives for students who are chronically bullied, disabled, or neurodiverse are the students who fit these categories, but who do not have the economic means to access the necessary resources for online learning. 

Tamara Smith shared that underserved students and communities have been hit hardest because they don’t have the support to work remotely. For example, many students in rural areas of Delaware with limited or no reliable access to the internet have no other option but to stand outside a McDonald’s for hours to get reliable WIFI for free. Xfinity even put up temporary internet towers in school parking lots and parents drive their kids there to do their work. In some homes where WiFi is readily available, the bandwidth was not strong enough to support more than one computer in the home, much less 4-5 family members all on ZOOM at the same time.

While Part 1 focuses on creating equity and belonging in virtual environments, please join us later for part 2 of our series where we will examine how equity is created in physical learning environments.