A Powerful Combo: Diversity, Equity, and Belonging and Mind, Brain, and Education

Winter 2022

By Lorraine Martinez Hanley, Ian Kelleher, Eva Shultis

shutterstock_1020713377-Converted.pngEvery student deserves a great teacher. So how do we develop as many expert teachers as possible? This would help every child. To truly address equity in education, to address disparities in learning outcomes for millions of students in the United States, many of whom are Black, Indigenous, and people of color, developing expert teachers is an imperative.
“The strongest education research finding in the last 20 years is that the quality of a teacher is the single greatest in-school determinate of student outcomes,” writes David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and former commissioner of education for New York state, in a 2018 policy brief. It impacts job prospects, lifetime earnings, social skills, reduced risk of adverse life events, as well as academic outcomes—and these impacts are greater for students of color. At The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (MD), we believe that any plan for addressing equity in education needs to include ways to increase teacher effectiveness.
Research suggests that years of experience does not correlate with expertise or effectiveness. While this might at first seem depressing, there is a plus side. We don’t have to wait years to develop expert teachers—there are strategies, knowledge, and attitudes we can target in professional development to make teachers more effective at any stage of their career. In professor John Hattie’s research on the difference between experienced and expert teachers, he found that the main distinguishing factor was the ability to come up with a good strategy in the moment to help a child or group—and to do so with an automaticity and enough mental resources to handle everything else happening in their class at the same time.
Developing each teacher’s toolkit of strategies and helping them learn to use the right strategy at the right time is critical. And must include strategies grounded in diversity, equity, and belonging (DEB), as well as the science of teaching and learning or mind, brain, and education (MBE). Together, DEB and MBE are a powerful combination for great teaching and make learning more equitable—and better for every student, not just people of color, not just students with learning differences. Though students of color and students in other marginalized groups are impacted even more and often in different ways.

Belonging Together

It would be timely to illustrate this DEB + MBE approach by looking at belonging, which is starting to move center stage in educational discourse right now. Research on fostering a sense of belonging suggests it has tremendous potential for improving school performance and outcomes for students of color and first-generation students, but we are just beginning to scratch the surface of what this really looks like in schools.
One key element is setting high expectations and communicating to students—verbally and nonverbally—that we believe in their potential to meet these expectations over time—and then following through as a teacher to help make this happen. What does this take? Part of it is creating a classroom environment where each student feels safe, heard, known, respected, appropriately challenged, and that their voice, experiences, and culture matter. Supporting identity validation and eliminating identity threat are part of it as well. And so is knowing the research on metacognition, feedback, cognitive load, effective and efficient study strategies, assessment, and homework—and then translating it into everyday classroom actions. DEB provides one useful lens and toolkit of strategies to help us do this; MBE provides another. Neither DEB or MBE are sufficient on their own; together, they can help us create school and class environments that support each student on their learning journey. Another way of looking at it is that MBE can be used in support of DEB goals.

We are talking about a holistic science of teaching and learning that helps each child first feel they belong and then feel they can flourish. We need to start seeing DEB and MBE as intersecting, complementary fields, and to shift teacher training accordingly. DEB + MBE gives teachers the best possible knowledge, language, and strategies to deal with the hundreds of decisions they will make each day.
Teachers and school leaders must consider the everyday life of a student at their school:
  • Do they feel safe in every space at school?
  • Do they feel valued and that their experiences, culture, and unique story matter?
  • Do they feel like they can bring their full self to each class? Do they feel known? Do they feel like they belong?
  • Do teachers have high expectations for every student? Do teachers believe in every student’s capacity to meet these expectations over time with their help? Do they communicate these beliefs to students regularly? And do teachers believe themselves when they say it?
  • In class, how does the teacher speak to students? Are all students given the benefit of equally long wait time when asked a question?
  • Is classroom instruction engaging, accessible, and relevant? Is it presented in alignment with what we know from cognitive science about how the human brain learns?
  • What does practice look like—does it help students develop effective and efficient strategies?
  • Does the feedback they receive help or hurt—and take the emotional experience of receiving feedback into account? What about homework?
  • Is there formative assessment before summative assessment, and do teachers tweak their plans based on what they learn from it?
The first part of this list is more connected to DEB; the second part is more connected to MBE. But in the child’s reality of their day, all these pieces combine to create powerful, deep-seated feelings about school and a perception of whether school is a place for them and a valuable part of their life journey, and whether they will bring their full self to school. In teacher training and professional development, DEB and MBE are separated; in practice they are intermixed.
There are many interwoven pieces in each child’s story, and many things can make learning challenging. Neither DEB nor MBE alone gives us the complete picture or the full set of strategies to help support them to move forward. Dedicated DEB practitioners and professional development are vital for every school and every teacher—we desperately need to invest in and deepen this work. When we do this, and then combine it with the best of what we know about pedagogy, assessment, metacognition, and the like, we end up with something more powerful.

The Intersection of DEB and MBE

There are many ways that DEB and MBE interconnect. We illustrate some of the ways in a Venn diagram (see “At the Intersection” below). We chose a Venn diagram because it is not hierarchical—the middle section is not better than the outside sections; it is just where they intersect. DEB and MBE are both research-driven fields—one is not “more scientific” than the other. Equitable teaching includes all of the bullet points listed and many more. There isn’t space to include everything that is important.
What does this intersection look like in practice? As a first step, standalone DEB work needs to be firmly embedded in the core of our schools to eliminate inequitable practices and policies and to train all educators to deepen their practice in culturally responsive teaching. But what next? Many needs, challenges, and opportunities in schools can be better addressed by applying a DEB + MBE toolkit. For example:
When faculty are training to deliver beloved content knowledge in ways that make it more durable, usable, and flexible, we need to consider MBE principles like spaced practice, retrieval practice, and knowledge transfer. But we also need to consider DEB principles, such as a sense of belonging, what it means to make learning relevant, and equitable access to knowledge, resources, and support during project-based learning.
We must learn best practices for giving students feedback and pay particular attention to the emotional climate of how it is received, which determines whether the feedback will have a positive or negative impact. This starts with making it a priority to know each child and deliberately working to build strong relationships and a safe, calm, predictable classroom climate.
When we are working to build each student’s sense of self-esteem, belonging, and self-efficacy, we need to make sure that we are teaching them the best possible study strategies and building their metacognitive ability to use the right strategy at the right time. These strategies tend to feel harder, especially at first, so they must be incentivized and embedded in each course, alongside discussions about belonging.
When we work to revise curriculum through a culturally responsive lens, we need to remember how memory is formed. New knowledge is always learned in the context of existing knowledge; what we know already is crucial in helping us learn what we need to know next. Be aware of the knowledge that your students and families bring to the school. At times we may have to “unlearn” things we have absorbed about history, race, gender, and so on before we can learn the more complete story.
We also need to plan curriculum backwards. Start with learning goals or competencies for the year, then, moving backward, plan the sequence of knowledge- and skill-building steps that have to happen in order to reach these goals.
We must address gaps in literacy—it’s an equity priority—by choosing programs and training with a research-informed lens. “The reading war” about the best way to teach literacy is phony; general consensus exists on core principles, such as the role of decoding, fluency, and comprehension and the importance of structured phonics and a knowledge-rich curriculum.
When we apply both MBE and DEB strategies, we need to have an approach of “do no harm, assume nothing, and include student input.” The right to get that input has to be earned through relationship-building—which is done patiently, over time, involving all teachers who share the same core mission. We cannot get students to buy into a DEB or an MBE strategy or approach without a sense of belonging or trust.

Where to Begin

Although belonging is becoming more of a prominent idea in our schools, but it is neither the starting point nor the ultimate goal. Positive social and academic identity formation, which for every student includes many constantly evolving strands, is the goal. This is what we celebrate when the student walks across the stage on graduation day—all the ways we’ve seen them grow in the time we’ve known them and all the possibilities of who they are becoming.
In our work at theScreen-Shot-2022-01-13-at-11-44-57-AM-(1).png CTTL, we’ve developed one possible guide that we think offers a promising path for DEB+MBE growth (see “A Guide for DEB + MBE”). It starts with the foundational work of teachers examining their own identities, inviting and creating space to learn about the identities of their students, and working to build a climate of safety and trust. Once this work is under way, teachers must keep at it and also work purposefully at building a sense of belonging in their class or school (which at times will involve cycling back to the steps below it). At every level, it’s crucial pull in research-informed strategies from both DEB and MBE to help. For example, to help build a sense of belonging, casting a critical lens on pervasive narratives by exploring “whose voice is missing?” (a classic DEB strategy) and giving time in class for students to understand and act on feedback they have just received (a classic MBE strategy) are both helpful—and there are many others.

The challenges facing students and schools are complex and multifaceted, and benefit from multifaceted approaches to finding solutions. We need teachers and school leaders who can look at the Venn diagram and see how all the pieces fit together, how they all work in conjunction to help shape each student’s experience at school. Great educators can do this—and do it in a way that leaves them with enough mental resources to deal with everything else that is happening in a busy school at the same time. By taking a DEB + MBE approach, we are more likely to create policies, practices, and places that better serve the needs of all students. It is a more robust approach to fight for equity in schools.


Readings and Resources

  • “The Secret of Effective Feedback” by Dylan Wiliam in Educational Leadership, April 2016
  • How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students by Susan Brookhart
  • Belonging Through a Culture of Dignity: The Keys to Successful Equity Implementation, Floyd Cobb and John Krownapple
  • “Implications for Educational Practice of the Science of Learning and Development,” Applied Developmental Science, Linda Darling-Hammond, Lisa Flook, Chann Cook-Harvey, Brigid Barron, and David Osher
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students, Zaretta Hammond
  • “Teachers Make a Difference: What is the Research Evidence?,” John Hattie
  • “Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development? Explaining Heterogeneity in Returns to Teaching Experience,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay
  • “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson
  • “Cognitive Ability and Teacher Efficacy,” David Steiner
  • “Breaking The Cycle Of Mistrust: Wise Interventions To Provide Critical Feedback Across The Racial Divide,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, David Scott Yeager, Valeria Purdie-Vaughns, Julio Garcia, Nancy Apfel, Patti Brzustoski, Allison Master, William T. Hessert, Matthew E. Williams, and Geoffrey L. Cohen
Lorraine Martinez Hanley

Lorraine Martinez Hanley is a language teacher and the director of diversity, equity, and belonging at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland. She’s also an Omidyar Faculty Fellow at the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL).

Ian Kelleher

Ian Kelleher is a science teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School. He is also the Dreyfuss Family Faculty Chair of Research for the CTTL and author of Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education. 

Eva Shultis

Eva Shultis is a middle and high school science teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and associate director of research for the CTTL.