It is uncommon for me to be so moved by a piece, to feel so connected to the author and their ideas, that I feel a massive reinforcement of my convictions. There are many systems of oppression, but I find that there is one that is many times overlooked and not taken as seriously: In her post, A Thousand Rivers, Carol Black introduces a concept I had not thought much about up to this point: cognitive imperialism (the emphasis is mine).
Marie Battiste, a Mi’kmaw education professor at the University of Saskatchewan, has a very clear term for the tendency of one powerful group to claim the authority to define its own cognitive traits and preferences as normal and desirable and all other ways of thinking, learning, and understanding the world as deficits and disabilities: she calls it “cognitive imperialism.” It’s the cognitive equivalent of racism. It leads naturally, of course, to a kind of cognitive Manifest Destiny that assumes that one way of thinking, of learning, of being in the world is destined to overwhelm and replace all others.
Whoa. This is a window into how complicated our work as teachers is. While I might be reading books that show my students represented in them, while I might be discussing with students how gender and racial bias manifest themselves in society, I am probably using instructional methods and having thoughts that is trying to get students to process things a certain way. But how in social justice’s name am I to take this realization and translate it into reality in my classroom?
During my student teaching in kindergarten, I had a student who, by all traditional tests, was “failing”. I will call him Carlos. If I pointed letters out in random order on a piece of paper, he maybe knew five letters at any given moment. He would count cubes out, with the goal of making 18, and then forget within five seconds what number we were working on. When called on to share thoughts during a read a loud, he would smile and his tongue would circle in his mouth. Most of the time, he would smile and shake his head, as if to say “Never mind!” If he did speak, it was in Spanish. This is the typical deficit based profile of an english language learner struggling in school.
I also saw Carlos who, when playing with blocks would explain to me “Este es un parque, está es la tienda.” (this is a park, this is a store):
I then ask Carlos, “¿Oh, estás haciendo un parque y una tienda? ¿Me puedes explicar más?
Carlos turns away, a behavior that is not expected nor desired in an “academic” setting”. I notice he turns around, and approaches a white girl that speaks English for most of her time in the classroom and points at a half sphere she has near her, “Can I use this?”. The girl nods, and Carlos returns triumphant with his half sphere, and puts it on top of a structure he identified as his tienda (store). “¡Mira mi tienda!”
I respond, “oooh de qué es?” (What type is it?). Carlos continues to build another structure, and says “Esta es una escuela” (this is a school).
What just happened? I’ve thought about this conversation a lot. I, trying to be a “good” curious educator, am asking these probing questions, to which Carlos mainly responds by continuing his work. It’s as if I’m the one who is behind and I’m the one that has to keep up with this work and thinking. He appears to enjoy explaining things through modeling. I also heard him speak English for the first time and noticed he changed his language depending on who he was speaking with.
So in front of me, I have a builder who clearly thinks in metaphors, making the blocks become a park, a school, and a store. There was nobody doing the exact same thing as him, and perhaps he felt like it was truly his space to make sense of his world in the moment. In front of me, I had a flexible learner that was guiding himself through play.
Into the Academy
So, great. What have I just learned about Carlos? Well, for one thing, I have noticed that Carlos is engaged when he gets to choose how to use what’s in front of him. I didn’t tell him what to do with the blocks, nor did I tell him he had to use blocks. He could have made patterns with shapes, played with puppets, or built with the larger brown blocks. There was no set product that he had to do. How might I translate this into, let’s say, reading literacy?
All of my thoughts about children and their cognition are truly tentative and hypotheses, waiting to be disproven. Using what I knew about Carlos and his love of blocks, I proceeded to attempt a dialogically organized discussion around the book Clic, Clac, Muu, Vacas Tecladoras. I sat Carlos down with three other students who tended to keep to themselves during whole group read alouds. My goals were to 1) observe students making sense of the text, whatever it is they make sense of and, 2) nudge students to explain their thinking and go deeper into their ideas.
I began with the title page, and asked “¿Qué ven?” (What do you see?). One student said they saw a computer and cows. Carlos appeared to begin rolling on the floor. He was visibly disengaged. Throughout the reading, at times Carlos would participate, but only after much time and he would do a lot of his smile-with-his-tongue-circling-in-his-mouth, something I observe him do when he appears hesitant to participate. I would nudge him to tell me what he sees in each image. He would look away and start playing with his shoe and someone else would jump in.
After that read a loud, I had a new hypothesis: if I presented a book without words and intricate illustrations, Carlos would participate more openly and enthusiastically. I realized that perhaps Carlos saw the words in the book, and may not see himself as someone who can read or talk about books with words in them. So I was curious to find out how he would interact with a wordless picture book.
A Grand Journey
With a new hypothesis in hand, I organized another dialogical discussion around the wordless picture book Journey by Aaron Becker. Immediately after I opened with “¿Qué piensas que está pasando?” (What do you think is happening?) Carlos’ eyes lit up. He spoke in what seemed to be paragraphs about what was happening, based on what he saw. Other students contributed as well, and Carlos was able to get back into the conversation when he felt like it: he did so with ease. It was the first time I had seen Carlos ecstatic about reading a book. It’s almost as if he felt like a reader and a sense maker.
It’s impossible to say that my hypothesis was correct, but we were at least headed in a direction that animated Carlos.
In a very small way, Carlos and I worked to push back against the cognitive imperialism that dominates our school system. I worked to change my approach and mindset to revolve around Carlos’ way of thinking and being, around what he showed me not what he should be showing me. Time is so tight during student teaching, so I do have some parting thoughts as to how I would potentially continue working with Carlos in other domains.
There’s no getting around a sinister fact of life for teachers in the USA: standardized tests. And I do feel a responsibility for kids to at least do the dog and pony show to continue to have the autonomy to do actual learning.
For helping Carlos do well on standardized tests, I would want to build on his affinities and strengths. I’m wondering what would happen if I painted or got blocks with letters on them, and worked to rearrange them and create words with them. I wonder, in math, how he would do with open ended number talks focused on counting and nudging him towards different ways of looking at numbers, such as asking “How else could we count them?”, with a genuinely curious mindset around his answers.
But Carlos is only one student, and what about the other 23 students (or more) in the classroom? Well, to that I say that the more accessible and open I made my approaches to Carlos, the more agency and excitement I saw from other students as well. Teaching is hard for many reasons. It is those reasons that make me love teaching even more every year. The intellectual challenge is well worth the effort in order to create a more just, inclusive, and democratic society.