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For years, diversity, equity, and inclusion have been topics of growing concern in the edtech industry—and rightly so. Instruction that reflects all students better serves all students, if only because it better represents the diverse and intersectional world we’re trying to prepare them for.
There is also, however, pushback, perhaps most visible in legislation like Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill or the political furor over the imagined presence of critical race theory in K-12 curricula.
To get some clarity on what educators are looking for from edtech providers on this front, I spoke with Ali Alowonle, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) coordinator and gifted education teacher in MN—and my sister!—about how companies can meet districts’ DEI needs.
The Role of Curriculum Providers in DEI
Alowonle, who said she was interested in playing a role in her school’s DEI efforts because it’s important to her that every child who enters her classroom is seen as valued and important. She added that curriculum providers play a key role in creating welcoming classrooms. “They have a huge responsibility, especially for new teachers who come into schools. They don't have lesson plans, they haven't created anything,” explained Alowonle. “They're counting on that curriculum and those materials that they're going to implement in their classroom to be equitable.”
When a piece of the equity puzzle is missing, teachers have to figure out how to add it in, “but that provides a lot of extra work for the teacher and extra workload and strain,” explained Alowonle.” For example, when she landed in her current position in 2009, “I was given the opportunity to create my own curriculum. It was a lot of extra work, but then I could make sure that every child could see themselves and be exposed to other cultures and other ways of life and different perspectives because I was in charge.”
Looking back, she said,
“Although teachers need to take responsibility in ensuring the curriculum is inclusive, it would be helpful if curriculum providers helped with a good equitable baseline to start from. Part of that would include ensuring that minoritized community members were part of the curriculum creation process”
Though she acknowledges that edtech providers really do believe in the mission of education, Alowonle said there is still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to DEI. “I've heard from folks in K-12 all the way up through high school,” Alowonle said, “I've heard from people all across the country that the curriculum just isn't meeting their needs.”
And it really is about students’ needs and not some imaginary need for teachers to mark items off of a diversity checklist. “We look at the intersectionality of people, looking at their gender identity, their sexual orientation, their socioeconomic status,” Alowonle explained. “There are all these different branches that we need to make sure we're representing because, as a student, if you don't see yourself in what's being taught—and I know this from personal experience—you withdraw. You're not interested. It's not engaging if it's not speaking to you.”
Her advice to publishers and curriculum providers?
“Think of every single possible child. I know that seems like a pretty hefty lift, but it's one that can be fulfilled—and it should be—to make sure every child can say that they've seen themselves in some part of the content, curriculum, or materials.”
That representation extends beyond just the information and resources teachers present to students, according to Alowonle, to include the ways they deliver instruction or ask students to demonstrate learning. She noted that classroom practices tend to be based on eurocentric norms and suggested trying to incorporate practices from, for example, cultures with stronger oral traditions.
“How is it being taught?” Alowonle asked. “That's really important too. Maybe that staff is getting training on teaching different perspectives. How do we do different formats, for instance, a Socratic seminar versus a lecture? How do we make sure we're tapping into those different needs of kids?”
How Diversity Lessons for Teacher Candidates Can Help EdTech Vendors
Alowonle also teaches a course for teachers-in-training at Augsburg University about diversity in schools. While her advice for those students may be a little more difficult for businesses to implement directly, it’s still worth the effort. She said the idea she’s most eager to impress upon those future teachers is that each student brings immense cultural wealth with them to the classroom.
“So as the teacher, you're not just there to teach them, you need to take a step back and learn from the students because when you stop and you actually listen and hear their stories and hear the wealth that they have from their family and their culture and whatever they happen to bring to school, you can really learn a lot about how you shape your content and your delivery and your instruction.”
For companies, this means getting to know the people in the districts you want to serve. As she put it, “Talk to the families. What are their experiences? What are their stories? What are their needs? Talk to every stakeholder--not just administration and district leaders who make decisions on purchasing curriculum. This means talking to teachers, students, caretakers, and anyone in the building and community who represents another viewpoint or story.”
Even a regional edtech company probably can’t spend a significant amount of time rubbing elbows with students and families to hear about their needs, but they can still reach out for input. “They can still create surveys or get feedback from different stakeholders like parents, students, teachers,” Alowonle said, “just to get an idea of where they're at. I know it's a little bit harder and it's a larger reach, but it can still be done.”
A Commitment to DEI Goes a Long Way
Ultimately, companies are going to make mistakes in this area, but Alowonle says the commitment to doing better is the real difference-maker in her mind. “If there was a company who took a stance and very actionably said, ‘This is what we're doing to be progressive in this area of diversity, equity, and inclusion,’ versus a company who doesn't do that, I would way prefer to trust and go with the company who's making the strides and efforts,” said Alowonle. “You know, they're not going to get it right 100%, but as long as they're willing to do their research and make those efforts, that really speaks volumes.”
Curriculum providers really can make a difference, Alowonle said. “There are grassroots movements and people in the field doing work to make schools more equitable, but curriculum providers and those in powerful positions of the social hierarchy can make substantial changes toward justice and liberation in education by coming to the table and contributing!”
Want to learn more? Reach out to Ali at email@example.com , or to hear the full conversation with Ali Alowonle, listen to episode 8 of The Education Insider here or wherever you get your podcasts.