Shirin Vossoughi is an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, where she draws on ethnographic methods to study the social, cultural, historical, and political dimensions of learning and educational equity. As the daughter of Iranian immigrants, she is personally invested in the development of educational settings for youth from migrant, immigrant, and diasporic backgrounds. Building on her work as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and the Exploratorium, Vossoughi is currently studying equity-oriented after-school programs that blend scientific inquiry, literacy, and the arts. She takes a collaborative approach to research, partnering with teachers and students to study the conditions that foster educational dignity and possibility.
Test scores. Accountability. Global economic competitiveness. Grit. These words dominate the current discourse of educational reform. They embody cultural assumptions and values about children’s needs and capacities, about what teaching and learning should look like, and about what they are for. The rigidities they impose on the everyday lives of teachers and students are often justified through the hollow appropriation of “equity” and “Civil Rights.”
But there are other words, those closer to the human experience of education and what it could be for: relationships, love, ideas, questions, social analysis, history, community, intellectual respect. Words that signal another set of values, dreams of another kind of world.
In a wonderful piece on writing about education through the details of classroom life, Mike Rose posits that “rich questioning and exchange signals a teacher’s respect for students, and students pick that up; in my experience, the students then mirror that respect for each other.” Rose characterizes such esteem as “intellectual respect,” adding, “See if you can sense it – or its absence – in the air.”
Over the last twelve years, I have had the opportunity to help build and study educational spaces that design for equity and seek to enact intellectual respect. The students I have come to know in these settings have daily encounters with racialized assumptions about their capacities, drill and test-based curricula that disregard their lived experiences, and disciplinary practices that criminalize youth of color. Intellectual indignities with long histories in systems designed to maintain hierarchy and control.
These alternative spaces sought to challenge such inequities through a social and cultural approach to learning and a historically grounded critique of schooling. In light of this month’s theme “Alternative Views of Learning: Broadening Contexts, Adding Dimensions,” I dwell on a core dimension of this approach—the notion of intellectual respect—and share what I have learned from working to sense its presence or absence in the air. What does such respect look and feel like? What are the conditions within which it blooms? What kinds of individual and social transformation does it make possible?
The Migrant Student Leadership Institute
In my experience, classrooms that embody intellectual respect invite young people to use real tools to work on real problems. They both presume that all students can engage in sophisticated forms of disciplinary thinking, and treat students’ histories, ways of speaking and knowing as resources for questioning and expanding disciplinary boundaries.
In a summer academic program for high-school aged migrant youth, we worked with students to read Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, and C. Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination. These texts were framed as tools for collectively wrestling with the social problems that directly affected students’ lives: migration, economic exploitation, racism, patriarchy. Yet the ways we engaged these texts mattered more than their mere presence in the curriculum. Teachers often read together, working to craft generative prompts, interpretive paths and metaphors. In moment-to-moment discussions of complex passages, students were treated as fellow thinkers, poised to contribute weighty questions and ideas. They were also encouraged to ask for help.
In one vivid instance, a student ventured an interpretation of the relationship between Mills’ argument and Paulo Freire’s notion of praxis, and then stopped mid-sentence, unsure if he should proceed. The teacher expressed excitement and encouraged him to keep going. As he spoke, the teacher listened carefully, and nodded:
“Cuando alguien está usando lo de la imaginación sociológica, tiene que enfocar en, este, biografía y (teacher nodding) y la historia, (nodding) y relacionarlo para encontrar el problema y en donde enfocar” (nodding).
When someone is using the sociological imagination, s/he has to focus on biography (teacher nodding)…and history, (nodding) relating the two in order to find the problem, and where to focus (nodding).
When he finished, the teacher leaned back, smiled and said, “Did you guys hear what Miguel just said? Eso, lo que estaba diciendo Miguel, es bien importante.” This, what Miguel was saying, is really important. He began to re-voice Miguel’s comment for the class, then paused and asked him if he would like to elaborate. Miguel leaned forward, smiled and said a playful “ah-hem” before proceeding, this time without stopping.
Here, the teacher’s genuine excitement over Miguel’s interpretation, and the careful support he provided, opened up a new sense of authority, and perhaps, joy. Over time, I have found that such face-to-face encounters serve to redefine learning as a shared endeavor, and students begin to trust that their ideas will be taken seriously—that they will be seen. The everyday practice of such recognition can embolden students to engage in the vulnerability necessary for real learning, and to assert rather than question their intellectual power.
The Tinkering After-School Program
More recently, I have been documenting and studying such interactions with Meg Escudé and a team of adult and teen educators in an after-school science and arts program serving San Francisco Boys & Girls Clubs. In this space, educators are intentional about the language they use to talk with elementary-aged students about their ideas and experiments. Phrases such as “that’s a really interesting problem” or “what’s your plan for the next draft?” are commonly heard amidst the ruckus of children working with tools and materials. During a unit on electricity, one teacher referred to a student’s project as an “elegant circuit,” akin to the ways a seasoned scientist might speak with a colleague. The student didn’t respond in the moment, but proudly shared his invention with older peers later that day—perhaps his own version of Miguel’s “ah-hem.”
These spaces are not without their struggles and tensions. Following each session of the after-school program, we gather as a staff and spend time writing and reflecting on the day’s interactions. Noticing the subtle ways deficit views can seep into our practice, we have learned to nurture particular forms of reflection. These include encouraging educators to write not only about what the kids said or did, but to describe the interactions, including their own role. We talk about the role of gesture and gaze, noticing when taking a students’ project out of her hands may inadvertently communicate assumptions about her capability and becoming intentional about the ways we intervene in students’ investigations. We also consider what opens up pedagogically when we revise our language from “he doesn’t know how to…” to “he is learning how to…” Such shifts allow us to recognize the nascent ways students are stretching into new practices, and bring opportunities for productive assistance and learning into relief.
Intellectual respect lives in the ways we listen and speak with young people, but also in the ways we speak about them. Indeed, the first often grows from the second.
One afternoon, I was working with Stefanie on building a scribbling machine (a small motorized device with colored pens as “feet”) when her older brother came by to pick her up. She convinced him to stay another half-hour, and he sat down to work with her. A few minutes later, she approached me and said, “He’s kind of taking over for me.” As a long-time participant, she was attuned to the ways educators in this space work collaboratively with students, but try not to control their process. I asked her what she thought might help and she decided to get him his own materials so that he could work alongside her—a common division of labor in the setting, and a loving response to his genuine efforts to help her. Stefanie’s reorganization of the interaction also created the space for her brother to witness and recognize her ideas.
Such instances have led me to inquire about the long-term meanings intellectual respect may hold for young people—how it might sharpen their sensitivities to moments when their capability is not assumed, embolden their questions and ideas, and perhaps provide an experiential shield against future indignities. Students know what disrespect feels like. They also know what pretend respect feels like. The real stuff can get in your bones.
When I asked Chico, one of our teen staff, what led him to come back to the after-school program after a hiatus, he said that he realized this was a place that ‘treated him fairly.’ Doug, another teen staff member, spoke of the struggles around identity and assimilation he faced as one of the few Black students at his former high school, and shared that the program helps you see that “you don’t have to follow what everybody else does.” He also described his efforts to instill a strong sense of self in his younger sister. We often speak of confidence as an individual trait. But nurtured in and with community, it can be a social and political force.
We have an educational system that espouses an interest in supporting all students to succeed while actively devising new ways to measure, sort, and rank them. These contradictions are not lost on the students whose daily lives involve navigating a landscape intent on testing a narrow set of abilities, rather than recognizing and nurturing their vast capabilities. Teachers, parents and students are organizing to change these conditions and connecting these struggles to broader movements for justice. This process of critique and transformation requires creative political action both at the macro-level of institutional change and at the level of everyday interaction—imagining, practicing and asserting alternative educational possibilities.