Challenging Rumors, Myths, and Half-Truths in Educational Discourse

November 5, 2017

Challenging Rumors, Myths, and Half-Truths in Educational Discourse

by Sarah L. Alvarado Diaz and David Hernández-Saca

Equity Alliance

This blog identifies rumors in the discourse used in educational research and spaces that have been accepted as truths and explanations for the conditions under which many students’ lives are determined, counted, or explained. Our use of rumors was influenced by our reading of McDermott, Goldman and Varenne’s (2006) proposal that as researchers, we have “encouraged oppression by explanation: some can, some cannot, and this is why some have and some have not,” or, “under which rumors of disability and disadvantaged backgrounds are attended to and their persons counted, theorized, explained, and remediated” (p. 16). As educational equity scholars, our use of the metaphor of rumors pushes for practices that take on both reflection and action (or praxis, as defined by scholars such as Hoffman-Kip, Artiles, & Lopez-Torres, 2003) while challenging researchers to engage in research activity which provides more accurate depictions of students’ lives. A more accurate description of students’ lives in one in which more of their context is accounted for. A more precise depiction is important since oftentimes, research findings impact stakeholders (i.e., school personnel), resulting in similar discourse within school communities. We define context as the circumstances that surround students’ lives, not restricted to what happens in isolation to other things. By taking into account the lived realities of those we intend to write about, we aim to disrupt the rumors. In this blog we 1) recognize rumors as a part of the discourse in educational research; 2) identify what is missing from this discourse; and 3) assert meaningful educational discourse must become a part of a new material and discursive praxis for truth and justice.

What are rumors?
What are rumors? Rumors are those stories (or reports) that present incomplete descriptions of students’ lives. Incomplete descriptions of students’ lives often began as research findings, presented as truths or facts—that often lead to particular paradigms/frameworks about students lives on the ground. The rumors often become a partial, incomplete, or distorted view associated with students’ lives. Later the facts are used to justify practices or research may be used in classrooms, on or with students, or used to write about the lives of others. Others call rumors half-truths. We see rumors as negative forces that have been based on myths and end up being perceived as essentialized truths. We argue rumors cannot be whole truths, but only a part of students’ lives, only a part of the story. Research findings of how to address the needs of specific communities, such as linguistic and ethnic minorities, often become the discourse used to explain students’ successes and failures, dis/abilities, access, participation, and outcomes. We argue the problem is to treat groups of students (ethnic, linguistic minorities, students with dis/abilities) as if they were one homogeneous group, as if all individuals within the group were the same. The information (including research findings) often translates into imposed educational discourse that may or may not represent those being described, but used by researchers to explain the complex lives of marginalized populations.

Why this matters
As rumors would have it, students and families of color need to be fixed because they are broken. These and other prevailing rumors have included: teachers don’t understand students, parents don’t understand teachers, schools don’t understand parents. Perhaps there is a problem within the students’ heads; a learning problem. It’s the teachers who are the problem. If only teachers were trained the right way. Parents are too busy working and don’t have time to read to their children. If parents only cared. It’s because they live in poverty. As a result of these rumors, we then point out what has been achieved when rumors percolate, although unverified. We propose that the rumors, while perhaps may have orgins as partial truths, result in distorted explanations about the lives of traditionally marginalized groups of students. To continue this same way, we argue, means the research field’s continuation to search for answers – trying to find the silver bullet- that will solve the problem, with little success. We assert, rather than looking for the one answer to the problem, researchers make a more conscious effort to explain within written and oral discourse that the research findings and projects conducted about marginalized groups of students are only a partial story of their lives; it cannot be portrayed as a complete depiction of their lives. When (if) technology has advanced so far, when (if) we have interventions, programs, curricula, assessments to measure students and teachers, standards, systems, and policies aimed to achieve educational equity, why is it that the most marginalized populations continue to struggle? Why is that we can’t seem to solve the problems that have prevailed for so long? Do we continue to see children and families as deficits, as if something was wrong with them?

What’s been missing: The potential of educational research to dispel rumors
We do find hope, and we argue there isn’t a problem with our students, our teachers, or our families. We argue the problem might be the educational discourse that is used as a means to explain, theorize, count, or remediate people (McDermott, et. al., 2006). It is the educational discourse that targets the students or families. It is the educational discourse that does not take into account students’ complex lives. Some of the rumors we have accepted as whole truths for so long are only part of the answer to our problems. They are only half-truths. We argue, as researchers, it is our job to set the rumors straight and remind readers that our findings are only a part of the picture and that they do not have all the answers. One fix, intervention, system, program, evaluation, person, and/or a curriculum cannot be the answer to our systemic problems. This means our discourse must change. We cannot allow our discourse to run the course as the only solution. Learning does take place inside the mind, but it does not take place without the interactions of human beings with each other within the material world (e.g., the environment, social context(s)). Learning does not take place in a vacuum. Context is the unique circumstance that surrounds students’ lives and we argue it matters. We must account for the individual contexts of students and their teachers. Whether or not research experiments may have been perfectly set up, implemented with fidelity, and based on research evidence, the findings only represent a part of the whole picture – however, only part of the story was told. Yet, most damaging is the discursive practices of assuming that the findings were understood as a solution or as generalizable to all.

Therefore, such research asks questions (i.e., special education research) such as, what worked, for whom and in what contexts (Guralnick, 1999 as cited in Odom, et al., 2005; Cuningham & Fitzgerald, as cited in Klingner & Edwards, 2006)? It represents only half of what the researcher shared in the findings, only half the truth.

Educational discourse has been used to dispel rumors about people of color and their intersectional identities that fall along structural, political, and personal descriptions. Identities (e.g., dis/abled, English language learner, immigrant) are those labels that are imposed on others, many times by educational research discourse. The reality, in turn, may be that students’ may perceive these labels as fitting or disconnected to their lives. The rumors, which do not account for the multiplicity of students’ lives, we argue, are a part of the discourse that exists within the white-male-abled, heterosexual discourses that we have inherited as a US society. Deficit thinking continues to permeate in many spaces when we do not ask the full question: What works for whom? Who benefits? Who doesn’t? Different from what? As a result, we challenge educational research discourse that does not account for the contextual lives of students. Those contexts include unique circumstances, backgrounds, identities, and experiences, which cannot be simplified to a fix for a particular group. For these reasons, we argue this discourse can (and should) be reframed and disrupted.

The challenge: A call for alternate discourse
We believe researchers and practitioners should continue to challenge their own assumptions, while rejecting the rumors in educational research discourse as whole truths. It is only a half-truth that children succeed or fail; the labels that researchers, policy-makers, and systems created do not have to be the only means by which we describe our students. It’s only a rumor that life is about dualities (e.g., abled/disabled) or that students have to be reduced down to a number. We must begin to use material and discursive praxis—the coupling of theory and action—that recognizes diversity not as deficit or something to be tamed, but a resource and a part of all human beings. There’s always m­­­ore to learn. Evidence-based is only part of the answer. Evidence-based research works, but works for whom? We cannot continue to accept educational research discourse as a whole truth when it might be a rumor—only a part of the truth–and then continue to wonder what’s wrong with children and families. Subjects are human beings, not just objects of research that can be reduced down to a number — that approach leads to their dehumanization and the dehumanization of those who understand them as such. It’s time to account for more of the picture. Poverty may be a reality for many students, but it cannot be used to ignore other factors that impact students’ lives.

We propose an alternate discourse, one in which the humanity of people is at the forefront of research activity, one in which people are not essentialized or reduced down to a number, that is, humanized research (Paris & Winn, 2013). There is a need to move away from damaged-imagery, similar to our argument of rumors of historically marginalized youth and families, communities of color, and indigenous folks within the educational discourse (e.g., meaning the communities of practices of folks, literature, educational field, the assumptions within this field, etc.). The onus is on researchers to be critically reflexive about their (re)presentations and interpretations as it relates to these communities. It also includes a historical consciousness about the relationships between science and research with communities to avoid perpetuating the violence that has been done in the name of science. Therefore, there is a level of ethical consideration that we must have. Humanizing research accounts for multiple aspects of people’s lives, such as dis/ability, race, ethnicity, sexuality, citizenship, status, gender (Paris & Winn, 2013). Humanizing research may include methodological approaches, which recognize people learn across multiple activity systems (Vossoughi & Gutierrez, 2014). Such research examines relations between learning in multiple spaces and helps researchers understand how learning takes place across time and space in order to “gain a deeper understanding of the multiple environments that shape people’s everyday experiences” connected to “ecologies, historical and structural conditions” (Vossoughi & Gutierrez, 2014, p. 605). These methodological and theoretical approaches move research activity away from “damage-centered” (Tuck, 2009, p. 409) approaches. Further, it recognizes the complexity involved in personhood (Gordon, 1997); that is, people’s lives are not ‘simultaneously straightforward’ (as cited in Tuck, 2009, p. 420). Alternatively, “complex personhood draws on Indigenous understandings of collectivity and the interdependence of the collectivity and the interdependence of the collective and the person rather than on the Western focus on the individual” (Tuck, 1997, p. 420).

This alternate discourse is a move towards humanizing research and discounting the rumors, which have gone all the way down in education, “that some can and some cannot, and this is why some have and some have not” (McDermott et al., 2006, p. 13). It is a call for more of the truth, of action that is informed by reflexivity within educational research discourse and aimed towards justice.

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