How to Center Students and Finally Realize Educational Equity In Your Classroom

What is Liberated By Design?

Hiya Teach,

Well, hello there. Not sure how you’ve found me. Perhaps you were lying awake tossing and turning, trying to figure out how to reach that one kid that always wants to keep their hood on. Maybe you were spending your weekend planning and were looking for a unit or strategy that would make your life easier. Or perhaps you are reflecting on your practice and looking for support to make this next school the one where you truly realize your vision for education.

Somehow you’ve stumbled across my little corner of the infinite interwebs. And whatever brought you my way, I am so glad we’ve found one another.

Let me introduce myself. I’m Ash (they/them), an Educational Equity Coach for teachers in highly diverse schools with outdated materials that feel pressured to conform. I support you to infuse diversity, inclusion & equity in education, so kids are ready to create a world worthy of their vision.

Let me tell you a bit about Liberated by Design cause it’s more than a catchy on trend title. It is a mission driven transformation of our education system by teachers for teachers right from your seat in the classroom.

Liberation is freedom

Liberation is defined in many ways, but the core is being free to choose, free to live the life that fills your heart. This kind of freedom is the definition of privilege. The ability to create the world around you without fear of retribution. In today’s world access to this kind of freedom is reserved for an elite few.

You might be asking yourself, “What is liberation in education?” Especially when the classroom walls feel like a box meant to mold young minds into just another cog in a system that is churning out predetermined outcomes. A system that feels unchangeable. That we watch chew up our kids and our own passion for learning. Leaving us as empty husks. Disconnect from ourselves & our purpose.

Whew. Ok. That was heavy…

Yet, imagining a world that could be. One where the freedom to choose is accessible for all people is why I became an educator. And if you had a similar dream, however impossible it might seem, you are in the right place.

Design is creation

Teacher, I know you know your stuff about Universal Design Learning, and perhaps you’ve heard of Design Thinking or even the Liberatory Design Process. If all this is new for you, that’s totally good. Cause all you gotta know is that design is creation, and how we think about the creative process.

Great design prioritizes the needs of the user. It thinks through the user experience to create deceptively simple, intuitive structures that often feel natural for the user to engage with and get the most out of their experience.

Design can also be exclusionary, sometimes by accident and sometimes with purpose.

Everything in our lives is designed. The question is who are they designed for & who are they designed by?

Let’s take a closer look at a simple example: the toothbrush.

Traditional toothbrushes have a stiff plastic handle with some plastic bristles arranged in a rectangle at the top. This kind of design was driven by functionality (get crud off your teeth) and was limited by resources available at the time. Still effective at reaching the purpose, the user is a secondary or an afterthought.

Modern toothbrushes come in a huge variety, all designed around different user needs & supported by technology advances. Now even a basic toothbrush has a cushioned grip that is often shaped to your hand. The bristles come in varying lengths to reach those hard to get to places, and for those users that don’t always floss but want the benefit. I mean, these days, you can even connect your toothbrush to your phone so that you know you are getting every last tooth. What a great feature for a parent who wants to make sure their kiddo is getting in that daily brushing! (I know this feature would have defused many a fight between my mother and my stubborn childhood self).

Simultaneously, even all of these toothbrush designs assume the user has hands to hold the brush and mobility to reach one’s mouth. So unintentionally, they’ve excluded whole groups of people with different needs.

Now, this doesn’t exist (that I know of), but what if a toothbrush could sense its user and swap out the bristles to ensure no accidental toothbrush swaps in those groggy early morning hours. This would be an example of an intentional exclusionary design that benefits users.

Often, exclusionary design is more about the designer wanting their product to be associated with a certain kind of lifestyle and person.

In the world of toothbrushes, this looks like pricing all of these user friendly features at a price that few can afford. That Bluetooth enabled toothbrush is gonna cost you over $200! Not exactly accessible to someone working for minimum wage. It is not marketed to parents that want to help their kiddos learn healthy dental habits. Or even folks with memory challenges or traumatic brain injury that need the reminder to reach all parts of their mouth. Nope. It is marketed to the elite and discerning client who prioritizes the vanity of white teeth.

I am not going to argue about production cost cause Capitalism. The bottom line is, this is exclusionary because it isn’t accessible to the folks that really need or would most benefit from this design.

Ok, so enough about toothbrushes. You’re a teacher, not a dentist. So let’s turn that lens inward at what we can affect and take a look at our own classrooms.

In our case, we are lucky enough to design classrooms with the purpose of learning.

Traditionally our classrooms have been designed as a single leader, the teacher, in the front of rows of desks filled with young people. Just like the traditional toothbrush, it was designed for function and limited by technology. Not just the tech of computers and invention of the printing process, but also what we knew about the brain & learning. The purpose of schooling was to impart facts to the ignorant, and mastery was all about memorization. Now, the schoolhouse wasn’t the only place kids learned, as often times youth would do internships or work with their family. This kind of real world learning was accessible to all people and was the necessity of life, and classroom learning was reserved for the elite who had leisure time (White young men with wealthy families).

Without getting too far into the history of education, I think it is important to name that public education is a fairly new idea (less than 200 years old). Ensuring every child has access regardless of gender or ability is not accessible across the globe. In short, access to school is a privilege. Never forget that, and it is important to say that the critique I offer comes from a place of compassion and a desire for us to create the greatest education possible. I see critique as a compliment to say, “you did good, now let’s do even better.”

But I digress… let’s get back to looking at how we think about design in education.

Modern classrooms, like toothbrushes, have a huge variety. The access to technology (if you have a computer lab, teach with one to one tech, or even if you have access to textbooks) are not determined by user (student) need but by funding. The issue is that the philosophy and underlying beliefs about what it means to learn are still based on what we believed 300 years ago. This shows up in legislation, measures of school success, and even school policy.

Where Liberation meets Design

This is where we create freedom by center the user. Which in education is our greatest treasure, our kids!

This might not look like anything crazy radical in your classroom. Like those toothbrushes, the core elements are still there because the ultimate goal is still the same.

But there is flexibility in how to reach that outcome and a redefining of what success means.

So when we center our kids when we design our classrooms, we go beyond just putting up pretty displays that look good on Instagram. We think through their day, not just their time in our classroom but also their expertise outside the school building walls. And we bring that into the content. We sit in their chair and look around our rooms and think about setting kids up to succeed. We shift our mindset from believing the teacher’s job is to impart knowledge about content and see that our kids are the content.

And our role as the teacher is to build a culture that allows youth to fill the classroom with the best version of themselves. And that, that is the magic.

Now let me be clear I am not the first person to discuss this topic. Paolo Freier discussed similar ideas in his Pedagogy of The Oppressed. Zaretta Hammond has discussed this idea through a cultural lens in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain. If anything, I am adding on to a long legacy of brilliant People of Color, and I am adding to the conversation my experience in the classroom. To create clarity for a generation of educators.

If you want support to reimagine what is possible in your own classroom, check out the Student Centered Classroom Culture Guide. Cause, Teach, together we are building a movement, opening our classroom doors and connecting people like you across the globe that are ready to transform education from the inside out.

Educational Equity Coach Teacher created resources for teacher leaders Empower youth leadership through student centered learning