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The 180 Podcast Jul 15, 2021

The 180 Podcast: Zaretta Hammond: What is Culturally-Responsive Teaching?


Zaretta Hammond: What is Culturally-Responsive Teaching?

Listen to part two here.

This may seem obvious: Students learn best where they feel a sense of safety and belonging. The science of learning and development shows environments that foster these feelings open up the brain to learning.

But what if children find themselves in spaces that teacher, educator, and author Zaretta Hammond calls “inequitable by design,” that prevent instead of promote safety and belonging? What can teachers and schools do if the design of our education system is an obstacle to learning in and of itself? What does it mean to be a culturally responsive teacher — and why is that necessary, not only to stimulate intellectual curiosity, but to move beyond “cognitive redlining” and transition students to “cognitive independence”?

Zarretta Hammond is the author of “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” and founder of the “Ready 4 Rigor” blog. She is a former English teacher and, for nearly two decades, has worked at the crux of instructional design, professional development, and achieving equity. Hammond’s research explores and analyzes the brain functions that inform how we learn and think. And it delves deeply into how students of color would benefit from culturally-responsive teaching and what it means – and doesn’t mean – for how educators can help all students get ready to tackle the rigorous content necessary to succeed.

As you’ll hear, it’s such thought-provoking conversation that it called for two episodes of this podcast.

One note before we begin, an ask from me to you: If you like our 180 conversations, I’d appreciate if you’d take a moment, go to Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, and, if you’re so moved, leave a 5-star review. It makes a big difference in helping people find the podcast.

Here’s part one of our conversation with Zaretta Hammond.


Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: Zaretta, thanks for joining me, I appreciate your time.

Zaretta Hammond: Absolutely, I’m excited for our conversation.

Chris Riback: I am as well. Most of the time in these conversations, I ask folks about their personal journeys at the end of a conversation. I like to get the theories and missions first, but it seems evident that with you, your personal journey is directly connected to your mission. So could we start there?

Zaretta Hammond: Yes, I am a product of grandparents who came out from the Deep South to San Francisco in 1940. So they were part of that last wave of Black migration leaving the Deep South because of Jim Crow, lack of opportunities, and that sort of thing. So being able to understand what my grandparents went through, and here’s the thing, they were both illiterate. My grandmother, I think, learned to sign her name when she was in her 70s, and I remember that event. It was just like, woo! My grandfather had gone to the sixth grade, and when he came out here, he was a longshoreman for all his life because he had really strong hands, a strong back. He had that physicality that allowed him to leverage that. But in terms of education, they both were not well-served by segregated schools in the South.

And as a result, I think for my mother, who was 2 when she came out with them, it kind of radicalized her. Even though she was a teen parent, she had her first child by the time she was 17, and by 22 had three children, but she always had a hunger for education and always felt that was important. And we lived in the Pink Projects in San Francisco’s Hunters Point.

And when it came time for us to go to school, she literally visited the school in our neighborhood and she just said, basically, “BS. I’m not sending my kids… Kids sharing books…” She just didn’t feel any joy or livelihood. It just felt dingy and prison-like. And so she, before busing was even popular, put us on the city bus from Hunters Point over to the predominantly Asian and White community that my grandparents were fortunate enough to buy a house in. They were one of probably nine Black families in that area. And she used their address. So she basically lied to send us to that neighborhood school, which was predominantly White and Asian. And they pretty much knew that we were not from around there. And they kind of looked the other way. Don’t make any trouble, we’ll look the other way. This was the message we literally got.

And we had to get ourselves two hours across town, two different buses we had to transfer to, because mom had to go somewhere else. This wasn’t no mom bus.

Chris Riback: She didn’t even accompany you on the bus. You were navigating that on your own.

Zaretta Hammond: By ourselves, yes. By ourselves, because again, you do what you have to do.

But here’s what was interesting. In her Welfare-to-Work job, she got that position as a library technician. So our after school program was to meet mom at the library, she’d put us in the children’s section, she’d pile the books on the table so high. And she said, “By the time you hit the tabletop,” because you’ve read these books or looked through them, “it’s going to be time to go.” So that was my after school program. That experience radicalized me. I don’t care if the school’s all Black and Brown.

There is nothing special sitting next to White people in terms of making sure that we get a quality education. Because that is what continues to get perpetuated. Every school, every neighborhood school should be a high-quality school, no matter what the composition. And so we still perpetuate this. This was the whole idea of Brown V. Board, that somehow we’re being disadvantaged because it’s all Black, or all Latino, or too many Indigenous folk. And somehow we need to be adjacent to White children to have value in our education

And that deficit mentality has followed me all the way. And I was able to see that. But I do think that this was important, because it’s part of my radicalization. That when I then moved into upper elementary, it was certainly true, I became much more aware of it in middle school, because my mother made a commitment that education wasn’t something that she was going to turn over to the school. Kind of like talking to kids about sex. You don’t send them to school to get that talk. The parent has values, the parent has a way in which they want their child to be initiated into that conversation.
Well my mother felt as strongly about that around education. And so she made sure we learned to read. She made sure we had wide experiences. She made sure we knew Black history, and Latino history, and First Nation Indigenous history. You need to know the other folk who are having these issues. And so that, when I went to school, put me in a different category. I was in the honors classes, the gifted and talented, and I was often the only Black person there.

And it was not an intellectually safe space. Teachers did not protect me; there was no intellectual safety. And then we put gender on top of that. I went to Lowell High School, and I literally left for my own mental health. I went to my mother and I said, “Even though I’ve worked really hard to get to the most high-level specialized high school in the city, for my own wellbeing, I can’t stay here.” She was heartbroken because this was kind of the-

Chris Riback: It’s a very well-known school, yes.

Zaretta Hammond: Yes. Well, and for her I did all this so that you can get here, because it is a well-known school. And I just told her, “Listen, I can either go through this and come out broken, or I can maintain my sense of self, and identity, and go somewhere else.” This was a hard conversation, because imagine people, particularly African folk who have the history of enslavement, education is the pinnacle. Getting your kids to an Ivy League or specialized high school, this is what we all sacrifice for. And then to say you don’t want that, and it wasn’t because I didn’t want it, it’s because it was a hostile environment.

And I had to morph my identity way too much. And this happened in middle school. So I’d hang out with my friends, who were in the so-called quote, unquote “bonehead English” or remedial math, and then the bell would ring and I would run as fast as I could to get to my algebra class that was on the other side of campus, because we weren’t hanging out in front of my algebra class. Again, I had to have these identities that I morphed back and forth between. No child should have to do that. That’s just way too much. So by the time I came out, it’s full-on equity for me.

Chris Riback: It sounds like you not only recognized what you were feeling, but had the internal capability to express it and act on it, and I want to ask you about that.

Zaretta Hammond: It came because I got in a fight with a gym teacher in the seventh grade. I was up for expulsion twice in a San Francisco Unified public school. It was not a pretty sight. This wasn’t just me, “Ooh, I’m radicalized and I’m going to…” This was me kicking somebody’s butt. And it happened to be, in one case, a teacher. And because, again, she was behaving in a way where she wanted to dominate me, she wanted to make me compliant. And I see this even today. We have a pedagogy of compliance going on. Even in schools that purport to be serving Black and Brown children, we have a lot of progressive White women who are leading schools, who are bringing in more people of color, but when you look at the pedagogy, when you look at the environment, this looks like pedagogy of compliance.

And I recognize this, because that’s exactly what was happening. “Zaretta, you’re too outspoken.” “You’re too aggressive.” “You’re too this.” And these were labels coming at me simply because I had an opinion. And frankly, I wasn’t having it. I was done. And the only thing that saved me, was I had teachers who came down to that hearing and vouched for my capacity not only as a student, but as a member of the community of learners.

And I learned a couple things. I learned there was a different way to be radical. I had to learn a different, more pro-social way of advocating, because we have too many kids right now who are just done. And not coming back to school after the pandemic. You see article after article. Where are these children? Well, they’re telling you how fun school is for them.

Chris Riback: The pedagogy of compliance and your ability to push against that, and your mother’s ability to push against that. She didn’t just put you, and I guess your siblings, in the local schools I would think most of us just go wherever we live, and we put the kids in that school, and we just take what the system gives us. You had it in you, you went through the experiences that you went through to push back against that. Your mother went through her experiences, had it inside of herself to push back against that. Most of us don’t.

Zaretta Hammond: Well, I would simply… I would push back on that statement a little bit.

Chris Riback: Please. Okay, yes.

Zaretta Hammond: Because I don’t think that parents of color are going along with it. Just like an underground railroad. Africans may have been in slavery, but that didn’t mean they weren’t trying something else. Wasn’t nobody just going along with the program. Same things with parents of color. Trust me, they are swapping information. How do you get around that, how do you get around that? There is a level of advocacy where 99% aren’t just going with it. They are, in some way, trying to subvert the system that would have them simply comply, because they’ve been traumatized.

Listen, we talk about trauma-informed practices and trauma that children experience in life. A lot of children of color experience that trauma in school: racialized trauma perpetuated by well-meaning educators. 85 to 90% of educators in this country are White. The predominant number are White women. So this idea that the pedagogy of compliance flows from the ways in which we’ve redlined physically, now we cognitively redline, in the classroom.

We talk about inquiry, and speaking your mind, and having voice and choice. And when Black children do that, somebody says, “You’re getting too big for your britches.” “You’re talking back.” So not only do we have cultural mismatches in communication, but now somebody has decided how far you can go in your ability to be the leader of your own learning.

This is not a superficial, “Oh, some parents do some things.” This is deep. White supremacy culture is a beast, and it is trying to maintain itself at every effort. People have put billions of dollars behind equity initiatives. And you still go into major cities, major rural areas, and Black and Brown children are still at the bottom. They are still reading the lowest performing. We know reading strengthens the brain and its ability to carry the cognitive load. Why can’t we get it right? It ain’t brain science. Well, it is brain science, but it’s not rocket science.

Chris Riback: What are the key components of culturally responsive pedagogy?

Zaretta Hammond: I think that’s a little complicated because one of the things that I think people listen for, even though we say it’s practice or pedagogy or whatever, a lot of people are listening for strategies. I just want to say upfront, culturally-responsive teaching, some people call it culturally responsive and sustaining, some people are talking about culturally relevant, these are all variations of the same thing. Just like COVID variants. It’s all COVID. But the reality is this is an algorithm. So it is not so much a set of strategies as I could just rattle off. But just like in math, we talk about an algorithm being a set of numbers and processes and procedures and operations coming together synergistically.

And it’s actually why I created my Ready for Rigor framework. Helping people understand that all of these things have to work in tandem and they can’t just cherry pick one thing out. For example, the Ready for Rigor framework has four main quadrants. Learning partnerships, that’s the relational or the social emotional. Then there’s community of learners, and that is an extension of the learning partnerships. So not only do teachers and students have a relationship, but student to students have a relationship.

Then we have information processing skills. We haven’t even gotten to the good stuff yet, because all of those things lay the groundwork. And then information processing, coaching students into higher levels of cognition. And then the center of that is helping the student with feedback, giving them wise feedback, but also having instructional conversations. Leveraging those learning partnerships. And then the final quadrant is awareness. And this is a matter of, who do you have to be in order to activate, implement, cultivate these things. And a lot of times, again, culturally-responsive teaching just gets relegated to, oh, it’s about relationships or it’s about motivation or it’s about awareness. So now it’s interchangeable with anti-racist education.

Chris Riback: I’m really taken by your use of the word “process” because in reading what you’ve written, that’s what I get. It is about bringing together all of the components: who that student is, what the cultural realities and the funds of knowledge that that student brings into the environment. It’s about the educators and the instructors having the awareness and dexterity almost, to be able to both in advance, through planning, but then on the fly, as the opportunities arise, integrate what’s real and experiential from the student’s point of view to what is going on in the classroom to help the teaching, I should say, make sense to the student, to position the student to be in a position to learn.

Zaretta Hammond: Right. And I think the word that I’m picking out of that, that just resonates is dexterity. So it’s an adaptability. It’s not a matter of, here are just the set of strategies. So if you do these strategies, magically, something will happen. It’s that human beings learn in what Vygotsky talks about as social-cultural way. It’s a back and forth. So the degree to which I understand who the student is, I understand the context, I understand the content, then I can be adaptive. When the student doesn’t get something, in that moment, I can leverage funds of knowledge to help them get to that aha moment and not just reduce it to, “I’m covering my content.” My goal is to really help people level up their understanding.

Chris Riback: Zaretta, I do not want to turn this into a political conversation. Is there a concise-ish way that you can then help me understand, given we’ve just described, why is this such a political hot potato?

Zaretta Hammond: Well, I don’t think it’s really a political hot potato. I think what happens is, and this is where, because of the lack of developing an anti-racist or a bicultural lens, we need both of those. And we always have. All instruction is culturally responsive. The question is always, to whose cultures? And so what I see out there, kind of the political football you’re talking about being tossed about is a misunderstanding of CRT as an acronym. Some people are using CRT around critical race theory. Other people are using CRT as the acronym around culturally responsive. Those two things are not interchangeable.

And this is where we all as educators have to level up our understanding because once we understand critical race theory, and a lot of people talk about it as crit theory, versus CRT, because they are two very different. And when we understand that critical race theory really just came out of the legal arena as a way to help people understand our racial caste system. So it really is a way to help people understand the social-political context that actually produces these results.

A system is designed to produce the results that you see. If you don’t like those results, you’re going to have to change the system. So if you can’t actually name the parts that are not working and the parts that are working, then you can’t change it. So this seems right now to be a really interesting tension. People want equity, it’s in every school district statement, but at the same time, people are wanting to keep a moat, if you will, around our racial history. And that’s all critical race theory is. It’s not saying White people are bad. It’s not having some fire and brimstone, you’re racist. This is people imagining things. And it’s because they’ve not been in those conversations.

And at the same time they’re saying and implementing in their teacher professional learning standards, you need to be more culturally responsive. You have to have an anti-racist and a bicultural lens. Meaning, anti-racist is what we’re saying no to, but you also have to know what you’re saying yes to. Just saying no to something, doesn’t tell you what you should be saying yes to. And that is the difference. This is a great opportunity and an inflection point around, are educators really going to educate themselves? This is the awareness quadrant. This is not just talking about your own implicit bias. That’s not even it. It’s the looking outward. Do you understand the system you’re actually in?

Chris Riback: And that is so evident in what you write. And that’s one of the challenges, I think. In fact, as an outsider, I might argue that that appears to be one of the biggest obstacles is it requires work. It requires effort on the part of professionals who have been taught a certain way, have been doing things a certain way, have lived a certain life, have challenged their own thoughts and ideas to the whatever extent, we all do it.

Zaretta Hammond: Well, and here’s the reality. I totally agree with everything you just said. And that’s what it means to live in a multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic society. And it’s not just on the backs and it’s the burden of people of color. We all share this history. And if we are going to change it, if we truly want to change it, then these are the things that need to happen. Dr. Phil used to say, you can’t change which you don’t acknowledge. I can’t even believe I’m quoting Dr. Phil right now.

Chris Riback: I took you as a Dr. Phil aficionado. I expected you to drop a little Dr. Phil.

Zaretta Hammond: A little nugget of wisdom in there. But here’s the thing about it, I think we make it scarier than it is. And we don’t have any emotional stamina to talk about things that feel like we’re going to be labeled racist if we make a mistake or stumble. When I’m working with educators I say, it’s just like dancing. When you learn a new dance, you’ve seen it out, it’s on TikTok or wherever it is you see the new dances, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool. I want to do that.”

Well, we don’t just go out to the wedding reception or out to the club or wherever you do your dancing and just do the dance. We go into our bedroom. We actually look in the mirror. We actually practice saying it, to actually get some muscle memory. Then we take it to a safe space. To the backyard barbecue and the music is on. Either friends are going to say, ”Mmmh, look at you, or they’re going to say, mmh, look at you.”

You have to practice. And what I find is white educators don’t use their leisure time to practice. What they end up doing is thinking it’s going to come in a PD. We do not have enough time for the kind of social-emotional capacity building and stamina that we need to actually move through those challenging emotions. Leaders aren’t skilled and holding space for people to have their emotions and come out on the other side, knowing that you’re not going to be deemed racist. How do you make mistakes and move forward?

This is not where our leaders are getting their training, unfortunately. So if you don’t have people who can create those spaces, hold that space, if you don’t have people are doing their own work on their own leisure time, coming prepared to do it in a professional setting, then that’s pretty much a recipe for: you spend all your money you want on so-called equity conferences and PD sessions and get the best consultants to come in, it’s not going to work, because people have not done the social emotional work to actually move past that sensitivity of talking about things that are really highly charged in our society.

Chris Riback: To make progress, you’ve got to do the work. You’ve got to put in the work. I should note as well, you’ve identified the reason why I don’t have my own TikTok channel.

Zaretta Hammond: Me, too. Nobody wants to see that.

Chris Riback: I understand. Certainly not mine. What is liberatory education?

Zaretta Hammond: It’s very interesting because again, people have notions of, oh, we’re talking something radical or things like that, but I’m really not. What I’m talking about is this notion that Paulo Freire, author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” he talks about idea that we make the road by walking it. It’s in the title of the book. But he says, liberatory education is when we have created the circumstances for children to come into their full becoming. Dewey says something similar. John Dewey, progressive public educator, says our job in many ways is to give the student the opportunity to reach his full potential so that he has command of all his capacities. That’s what’s liberatory.

One of the things that I try to help educators understand, that the student is the center of change. We have tendency to keep looking at curriculum. We want to look at our learning targets and standards, and we have all this talk, but we forget the student. And the reality is, only the learner learns. So if we can’t coach the student into doing new things, not just out of compliance, but out of intellectual curiosity, out of a sense of desire to master and to move forward or to go deeper. Those are the things that we know, and when we think about inequity by design, public schools were set up to sort along racial lines. I’m not making that up. I’m not accusing anyone. That’s just what was true. That is evidenced in Jim Crow and segregation, all the landmark work we had to do around Brown v. Board. And even now we’re still having those legal battles. It’s really helping the child have that real capacity to learn how to learn. You can give them a library card and they can go learn anything they want. That is true to me, liberatory education.

Chris Riback: Yes. It builds, I would think, the ability to be a lifelong learner, because it’s about growing those capabilities to be able to do much of that work oneself. I had a follow-up thought to the point that you were making before about the work and about the teachers. I’m wondering if there is anything slightly directive you might be able to offer? If I were a White, progressive female educator and granted not all White, progressive female educators are cut from the exact same cloth, obviously, what would you urge me to do then to become racially literate? If I wanted to do that reflection, to do that work, what would you advise to end the cognitive reading of Black and Brown children, to quote you?

Zaretta Hammond: I think the idea of building racial literacy is really important. People do a lot of inside work, meaning this is how I feel about it. This is how I was raised. These are my cultural reference points, and that’s really important work. I think the next piece of work to do, even you can do it to begin with, because you have to map these two things, because they are like GPS where you currently are, you can only triangulate against these other two points. And one point being you’ve done internal work around your mental models and racial attitudes, but then there’s the racial literacy. Do you understand how the racial caste system in America works?

It’s not about having an opinion of it, just do you know how it works? Just like, how does electricity work? How do currents work? When people go to medical school, this is how the circulatory system works. There’s not a judgment on it. It’s just, it’s working a particular way. So I typically will do, when I’m bringing a group of folks together, we do a 21-day racial literacy challenge. And this is actually what we do. So we break it into three parts. So I could offer here, like one of those parts is, do you understand the racial history of your current community or environment?

For example, a lot of people didn’t know about Tulsa. A lot of people in Tulsa didn’t know about Tulsa. So a challenge to people would be, okay, what’s your Tulsa? What covenants were there before? Because particularly with progressive educators, one of the things that I find is they are still somehow shocked that this is happening. I’m like, I’m not sure what country you’ve been living in, but there should be no shock. The shock is you must’ve assumed it wasn’t happening.

And even here in California, where I currently live, people are like, “Oh my goodness, how could that happen here?” Like, what the hell are you talking about? This is a country. We are a country born of apartheid. That’s not a political position. That was one the founding fathers chose to make. Our constitution said three-fifths of a person. This is not people of color making this up. So if you don’t educate yourself about that, you can’t know all the things. So what I say is one of the three things is just map your local context. You don’t have to go out and tell other people about it. And I’m not asking people to do that.

But if you are not aware, then you don’t see how, “Oh, I understand how we came to this point because I see the historical through line. I see the antecedents to this policy.” And here’s the thing, last thing I’ll say about this, they often look non-racialized. So this is that idea of cognitive red lining. We know what physical housing red lining is. In schools, we have cognitive red lining, which on its surface, doesn’t look racialized. Nobody says we’re going to put all the black people up here. We said that in America at one time. Now it’s not cool to say that, so we find other ways to get it done. New York, they are gifted and talented. A lot of people now are talking about charter schools as pseudo White academies.

Chris Riback: It makes me think of an experience of yours that you wrote about, which is, the teachers said to you that in teaching online during COVID that the big challenge for them, the real challenge for them was they just couldn’t get the students to keep their cameras on.

Zaretta Hammond: It’s a mental model that I see a lot. So what was happening is they were not understanding, despite their real passion to be better at implementing culturally-responsive practices and being a culturally-responsive educator, what they were not aware of is their mental model around the pedagogy of compliance. This is what I term it. Meaning, the more you have a class made up of poor students, low-income students, Black and Brown students who are underperforming, the more that there is a compliance to control the students. And then what you get is points taken away or points given, or-

Chris Riback: Or go to the principal or be cut out or lose additional … I mean, there’s-

Zaretta Hammond: These are all punitive. Nobody leans in and gets excited about learning, because I’m going to lose a point. All you’re doing is getting compliance. And so what we understand from the science of learning, and this is why I think the science of learning is so important for all educators who are supposed to be in the business of growing brains. So it’s ironic that most don’t know anything about the science of learning, but they have to, if they’re going be a culturally-responsive educator, because the science of learning says, you have to know how to stimulate intellectual curiosity.

And that was our conversation. And I asked them, how are you stimulating intellectual curiosity? Because the child brain, when that is activated, those chemicals make them want to turn that camera on. What’d you tell him about? What do you have? I want to see that. The child almost cannot control it. You can see it in toddlers. You can see in young children who are just compelled. Even folks trying to lure children from their parents, like here’s a puppy, come and see that. The curiosity of a child is so fantastically high, that it is ironic that we don’t know how to leverage that. Go ahead.

Chris Riback: Curiosity is really the secret ingredient for you, isn’t it? I take it it’s almost like, that’s the superpower.

Zaretta Hammond: No, I think information processing is. But when you understand that the information processing cycle starts, you prime that pump with attention and intellectual curiosity. I call it ignite. It’s like lighting a match. Now it’s not enough. Curiosity does not tell you how to process information. It gets you on the on-ramp. It wakes your brain up to say, “Oh, what’s going on here?” And now you can move it to the working memory. But this is my point, it’s an algorithm. So what we can’t do is like, “Oh, I just need to make it curious.” Kids are having fun. Kids are talking and moving, but that doesn’t always equate to learning. So we can’t reduce it to, “Oh, that’s the thing.” There is no thing. It is an algorithm.

Chris Riback: Is it possible there’s tension for an instructor between driving curiosity and the potential for disorder or surprise or misdirection that curiosity can inspire because curiosity inspires wonder versus that institutional systematic “need” or desire for compliance? That I could almost feel a tension between those two. Is that-

Zaretta Hammond: I don’t think so. I think when people are educating in the way that Dewey and Freire talked about, you actually set this up. For example, there are other systems of education out there. Maria Montessori understood it. She called this the absorbent mind. When you look in a Montessori classroom, it is called a prepared environment. And the idea that the teacher does not have to exert control and compliance is because the teacher has front-loaded learning opportunities.
So that the way that those teachers are trained is when you prepare the environment, no matter what the child bumps into, that learning cycle is going to actually start. Then it’s channeled into what they call a three-point lesson. So the child has great autonomy, but it’s not chaotic. It’s not just go learn anything. It is now funneled through, here we’re going to actually mentor you, coach you into this. So even beginning at 3 years old, children learn this, that I can be curious. I can be free. And it does not spark any sense of, oh, I’ve got to control this because disorder is coming.

One of the things that I talk about in the Ready for Rigor framework is, teachers have to give students room to chew, for productive struggle. Now, if he’s not prepared for that, if he’s not coached students into that, for now this teacher, it feels chaotic. It feels messy, but learning is always messy. If you look at Project Zero, the maker education movement, maker-centered education, this is exactly what studio habits are. Painters, artists, it’s messy. There’s noise. It doesn’t mean anything’s coming unhinged. But if the teacher doesn’t understand that, and this is what we’re not training teachers to do. To create the environment for students to engage in productive struggle. We only reserve that as a reward for those in honors and AP and gifted and talented. Guess who’s in those classes?

Chris Riback: First of all, the phrase “productive struggle” is such a powerful phrase. I can think about and understand how that applies to so much. What have any of us done that didn’t require some type of productive struggle? I mean, physically hiking to the top of the mountain that we tried to. I mean, there is productive struggle in every component. I want to follow up on some of the liberatory education points that you were making. Can you describe, with whatever tangibility you can, what does it take for students to shift from dependent to independent learning?

Zaretta Hammond: Well, here’s the thing, we don’t put that on the student, we put that on the teacher. We’re breeding dependent learners. All students start out, kindergarten, first grade, as dependent learners, just as all humans start out. It’s dependent.

Chris Riback: And end as dependent frequently, but it’s in between.

Zaretta Hammond: But here’s the thing, there’s a developmental trajectory we’re on. And equity by design has put a deliberate barrier. So there’s arested cognitive development. So in essence, through a pedagogy of compliance, we are breeding dependent learners, and we see them, the kids that need us to come over there, they don’t know how to move forward unless we do it. So our response is to over scaffold.
And then we’re frustrated and mad at the students because we want them to do something different. We don’t want to be the over scaffolders. We want to be the choice and voice and autonomous learning and all this good stuff. But what we cannot do is we can’t be okay as educators with that productive struggle. So for dependent learners, they have to actually build their cognitive muscle. Be able to carry more of a cognitive load. That comes through productive struggle. Just like you were saying, hiking. So imagine the first time you take that hike. It’s got a nice deep incline. You’re going to the top of the mountain. There’s a little huffing and puffing. There might be a little stopping and ends on these.

Chris Riback: I feel that you’ve seen video of me. Go ahead.

Zaretta Hammond: But we get to the top, and then we like, woo-hoo! Now, imagine we did that every other day after we have recovered, over the course of six weeks. Then what’s going to happen is we’re going to get to the top of that mountain or top of that hill or end of that hike with less effort. That’s how cognition is. So when we say, have the kids carry more of the cognitive load, it’s not just me saying here, I’m going to hand you a 50 pound weight. Now just start lifting that. And you’ve never been in the gym. Just like aerobic conditioning, just like muscular strength training, we start with a little, we increase over time. We release so that you can carry more of it. Someone’s spotting you. You get your training wheels on. And eventually that’s the path toward, you are over time able to carry more of it, of that cognitive load.
If I want students to change, then the question becomes, can I be the personal trainer of their cognitive development? What does that mean? And that ain’t compliance. So now teachers have to learn a whole new set of skills. Where am I over scaffolding? You cannot reduce the scaffold until you increase their capacity. That’s back to the algorithm.

So we keep looking at the student and want the student to do better when we want to move them forward faster, but acceleration means we have to be different as educators. Think of it as, you want to increase your health and wellness, you go to a personal trainer and the personal trainer does your assessments, where are you? And then out of their knowledge, they put together a program that’s going to coach you and lead you. And then the assumption is you’re going to do some practicing on your own. You’re going to shift your lifestyle. The person doesn’t just have you come in and say, hey, change this, change this, change this. You knew that when you came in. I didn’t write you that big fat check for you to tell me what I needed to do. I know that.

Chris Riback: Yes. I knew I was eating badly. I knew I wasn’t exercising enough. Yes.

Zaretta Hammond: Exactly. The same thing with students. Students, the older they get, they know they’re behind. So now we have a social-emotional component that is about their own self-efficacy. Competence precedes confidence. And we keep wanting this to be a growth mindset kind of thing. But if you’re not coaching the student to carry more of that load, where they start to see pretty quickly their competence slowly increasing, then there’s no hope for you just saying, be an independent learner. It’s not magic. This ain’t Harry Potter’s wizarding world.

Chris Riback: That was Part One of my conversation with Zaretta Hammond. Part Two will cover “learning loss,” why Dopamine is the secret ingredient to learning, and what exactly an intellectually safe space should look and feel like? To learn more about how to transform 21st century education using 21st century science, go to I’m Chris Riback, I’ll talk with you soon.

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