A Call for More Compassionate, Equitable Education

What’s Equity Got to Do With It?

Recently I presented at a workshop for educators interested in the science of social and emotional learning (SEL) and prosocial education. After leading a half-day session on cultivating compassion, in which I also highlighted common blocks and obstacles — like stereotype, bias, prejudice and racism — to cultivating compassion, I asked the group somewhat rhetorically to consider what this material had to do with educational equity. The largely white, upper middle-class audience fell silent. Some looked confused; others seemed hesitant or reluctant to speak. Others seemed mildly irritated, perhaps by me, or by the topic itself.

I admit I was somewhat surprised. Hadn’t this group of educators — many of whom had traveled from across the country to attend this workshop — signed up for this program because they were interested in learning how better to foster more caring, more successful and more connected students and school communities? What made it difficult for the group to see or speak about the connection between compassion — or lack thereof — and equity?

I asked the audience to consider the question in small groups. As I walked around the room, I overheard one teacher say that she couldn’t relate to the topic because her school wasn’t diverse and therefore she didn’t have to deal with “these issues.” Another teacher talked about the SEL program her school developed to help underserved students learn to “manage their feelings.” Others talked of ways “their faculty” were helping “those children” perform better in class through introducing a variety of SEL initiatives. Only a handful of teachers — out of a group of close to one hundred — were able to articulate the connection between structural racism and educational equity.

Many educators interested in SEL and the growing mindfulness-in-education movement are committed to helping our students flourish. Yet many of our students do not have access to some of the most fundamental elements of a quality education, including free pre-school, safe learning environments, and well-resourced schools. A study conducted by the Department of Education, for example, found that nearly half of high-poverty schools receive less funding than other schools in their district. Minority students are also subject to disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates, and children of low socio-economic status (SES) are more likely to be exposed to violence, traumatic experiences and toxic stressors that negatively impact their physical and mental health.

Structural inequities are plaguing our educational system. And many of us don’t see it, or at the very least don’t know what to do about it.

The Field of Prosocial Education

Many of our students are stressed out. Rates of depression and anxiety are on the rise.  Suicide epidemics are plaguing affluent school districts. Bullying and other forms of aggression are increasing.

Over the past several decades, educators have mobilized to address a number of these issues, as mounting evidence suggests that enhancing the social, emotional, cultural and ethical aspects of schooling improves student well-being. Educators, recognizing that relationships, not academic performance, are the greatest predictor of health and well-being have called for approaches that foster connection and positive school climate.

These calls have stirred a variety of prosocial education initiatives, including character education, moral development, service learning, SEL, civic education, cooperative learning, and positive youth development. Mindfulness-based programs have also become increasingly popular in educational settings. Research from a variety of studies suggests that these prosocial education programs are making a positive impact.

Although a number of prosocial programs have framed their approach in terms of enhancing well-being, reducing stress and improving academic performance, implicit in many of these programs is a vision for a more holistic education and a critique of the instrumentalization of teaching and learning. Yet without explicitly articulating their vision or their critique of the current economic-driven model of education, critics worry that prosocial programs are being instrumentalized by the very model of education they attempt to resist.

Even worse, some critics also worry that the SEL and mindfulness-in-education programs may actually reinforce inequity. As one scholar notes, while such programs often concentrate on schools with traditionally underserved populations, the content of such programs focuses on anger management and self-regulation, rather than critical pedagogical approaches that could empower students to question and challenge systemic racism and structural inequity.

What’s Compassion Got to Do With It?

We have a profound, natural capacity for care and compassion — a capacity not only to tolerate others, but to radically see, deeply accept and unconditionally love them.

This capacity for care is nurtured in the context of caring relationships and also through explicit training. Although generally speaking we find it easy to care for those who are close to and kind to us, we tend to find it more difficult to extend care to those in our so-called out-group, or worse, to those who have caused us harm.

One of the most pervasive and insidious blocks to care involves what we call “limiting impressions” — or the ways in which we often mistakenly reduce and relate to others as nothing more than our ideas or stereotypes of them. These “limiting impressions” have real-world effects that have been well-documented in the social psychological literature. We know, for example, that teachers’ perceptions of their students’ potential can impact their performance.

The art of becoming more caring, more compassionate, involves training a host of capacities, including attention, mindfulness, affection, love, empathy, insight and courage. Compassion is not a feeling or emotion. As Paul Gilbert explains, it’s a motivational stance, an ethically oriented way of being in and responding to the world.

Compassion requires that we learn to be with suffering and also that we develop the wisdom and courage to respond effectively to suffering. Responding effectively requires that we gain insight into the contexts and conditions — both psychological and social — that contribute to or exacerbate suffering. It also requires that we deepen our capacity to respond to injustices inflicted on all fellow beings, not just our so-called in-group.

Sustained compassion training has the potential to advance our collective work toward more holistic, equitable education. In 2012, the Mind & Life Institute launched its Ethics, Education, and Human Development (EEHD) Initiative in an effort to join the growing movement of educators, scientists, and contemplatives engaged in advancing the field of “prosocial” education. Mind & Life recruited an interdisciplinary team of educators, contemplatives and developmental psychologists to survey and assess the state of the field of SEL and contemplative education, and to develop an educational framework that would support educators in cultivating and sustaining more caring, compassionate relationships. The framework, entitled “A Call to Care,” included a comprehensive PreK-12 curriculum and pedagogy for students and teachers that integrates SEL with developmentally sensitive care- and compassion-based skills training and contemplative practices. Mind & Life’s team offered Call to Care trainings through June 2016. Trainings are now being carried forward by our team at the Courage of Care Coalition.

The basic underlying principle of Call to Care aligns with Nel Noddings ethic of care: to be one caring is to be one cared for. This approach — which was largely inspired by Sustainable Compassion Training — highlights the relational dimension of care by helping educators and students to recognize that one needs to learn to receive care — to be held in unconditional positive regard — in order to be empowered to extend this same caring attitude toward others. Thus strengthening compassion requires that we recognize our profound interdependence.

Compassion and Equity: Integrating Tools for Personal and Social Transformation

Although compassion training is promising, we still have a long way to go. As my colleague Diane Friedlander of Stanford’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) once said, “We are not doing compassion if we are not doing equity.” Gaining insight into the causes and conditions of suffering is essential; also critical is deepening our awareness of and ability to respond to perceived social injustices. Deep personal work must be coupled with capacity building for institutional and social transformation.

One of the biggest obstacles we face to addressing structural and systemic issues is our deep individualistic cultural conditioning. Various factors and influences of modernity have conditioned us to experience ourselves as autonomous, independent selves. Much of our educational and modern contemplative practices are shaped by and in response to this frame: we see education and other contemplative methods as self-help tools by which we learn to improve ourselves. This frame has limited our ability to see the complex ways in which our well-being is dependently linked to others and the institutions and structures within which we are embedded.

In her research on educational equity and racism, Stanford researcher Leah Gordon traced the ways in which this modern individualistic frame — what she termed “racial individualism” — shaped the direction of 20th century movements that sought to challenge racial injustice in schools.  Her work found that beliefs in racial individualism suggested that racial justice could be achieved through reducing prejudice among white individuals, or by “changing white minds.” Gordon showed how this movement neglected to attend to economic and political structures that undermined attempts at educational equity. This individual frame created unrealistic expectations for educational equality, and ultimately failed.

It is understandable that so many programs would approach change through methods focused on individual development — it is difficult to define, assess and respond to social systems. Yet critical compassionate pedagogy is essential to helping us understand the inequitable structures that inhibit our collective capacity for well-being and transformation.

As we become more aware of the systemic injustices that plague our educational systems, we increase our ability to help dismantle structural racism and oppression. Although systems are complex, it is not terribly difficult to deconstruct their flaws and failures. Many of us can do that. Yet to rebuild more compassionate, equitable systems will require a cadre of communities that are empowered and strengthened by a deep compassionate stance — one sustained by ongoing personal reflection. For many of us, this requires that we learn to recognize and address our own privilege.

The good news is that a number of groups are deeply engaged in this work. We at Courage of Care, like many others, are committed to developing and offering training programs that support those on the front lines of this work. Through collaboration, education, research and advocacy, and a staunch commitment to the greater good, the field has tremendous possibility, and offers much hope.

-Brooke D. Lavelle, Ph.D.

A previous version of this post was published by the Mind and Life Institute

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