Teaching for Equity: Equity-Mindedness in Valencia’s Learning-Centered Initiative

Thursday, February 25, 2021

A Message from Wendi Dew, Assistant Vice President, Teaching and Learning and Isis Artze-Vega, Vice President, Academic Affairs

How does learning-centeredness, a core element of Valencia College culture, relate to the College’s recently reaffirmed commitment to equity? And what are the implications for faculty and teaching? In this communication, we embark on a journey, critically examining key ideas from the College’s learning-centered initiative. In March, we’ll describe additional ways that equity and learning intersect, building on our foundational learning-focused efforts.

Our Original Learning-Centered Initiative

In 1995 — more than 25 years ago — Valencia College launched an institutional transformation initiative focused on collaborating to become more learning-centered. As described in a series of essays, the culmination of that systemic change in Valencia’s culture and infrastructure was the collaborative development of a Strategic Learning Plan. In it, the College articulated seven strategic learning goals: 

To highlight a couple of ideas bearing on our current teaching for equity efforts, the Learning First essay includes two questions that began to govern planning and decision-making deep within the organization, ones that have become a natural part of our everyday practice and language: “How does this enhance student learning?” and “How do we know?” The Learning by Design essay expressed the “need to continue studying the best research on and consider the best practices of learning in college — what we call the ‘scholarship of teaching and learning’ [and] also … study our own practice at Valencia to learn what we’re doing well and where we need to do better.”

Equity-Minded Features of the Learning-Centered Initiative

Among the tools developed to realize the goals of the learning plan were a set of working theories that became known as “Big Ideas.” Perhaps chief among them is the conviction that “anyone can learn anything under the right conditions.” As described in this summary document, “this idea mark[ed] a change in belief about our students. Most of the culture of education is built on a long-standing myth that talent for learning is relatively scarce and that many, perhaps the majority of our population, just aren’t ‘college material.’” The essay then explains that “the fact is nearly anyone can learn nearly anything, under the right conditions … is a matter of scientific truth,” referencing neuroplasticity.

Given the essential role that language plays in advancing equity, it is important to point out that our Valencia leaders not only avoided the deficit-based language that pervades education and educational institutions; they explicitly rejected deficit-mindedness as an enduring and problematic myth. The “Diversity Works” essay also framed our diversity goals as an asset-based, comprehensive, mission-centered imperative.

Moving from Intention to Impact

Again, our aim in this communication is to examine artifacts of our learning-centered initiative and begin to explore the questions, How does learning-centeredness, a core element of Valencia College culture for more than 20 years, relate to the College’s recently reaffirmed commitment to equity and the equitable outcomes we have set? And what are the implications for faculty and teaching?

First, we must acknowledge what our student outcomes data communicate unambiguously: Despite our intentions and the inclusion of diversity in our learning-focused strategies, we have not yet created the right conditions for many of our students; in particular, for our Black and Latinx students. We will therefore need to work diligently, together to identify and implement fundamentally new approaches (including systemic changes) to attaining the ambitious, equitable goals in our Impact Plan. Here are just a few considerations for the next phase of our work drawn from the analysis above:

  • We might consider asking a third question when doing and designing our work at the College, one that will implicitly remind us of our commitment to equity and that learning is powerfully influenced by identity: “How does this enhance student learning?” “How do we know?” and “For whom?”
  • Given our stated commitment to “applying our understanding of the ways that people learn best in college,” what if we commit to enhancing our individual and collective understanding of how race and ethnicity shape learning in college? (Note: The efforts of the Focused-inquiry Team on Equity-minded Practice in pedagogy and curriculum will help a great deal with this.)
  • We can extend and enhance a fundamental component of the learning-centered initiative –that we “study our own practice at Valencia to learn what we’re doing well and where we need to do better.” Each of us can assume responsibility for advancing equity as an integral part of our role. As CUE affirms, equity-minded practitioners “use inquiry to gather evidence about the problem and to carefully examine existing practices to determine how they may be related to inequities.” They also “question their assumptions about students, recognize how stereotypes and implicit biases may harm racially minoritized students, and use disaggregated quantitative data and qualitative inquiry findings to guide their practice.”
  • Finally, we might reflect on our own language with respect to our use of deficit-, asset-, and/or other lenses in our communications with students and key course materials like syllabi, as our language may be influencing our students’ learning in ways we have not yet recognized.

How else might we build on the foundation of our learning initiative and advance equity in our teaching practice to achieve the ambitious, equitable goals in our Impact Plan? Feel free to provide your ideas in the Comments or email us directly, so that we can engage with your insights and use them to inform our work and future communications.

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