Deciding to talk about social inequality with our students is one thing, but knowing how to prepare for and start those conversations is an entirely different, and more complicated, undertaking. Based on my experiences navigating complex topics with young people, here are some practical guidelines for how to prepare.
Give Them a Map
First, we can provide a roadmap for the discussion by defining and explaining terms and concepts related to whatever social inequality issue we are discussing. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about these topics, so everyone will benefit from having this reference point. Depending on the specific lesson and age of our students, these definitions might include terms like social inequality, stereotype, law/policy, marginalized group, or explanations of identity terms for social groups like Asian American or LGBTQ. We need to establish a shared language in order to have successful conversations about these confusing issues.
Think of it like providing signposts for them so they can better navigate what they are seeing, hearing, and reading. Even when I was teaching older students, I would often forget that I had 30+ years of life experiences built up to help me locate what we were learning in context. Kids just don’t have this. By providing basic explanations first, before we start reading a book or discussing a topic, we can help build that context and smooth the road for them.
Start With Stats
Next, to get social inequality conversations off on the right foot, we should begin with some basic statistics. Using statistics to start the conversation is the clearest way to shift our perspective from the individual to the social and unequivocally show students that social inequalities are real. Our social groups—our racial/ethnic group, our social class, our gender, etc.—do impact our life chances and outcomes in patterned ways. By starting with statistics, we can avoid a debate about whether inequality exists and instead jump right into the conversation about the impacts of that inequality on all of us.
By laying the groundwork in this way, we are not only helping our students see social inequalities that may be invisible to them, we are also modeling for them how to establish basic information about any social issue. We are teaching them to seek out evidence instead of jumping to conclusions.
Outcomes vs. Explanations
Even with a clear goal, collecting statistics can feel daunting. We know we need to avoid unreliable sources, but how do we know which sources are trustworthy? How can we choose sources that will not be challenged on “partisan” grounds?
My key guideline for collecting data is to find sources (preferably government and nonpartisan research organizations) that simply detail the social inequality, and to avoid sources that offer explanations or solutions. In other words, focus on the outcomes.
Depending on our goals, we may get to the editorials and solutions later on, but if we start with articles on the explanatory side, it may seem like we are trying to instruct our students on how to feel. Explore the WHAT first and save the WHY and the HOW for later, when we all have more information.
We want students to be able to explore issues with an open mind, but they can’t do that if they are working with inaccurate information, so make sure to provide them with a clear picture of social inequality. Simply showing our students the reality of social inequality is already leaps and bounds ahead of what most students get from their teachers.
What About “Both Sides”?
If we focus on outcomes, on simply providing the data on social inequalities for our students, we are also freed from the “both sides” framing that is common in our politics, in our media, and sometimes in our classrooms. If we are consumed with presenting “both sides” for our students, so they can “make up their own minds,” we can easily create more problems for ourselves.
For example, we may find ourselves in a situation where we are trying to present as “neutral” a perspective that could be considered racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, etc. For example, if we are talking about family diversity and we want students to learn about the political debate over same-sex marriage, we may want to bring in one article against same-sex marriage and one article in support of same-sex marriage, as a way to “show all sides.” But, if we do that, we are likely to cause harm to LGBTQ students in our classes or those with LGBTQ loved ones. Instead, we can simply show them data on how many same-sex couples there are in the US and how that’s changed over time. We can talk about the Supreme Court decisions over the years that have changed the laws surrounding same-sex marriage. Remember, showing “both sides” does not actually equate to remaining neutral.
By offering “both sides,” we often end up simply reproducing our two-party system that only gives us two choices. By doing this, we are ultimately telling students that they are limited to these two perspectives, which is obviously not our intended message. Additionally, we have to consider how we are presenting “both sides.” Are we presenting each side’s arguments in the same way that a student or parent understands that political side? If not, we may end up getting more pushback in our attempt to prevent it.
Now, certainly there are models for how to successfully show students the different sides of a debate, by collecting multiple perspectives and having students engage with them. But we need to be very selective in the types of issues we choose, as to not do further harm to marginalized students. Additionally, we need to consider our goals. If we are presenting a problematic argument with the expectation that students will see the holes, this may backfire. We could easily end up in a situation where we are providing, and thereby sanctioning, stereotypical viewpoints that our students may take as fact.
The Balancing Act
When we are laying the groundwork for our students in this way, of course, they are going to want answers. They are going to ask us, “But, why is it like this?” And that’s good! They can and should be asking questions! But, we don’t need to have the answers. If we take an inquiry approach with our students, we can keep exploring the questions they ask, and model for them how to seek out more information.
But there is, of course, a balancing act here between allowing students to ask and explore their questions and making sure to discourage stereotypical and harmful statements about social groups in class. This is why it’s important to define terms at the beginning. For example, if a student makes a stereotypical statement, we can point to the board and say, “That statement feels like a stereotype. Let’s look at the definition of a stereotype again. Let’s keep exploring because it’s not so simple. There is a lot of information we don’t have yet. Let’s keep our minds open and try and collect more information about why this is happening.”
And remember, stereotypes come from one’s culture. They are not the students’ faults. Make sure to explore them as such: “Where are we getting these ideas? What messages are we getting from the world around us that would make us feel that way?” When faced with a stereotypical statement, take a step back and help students get some distance from the statement and process it through the lens of the stereotyped group.
When discussing these issues, students will often want to share individual experiences. That’s great! Sharing individual experiences is an invaluable addition to the conversation. But, we need to treat individual experiences as individual experiences. They are part of the larger story, but do not invalidate the data on social inequality, nor do they invalidate the individual experiences of others.
When we lay the groundwork for these discussions, we are setting ourselves up for much more successful and impactful conversations with our students. And when we give our students the tools to understand social inequality, those conversations don’t end with the bell. Their impact reaches out, beyond our classroom, to make a difference in our communities, our country, and our world.