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By Soyoung Park, GSE Doctoral Student


Every summer, the teacher candidates (TC) at the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) begin their training eager to learn what it means to be a social justice-oriented teacher. While the entire STEP program emphasizes social justice as a core tenet of its curriculum, one course lays the foundation upon which other courses build – Teaching for Equity and Democracy. This class is taught by Professor Ray McDermott and a cadre of doctoral students, who were all once justice oriented teachers themselves. The goal of the class is not to give out a magic bullet for solving all of the world’s inequities. Rather, the course intends to guide TCs towards developing a lens for viewing the world in a way that might be different from how they looked at it in the past. This lens, which is centered on two readings in the course, is one that can empower teachers to engage in dialogue that could shift their classrooms and schools towards greater equity and democracy.


The first reading that begins to foster this lens is Charles Goodwin’s (1994) analysis of the Rodney King trials, “Professional Vision.” In this piece, Goodwin introduces the idea of a professional vision – a socially organized way of seeing the world that belongs to a particular group. A professional vision is formed through three practices: 1) coding, or the process of sorting and categorizing events that are significant to a profession, 2) highlighting, or emphasizing certain material over others based on relevance to the profession, and 3) producing and articulating material representations, such as graphic images. Goodwin applies these practices to the courtroom where the Rodney King trial took place. Through a careful linguistic analysis, he shows how the defense attorneys in this case coded and highlighted graphic images in such a way as to present the police officers’ brutality against Rodney King as appropriate acts in the police profession. For example, the lawyers brought in an “expert” witness – Sergeant Charles Duke – to analyze a video of the beating. Sergeant Duke highlighted certain aspects of Rodney King’s body movements and coded them as aggressive. According to this expert, police officers are trained to respond to aggressive behavior with escalated force. Through such coding, highlighting, and use of graphic materials, the attorneys were able to build the case that the officer’s violent actions towards Mr. King were justified within the police profession.


After discussing this powerful, albeit disturbing article, the STEP teacher candidates consider the professional vision of schools. They think about what gets coded and highlighted, as well as what material representations are created in schools. For example, patterns of behavior, test scores, grades, social class, and race are all things that may get highlighted in school. Students are inundated with codes, or labels like English learner, at-risk, gifted, disabled, minority, etc. Material representations of schools include report cards, work that gets displayed, tracking, the physical organization of classrooms and schools, parent participation, and so on. All of these highlighting, coding, and material representations serve to perpetuate an inequitable school system where some students are destined to fail. (e.g. While codes like “English learner” or “students with disabilities” intend to ensure that children receive the services they need, they are also often used to highlight deficiencies in students rather than to celebrate what all children bring to the table.) After grappling with these ideas, the TCs are asked: What type of professional vision would you like to have for your own classroom and school?


A couple of classes later, the teacher candidates are asked to read one of Professor McDermott’s (2013) essays, “The Concept of Culture in Educational Research:  Considerations and Exercises.” In this piece, McDermott argues that the cultural analysis of problems in schools takes on three versions. Version one says that the problems lie in individuals.  This is the “blaming the victim” form of cultural analysis. Version one thinkers say that low-income students fail in schools because of their individual deficits. In version two, the problems stem from overwhelming social forces. Version two thinkers say that low-income students fail in schools because of systemic class inequities that have persisted from the past into today. When stuck in either version one or version two lenses, it is difficult to see how anyone can bring about change. If the problems reside in individual people or in massive social structures that are immovable, how can a single teacher do anything for social justice?


Here is where the version three cultural analysis comes in. Version three says that we as an entire culture are all responsible for the problems of our society. And because we are all complicit in creating and perpetuating social inequities, we can also be the ones to break them. A version three cultural analysis promotes agency. It does so, though, not by giving a formula for change; but by beginning to shift the way we see problems in our world as connected to our own lives. As McDermott (2013) says, “Solutions can be found, of course, but likely not before problems are reformulated in terms of their connections to other problems and in terms of their connections with us” (p. 12). 


What does this mean for teachers who care about social justice in their classroom? It means humbly acknowledging how we are all part of a culture of inequality. It means recognizing our own roles in creating the obstacles that cause some children to fail, while others are granted uninhibited success. And most importantly, it means engaging children in conversations about how all of us - children, parents, teachers, communities - code, highlight, and create material representations of our world in ways that prevent equity and democracy. 


Goodwin, C. (1994). Professional vision. American Anthropologist, 96(3), 606-633.

McDermott, R. (2013). The Concept of Culture in Educational Research: Considerations and Exercises.