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Learning to Learn

Last month, Cheryl Rizzo surveyed students in her seventh-grade English Language Arts class on their attitudes towards religious difference. The results were surprising. Students agreed that they respected each other’s beliefs and that respecting different religions is important. However, they admitted that they didn’t actually know what each other’s beliefs were, or how to respond if they witnessed someone being targeted for their beliefs.  

Cheryl was struck by the paradox and challenged her students with it: how is it possible to show respect for something without knowledge of what you are respecting? And does respect really mean anything if you don’t know how to act on it? 

These questions were posed to students in P.S. 232 in Queens, but they implicate far more than that one class. Cheryl shared her experience with myself and the other members of Tanenbaum’s Education Advisory Board, a group of five extraordinarily talented and motivated teachers in New York City who meet to develop best practices in inclusive education. Other teachers in the group reported that some of the students they surveyed were unaware not only of their classmates’ religious backgrounds, but also of their own. 

We talk of building inclusive classrooms where all identities are respected. The Department of Education has affirmed its commitment to advancing equity in New York City schools. But what do we really know about the lives of others? Do we know how to listen to people’s stories, to learn about their backgrounds and beliefs, hopes and fears? Do we know how to care for others when they are vulnerable? And do we know enough about ourselves to endure in our own moments of weakness? 

The urgency of these questions is magnified for me when I think about the world today’s students are preparing to enter, roiled by gathering crises that entangle the planet in webs of interdependence and precarity. During the past year, we have seen how the spread or containment of disease in one place affects the safety of people thousands of miles away. Similarly, the heating of the atmosphere and the collapse of biodiversity threaten life-worlds from the Himalayan mountains to basement apartments in New York. Deepening inequality dampens hopes and poisons politics, contributing to a global recession of democracy. And inflaming each of these crises is online misinformation that reaches every one of us, splitting families and turning friends into enemies.  

Faced with the enormity and complexity of these crises, the temptation is simply to withdraw, to cling onto whatever privilege we have that gives us comfort and hide in our familiar communities and safe beliefs. If there is an ethics of education, it must begin with the responsibility not to deceive our students – or ourselves – with this false hope. Inclusive classrooms must be places where students learn to learn about each other, their backgrounds, stories, gifts, and vulnerabilities. Not just to see the ways we are similar and different, but to recognize that we need each other, and that we’re only going to get through this together. 

Daniel del Nido, Senior Education Program Associate