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Rupturing White Innocence in Teacher Education: Designing Teacher Education as a Proleptic Activity Through Social Design Experiments

by Kris D. Gutiérrez - 2019

This commentary on the special issue considers the urgency of countering prevailing ideologies and practices that sustain oppressive education.

For much of my earlier career, I have held a love-hate relationship with Teacher Education, profoundly critical of its resistance to a social imagination in which becoming a teacher is at once a deeply intellectual, political, and relational enterprise. At the same time, I have spent nearly three decades collaborating and learning with many colleagues and teachers across schools and communities, co-designing small world instantiations of possible futures (Gutiérrez, 2016), what Vossoughi (2011) describes as formative anticipations of what is possible. This proleptic vision of learning as enacting the world as it could be is similarly advanced by the work of this special issue, which boldly reframes teacher education and resituates it in ways that make visible how teaching and learning are inherently political, demanding new sets of commitments from teacher educators, while challenging common sense notions of teaching, teachers, and learners, notably those from non-dominant communities.

Collectively, the authors identify a number of mediators designed both to rupture educational and social inequities, as they also promote new forms of engagement with critical forms of learning. In line with Rogoff (1994), in this collective body of work, teacher learning is much more than the “learning” of new practices; learning and change occur in the context of participating in generative practices in which teachers come to re-imagine their own roles as agents of social and educational change. The work across this issue is oriented to the preparation of justice-oriented teachers (Souto-Manning, 2019) who develop an expansive sense of professionalism, in which they can resist what Engeström (1991) terms the encapsulation of schooling, and also develop a new vision of what counts as a democratic form of schooling, and of the role of teachers in that vision.

We witness how robust theories of learning work hand-in-hand with emancipatory approaches to education to help build a new vision of teacher learning and practice.  We see this, for example, in Philip’s work on principled improvisation (2019), where teachers collectively develop new sensibilities and situated understandings of the political landscape in which teaching and learning operate. This is work in which we learn about the important role of interactional and responsive creativity involved in expansive forms of co-learning with youth. We also see the generative possibilities of using critically oriented artifacts, as in Freirean Culture Circles and Boal’s Teatro del Oprimido, to support teachers’ contextually sensitive enactments of key dilemmas that are threats to equity-oriented instruction (Stillman and Beltramo, 2019).

In particular, the authors collectively highlight how generic practices that employ a “fairness as sameness” (Gutiérrez, 2007) approach to equity in effect flatten out differences and histories. Such differences matter to consequential learning; to expansive forms of teaching, with their attending relational demands and structures; and to democratizing approaches to schooling. This is a key point of the volume and the impetus, in part, for the authors situating new practices in the context of historical inequities. As Brian Street (2004) reminds us, “Just getting such practices ‘accepted’ does not challenge the framing discourses that marginalise them in the first place” (Street, 2004, p. 327). The pieces in this issue underscore Street’s point.

There is an urgency in countering prevailing ideologies and practices that sustain oppressive education and such work needs to occur on all fronts. In this context, I engage several relevant questions that I hope will push our collective work forward. Throughout literature in the field, notions such as asset-based, equity-oriented and justice-oriented, for example, are used interchangeably, as synonyms. I invite the authors of this special issue to ask the following of the equity-oriented concepts advanced in teacher education scholarship: What do each of these concepts contribute to an expansive notion of teacher education and democratic schooling? Do these concepts and understandings grow out of the same history? Are the various equity-related constructs oriented toward the same object? And do they wittingly or unwittingly prop up the dominant subject position and preserve “white innocence”?

In 2006 I wrote about the racialized notion of white innocence, drawing on the work of legal critical race theory scholar Neil Gotanda (2004), who used white innocence as the analytic standpoint from which he examined racial ideologies in the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education, the legal decision in the U.S. that outlawed racial segregation in U.S. schools. In his analysis, Gotanda (2004) presents an argument that the U.S. Court was engaged in the ideological project of defending and maintaining white innocence, despite the ruling’s history-setting effect. He argued that while the Court acknowledged that racial segregation “generates a feeling of inferiority” in Blacks (347 U.S. 483, 494), a fact previously unsubstantiated, according to the Court, it failed to address the nation’s historical past of racist practices by explaining that modern psychological knowledge was absent during previous court decisions on racial segregation; in effect, preserving the “innocence” of the nation by not accounting for its racist history. In collaboration with Gotanda, I employed a white innocence analytical frame as a way of interrogating how we as education researchers, teacher educators, and practitioners conduct our work, reexamining the constructs and frames we use across our work, as well as how we theorize individuals from non-dominant groups, their practices, and their learning. As in Gotanda’s work, white innocence is not about the racial category of whiteness but instead refers to the dominant subject-position that preserves racial and other forms of subordination. From this perspective, we all can be implicated in some way in maintaining white innocence.

My urgent call for education researchers, particularly critical scholars, to identify the central constructs in our work, as well as the frame and field in which we operate, to identify the ideological position at work in concepts we employ, is no less important today than it was more than a decade ago when I first employed a white innocence framework. We must continue to ask: What is the genesis and history of the constructs we use? What has been assumed and naturalized? And how might they operate in our work in ways that preserve the logics at work at the intersection of white innocence and settler colonialism? This is not simply a rhetorical task but one fundamental to the project of a humanizing and democratic education. Taking a lesson from legal scholars Tribe (1980) and Gotanda (2004) who were concerned with why “so much of legal constitutional scholarship, limited by liberal democratic theory, ignores substantive notions of humanity” (Gutiérrez, 2006, p. 4), I too hold this enduring concern about schooling and educational scholarship, a concern echoed by the authors in this issue.

The collective object of the work I have conducted with colleagues and communities has focused on designing educational ecologies that are at once humanizing, nurturing, and expansive learning spaces oriented toward the development of historical actors (Espinoza, 2003; Gutiérrez, 2008), that is, the historicizing process by which people become designers of their own social futures within a more just and collective social imagination. Our own designed ecologies—an expansive summer program for youth from migrant farmer worker backgrounds and several 5th Dimensions afterschool programs that were sites of student and teacher learning and preparation—involved the co-construction of a collective Third Space. Here a collective Third Space refers to a particular kind of collective zone of proximal development, in which the learning concepts are historicized and institutional practices, texts, and tools, are reframed and reoriented toward critical social thought, an approach elaborated across these long-standing social design experiments (Gutiérrez, 2008). One of the many lessons we learned in this collaborative work was the importance of “re-mediation” as a design principle, as it reoriented attention to the reorganization of entire ecologies of learning, creating a built environment with new tools, relations, and divisions of labor, rather than sustaining the longstanding focus on “fixing” people, or an emphasis on practices that are neither historicized or situated. I believe these designed ecologies—spaces designed to promote transformative and consequential learning for adults and children—can provide new models for teacher learning and mechanisms for rupturing white innocence.

As part of this work, our recent focus has been on understanding fundamental differences between emancipatory learning and individual empowerment within oppressive systems in order to call attention to issues of power and collective movement and transformation. In this work, we (Berkeley Prolepsis Collective, 2018) draw on Inglis (1997) to distinguish between this particular form of learning and empowerment where individual empowerment is understood as people developing capacities to act successfully within existing social systems and structures of power. Emancipatory learning, on the other hand, is concerned with critically analyzing, resisting, and challenging these structures in ways that do not merely reproduce settler colonial logics (Patel, 2016) within educational research and practice—practices that propagate individualism, competitiveness, and neo-liberal ideals and demands. Emancipatory learning, we believe, is critical to developing and sustaining an emancipatory project for teachers.

I argue further that rupturing educational inequality and the ensuing inequities also involves new forms of inquiry that help reconceptualize what it means to work with youth from non-dominant communities. How we as teacher educators engage and understand youth from various cultural communities lies at the intersection of our methods and theoretical perspectives, our personal and professional ideologies, beliefs, and practices, and the position of power and privilege we hold vis-­à-­vis communities. Thus, educational researchers and educators can become complicit in buttressing dominant narratives, as the normative preparation of teachers is organized around a majoritarian perspective, making the dominant discourse, or white innocence invisible, such that common sense approaches to inquiry and deficit understandings of cultural communities and their potential are sustained.

In an effort to employ a utopian methodology for the world as it could be, my own work with teachers and teacher education communities has attempted to advance an approach to design research that is organized around a commitment to transforming the educational and social circumstances of members of non-dominant communities as a means of promoting social transformation and consequential learning. I refer to this approach as social design-based experimentation (Gutiérrez, 2008, 2016; Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016; Gutiérrez & Vossoughi, 2010). At their core, social design-based experiments seek to create and study change. As educational and social interventions, the co-design process is oriented toward appropriating new learning, as well as unlearning stereotypic or deficit perceptions of learners and their communities, placing an emphasis instead on developing deep understandings of the histories of communities, their valued practices, their stories, and their aspirations. As I have previously written, whether imagining new ways of engaging preservice teachers or youth from migrant farmer backgrounds, our social design-based experiments in practice are theoretical and experientially informed models of the future that are codesigned, co-studied, and revised in the present. Grounded in empirically derived hypotheses about learning and human development, social design-based experiments are collaboratively iterated, implemented, and continuously reflected on, refined, and re-mediated over the course of the experiment (Gutiérrez, 2016, p. 192).

As a democratizing form of inquiry, social design experiments aim at broader social change through the development of justice and future-oriented ecologies, guided by design principles that help ensure that historicized notions of justice and learning are foregrounded across all phases of design and inquiry processes. Of relevance to this issue, conducting collaborative inquiry about student and teacher learning requires achieving equity by design in which learning is organized for future identities, with transformative and enduring consequences for people in vulnerable communities (Gutiérrez, 2008, p. 192). Cole (1996) refers to this process as “prolepsis”: a mediated representation and nascent experience of the future in the present (p. 184). Teacher preparation and education should be about possible futures.


Cole, M. (1996). Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Engeström, Y. (1991). Non scolae sed vitae discimus: Toward overcoming the encapsulation of school. Learning and Instruction, 1, 243-259.

Espinoza, M. (2003). UCLA Statewide Migrant Student Institute curriculum. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles.

Gotanda, N. (2004). Reflections on Korematsu, brown and white innocence. Temple Political and Civil Rights Law Review, 13, 663.

Gutiérrez, K. (2006). Gutiérrez, K. (2006). White innocence: A framework and methodology for rethinking educational discourse. International Journal of Learning, 12, 1-11.

Gutiérrez, K. (2007). “Sameness as fairness”: The new tonic of equality and opportunity. In J. Larson (Ed.) Literacy as snake oil: Beyond the quick fix, (pp. 109-122). New York: Lang.

Gutiérrez, K. (2008). Developing a sociocritical literacy in the third space. Reading Research Quarterly. 43(2), 148-164.

Gutiérrez, K. (2016). Designing resilient ecologies: Social design experiments and a new social imagination. Educational Researcher. 45(3), 187–196.

Gutiérrez, K., & Jurow, S. (2016). Social design experiments: Toward equity by design. Journal of Learning Sciences. (online version published)

Gutiérrez, K. & Vossoughi, S. (2010). “Lifting off the Ground to return anew”: documenting and designing for equity and transformation through social design experiments, Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1-2), 100-117.

Inglis, T. (1997). Empowerment and emancipation. Adult Education Quarterly, 48(1), 3–17.

Patel, L. (2016) Decolonizing educational research: From ownership to answerability. New York: Routledge.

Philip (2019). Principled improvisation to support novice teacher learning. Teachers College Record, 121(64).

Rogoff, B. (2009). Developing Understanding of the Idea of Communities of Learners. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 1(4), 209-229.

Souto-Manning, M. (2019). Transforming university-based teacher education: Preparing asset, equity, and justice oriented teachers within the contemporary political context. Teachers College Record, 121(64).

Souto-Manning, M. (2019). Toward critically transformative possibilities: Considering tensions and undoing inequities in the spatialization of teacher education. Teachers College Record, 121(64).

Stillman and Beltramo, 2019. Exploring Freirean culture circles and Boalian theatre as pedagogies for preparing asset-oriented teacher educators. Teachers College Record, 121(64).

Street, B. (2004). Futures of the ethnography of literacy? Language and Education, 18(4), 326­330. Special Issue on ‘Ethnographies of Literacy.’

Tribe, L. (1980). Persistence of process-­based constitutional theories. Yale Law Journal, 89(1063).

Vossoughi, S. (2011). On the formation of intellectual kinship: A qualitative case study of literacy, learning, and social analysis in a summer migrant education program (Dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3472609)

This commentary is part of the upcoming June special issue of Teachers College Record on “Transforming University-Based Teacher Education," edited by Mariana Souto-Manning.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 6, 2019, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22683, Date Accessed: 3/21/2019 4:52:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Kris Gutiérrez
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    KRIS D. GUTIÉRREZ is the Carol Liu Professor in Learning Sciences and Human Development and Critical Studies of Race, Class, and Gender at the Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley, and an affiliated faculty member of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition. Gutiérrez is a member of the National Academy of Education and fellow of AERA and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. She is past president of the American Educational Research Association and was appointed by President Obama to the National Board for the Institute of Education Sciences, for which she served as vice-chair. Gutiérrez’s research examines learning in designed environments, organized around social design-based experiments and proleptic forms of design for youth from nondominant communities. Her work on Third Spaces examines the affordances of syncretic approaches to literacy and learning, new media literacies, STEM learning, and the re-mediation of functional systems of learning.
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