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Understanding Practice and Intersectionality in Teacher Education in the Age of Diversity and Inequality

by Alfredo J. Artiles - 2019

The commentary highlights the main ideas of the special issue and outlines the potential contributions of intersectionality to the study of practices in teacher education.

This special issue offers an ambitious appraisal of contemporary trends in teacher education. The authors focus on the push to move teacher education out of universities and critique the privileging of neoliberal market-oriented reforms that dilute the purpose of teacher education in a democracy. The authors interrogate the growing visibility of “core practices” in the grand conversations of teacher education and note this notion has generally under examined equity issues.

The implications of the authors’ re-envisioning of “practice” are substantial and far-reaching. The theoretical and analytical attention to power and social justice is needed and constitutes a moral imperative given the unprecedented growth of diversity in the nation’s schools, the spread of inequities in society and the explicit condoning of colorblindness in societal and scientific spheres.

The view of practice advanced in this special issue requires the articulation of cultural influences in learning and the specification of teachers’ evolving identities in the midst of their professional practices. I share a few reflections on these aspects in relation to the proposed paradigm of practice and the implications for the study of teacher learning as a process of becoming. The authors’ proposal requires a situated approach to understand teacher candidates’ and teacher educators’ practices. This view of practice is grounded in the proleptic nature of human activities across time scales (Cole, 2007; Hoffman-Kipp, Artiles, & Lopez-Torres, 2003). That is, this perspective calls for the examination of local activities in the present, but with a deliberate consideration of underlying cultural and historical influences. After all, cultural time is not linear; as Cole (2007) explained, present practices are mediated by the past (as encoded in the implicit theories of material and symbolic artifacts) and anticipated futures. This means the analysis of teacher practices, and by implication of teacher learning, starts with a relational (social) focus on local events here and now, but also account for what teachers bring to events (e.g., cognitively, emotionally, socially, culturally, politically), as well as what’s already there (e.g., institutional requirements, ideological assumptions of policies and rules, implicit routine expectations) (Artiles, 2015; Gallego & Cole, 2001). I engage these layers to highlight a few distinctively important aspects of a situated approach to examine teacher practices.

What teachers bring to their participation in practices calls attention to the roles of identities. I draw from a view of identity that transcends an essentialist standpoint. Indeed, individuals and groups subscribe to various identities for particular material and symbolic purposes and these identities are fluid, negotiated, and contingent upon local circumstances. An intersectional lens is a useful theoretical resource to study teacher candidates’ identities and experiences in the stratified contexts of university and school practices (Collins, 2003). Preservice teachers and teacher educators have affinity with multiple identities that serve various goals—these are identities related to the intersections of gender, race, language, social class, national origin, and so forth. These identity categories ought to be interpreted in situ, have social gravity, and bear consequences. This means intersectionality has a structural dimension for “power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others” (Crenshaw, 1991, p. 375). Moreover, individuals and groups occupy distinctive intersectional socio-historical and cultural locations which shape qualitatively different experiences. I therefore argue that an intersectional lens complements the notion of practice presented in this volume due to its use of a situated perspective and attention to power. An affordance of this approach is that it can make visible constellations of teacher educators’ and preservice teachers’ identity trajectories across situations, events, and institutional contexts and their consequences. The goal is to understand teacher learning in practice by looking at the lived experiences of teacher educators and teacher candidates with intersecting identities in the institutional contexts of teaching. This line of analysis should also incorporate considerations of subject matter, pedagogy, curriculum, assessment and other technical matters.

An intersectional lens enriches our understanding of the nuances of learning, such as the role of political intersectionality in teacher learning. For instance, teacher candidates could inhabit identities of groups that pursue conflicting political agendas (Crenshaw, 1991). We can anticipate that preservice teachers that pursue such conflicting agendas will often be positioned in dislocated situations. As Holland et al. (1998) explained, “women and other oppressed people are especially subject to … situations replete with contradictions” (p. 16). We know virtually nothing about how teachers resolve in their routine practices the tensions of splitting political allegiances between some of their identities, and the effects of this taxing labor on learning to teach. Would they merely follow the cultural logic of one of their identity affinities when resolving these dilemmas? Or would they assume new subject positions detached from their existing cultural affinities? When these teachers perform practices in such situations, what is the role of improvisation or heuristic development in learning to teach? (Holland et al., 1998; Jornet & Steier, 2015; Thomas, this issue). These questions also have implications for the ways an intersectional approach is used for “it is not only the intersection of categories that defines an intersectional project, then, but the theoretical framing that informs the analysis and interpretation of the subject under study” (Clarke & McCall, 2013, p. 349). There is an urgent need to shed light on these aspects of teacher learning in the XXI century.

Moreover, the proposed view of practice makes evident that teacher learning is a complex phenomenon situated in infrastructures in which distinctive epistemic ecologies are imposed and contested. Teacher learning is envisioned as a fluid notion imbued in ever-changing complex milieu loaded with cultural and historical weights. In this view, teacher learning inhabits the space at the convergence of social, individual and institutional infrastructures—but as Guribye (2015) reminded us, infrastructures are ecological and relational. This is a more versatile standpoint that affords unique opportunities to study learning in movement across institutional contexts. For instance, grounded in a situated view of practice, we could theorize teacher identity as a boundary object (Star & Griesemer, 1989)—"concrete or abstract artifacts that possess different social significances in different social worlds, yet maintain a ‘common identity’ across these boundaries” (Hawkins et al., 2016, p. 2). This perspective would enable us to study the identity(ies) that teacher education programs commit to nurture in their students. For example, a program could aim to prepare social justice educators. A view of teacher identity as a boundary object would enable us to trace the alternative enactments of “teaching content with a social justice orientation” across contexts and participants. This way, becoming social justice educators could be documented as being “mutable, relational, and politicized in nature” (p. 1).

What is already there indexes the institutional layer of practice. This entails the policies, administrative codes, standards, reporting and other requirements (and their assumptions) from district, state and federal agencies that shape everyday practices in teacher education programs and schols. Foregrounding the institutional dimension of practice enables us to engage epistemological questions. Teacher education has largely relied on colorblind epistemologies that implicitly privilege particular subjects (White, monolingual, heterosexual, middle class). Indeed, the racialized and gendered nature of this profession has mediated the epistemic ecologies of teacher preparation programs and influenced funding, prestige, policymaking, and political support. We must ask, how do these legacies shape teacher education practices?

Attention to epistemology raises consequential questions. For instance, following Goodwin (1994), what is the “professional vision” that guides the design and implementation of teacher education programs and how it shapes opportunity to learn for subgroups of preservice teachers? Professional vision entails “(often implicit) theoretical framings, logics of action, and methodological approaches situated in unique social, historical, and spatial contexts” (Artiles, Dorn & Bal, 2016, p. 782). A professional vision permeates curricula, mentoring, assessment, pedagogy, recruitment, selection of candidates, etc. To a significant extent, a professional vision shapes the epistemic ecologies of programs, which define “what people know and hold each other accountable for” (Goodwin, 2016 as cited in Hall, 2018). Such vision permeates program infrastructures that calibrate everyday practices and mediate what counts as competent performance in these programs. Embedded in a professional vision are structures of perception and action that mediate program practices; what Goodwin called the “structures of intentionality” (Goodwin, 1994, p. 609) that underlie the design of classroom observation protocols, behavioral checklists, templates for lesson plans, and other bureaucratic forms and conventions used to implement teacher education programs. Attention to this aspect in the study of practices and teacher learning will enable us to put in conversation official epistemological ecologies with epistemological orientations that have been historically invisible in these programs—most likely the frameworks of marginalized groups and communities (Medin & Bang, 2014). This will empower teacher educators to ask, “what is professional vision or disciplined perception good for, when, and for whom?” (Hall, 2018, p. 668)


Artiles, A. J. (2015). Beyond responsivenss to identity badges: Future research on culture in disability and implications for RTI. Educational Review67(1), 1–22.

Artiles, A. J., Dorn, S., & Bal, A. (2016). Objects of protection, enduring nodes of difference: Disability intersections with “other” differences, 1916–2016. Review of Research in Education, 40, 777–820.

Clarke, A. Y., & McCall, L. (2013). Intersectionality and social explanation in social science research. Du Bois Review, 10(2), 349–363.

Cole, M. (2007). Phylogeny and cultural history in ontogeny. Journal of Physiology - Paris 101, 236­­–246.

Collins, P. H. (2003). Some group matters: Intersectionality, Situated standpoints, and Black feminist thought. In T. Lott & J. Pittman (Eds.), A companion to African- American philosophy (pp. 205–229). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, & violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299.

Gallego, M. A., Cole, M. & and Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition. (LCHC) (2001). Classroom cultures and cultures in the classroom. In V. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching (4th ed., pp. 951–997). Washington, DC: AERA.

Goodwin, C. (1994). Professional vision. American Anthropologist96(3), 606–633.

Hall, R. (2018). Learning from Chuck Goodwin. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 27, 666–671.

Hawkins, B., Pye, A., & Correia, F. (2016). Boundary objects, power, and learning: The matter of developing sustainable practice in organizations. Management Learning, 48(3), 1–19. 

Hoffman-Kipp, P., Artiles, A. J., & López-Torres, L. (2003). Beyond reflection: Teacher learning as praxis. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 248–254.

Holland, D., Lachicotte, Jr., W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jornet, A., & Steier, R. (2015). The matter of space: Bodily performances and the emergence of boundary objects during multidisciplinary design meetings. Mind, Culture and Activity, 22, 129–151.

Medin, D.L., & Bang, M. (2014). The cultural side of science communication. PNAS, 1–6.

Star, S. & Griesemer, J. (1989) Institutional ecology, ‘translations’ and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s museum of vertebrate zoology, 1907–39. Social Studies of Science 19(3), 387–420.

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 and Thomas Philip.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 6, 2019, p. 1-6
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22682, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 8:00:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Alfredo Artiles
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    ALFREDO J. ARTILES is the Ryan C. Harris Professor of Special Education and Dean of the Graduate College at Arizona State University. His interdisciplinary scholarship focuses on educational opportunities and inequities related to disability intersections with other markers of difference. Dr. Artiles directs the Equity Alliance and edits the Teachers College Press book series “Disability, Culture, & Equity.” He is a member of the National Academy of Education, an AERA Fellow, and a former Spencer Foundation/ National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellow. Dr. Artiles served on the White House Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (2011–2017).
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