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Inquiring Into Notions of Educational Improvement by Teaching Where We Think: Philosophical Meditations as a Practice of Teacher Education

by María Paula Ghiso & Stephanie Burdick-Shepherd - 2020

Background: This paper is part of the special issue “Reimagining Research and Practice at the Crossroads of Philosophy, Teaching, and Teacher Education.” Early childhood initiatives have joined a nexus of educational reforms characterized by increased accountability and a focus on measurement as a marker of student and teacher learning, with early education being framed as an economic good necessary for competing in the global marketplace. Underlying the recent push for early childhood education is what we see as a “discourse of improvement”—depictions of school change that prioritize achievement as reflected in assessment scores, data collection on teacher effectiveness, and high-stakes evaluation. These characteristics, we argue, foster increasingly inequitable educational contexts and obscure the particularities of what it means to be a child in the world.

Purpose: We use the practice of philosophical meditation, as articulated in Pierre Hadot’s examination of philosophy as a way of life, to inquire into the logics of educational improvement as instantiated in particular contexts, and for cultivating cross-disciplinary partnerships committed to fostering children’s flourishing. We link this meditational focus with feminist and de-colonial theoretical perspectives to make visible the role of power in the characterization of children’s learning as related to norms of development, minoritized identities, and hierarchies of knowledge. Research Design: In this collaborative inquiry, we compose a series of meditations on our experiences with the logics of improvement inspired by 12 months of systematic conversation. Our data sources include correspondence between the two authors, written reflections on specific practices in teacher education each author engages with, and a set of literary, philosophical, and teacher education texts.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Our meditations illuminate the value of collective inquiry about what constitutes improvement in schools. We raise questions about how the measurement of learning is entwined in historical and present-day relations of power and idealized formulations of the universal “child” or “teacher” and argue that we must work together to reimagine the framings that inform our work. Ultimately and most directly, these meditations can support dynamic attempts to cultivate meaningful and more equitable educational experiences for teachers and students. Philosophical meditations at the crossroads of philosophy, teaching, and teacher education thus extend beyond critique toward imagining and enacting a better world in our classrooms, even though (and especially when) this path is not clear.


Early childhood education has been the focus of sustained attention in policy and practice, with Universal PreK initiatives that seek to make education accessible to all children and teacher education programs aiming to deepen instructional practices that support student learning. On a policy level, these efforts have framed early childhood education as an economic good necessary for competing in the global marketplace, “a sound investment in the country’s future” (Spencer, 2014, p. 178). Early childhood policies join a nexus of educational reforms that have been characterized by increased accountability and a focus on measurement as a marker of student and teacher learning (Popkevitz, 2015). What we see as a “discourse of improvement”—depictions of school change that prioritize achievement as reflected in assessment scores, data collection on teacher effectiveness, and high-stakes evaluation—permeates many educational reform efforts, including early childhood.  

While in policy these early childhood initiatives have been framed primarily in academic terms, there is contestation in the practice of early childhood teaching regarding the many ways children learn about themselves and the world, including through stories, languages, family experiences, inquiry, and exploration. As former early childhood teachers and now teacher educators currently situated in the fields of literacy and philosophy, our own practice involves thinking with teachers about how to support children’s learning as well as cultivating critical inquiry about how issues of power figure in the educational opportunities afforded to children within the curriculum and in schooling more broadly. These endeavors invariably bring up questions as we grapple with how policies, practices, and social inequalities shape early childhood teaching. What does, and what should, early learning look like, and for whom? How might various learning contexts support or constrain children’s learning? How should we think about children’s learning trajectories, and what can we learn from children and families about learning in out-of-school contexts? How can we support teachers in working within and against the pressures of the high-stakes accountability paradigm?

In our work together, we adapt and use the practice of philosophical meditation, as articulated in Pierre Hadot’s (1995) examination of philosophy as a way of life, to inquire into the logics of educational improvement as instantiated in particular contexts, and for cultivating cross-disciplinary partnerships committed to fostering children’s flourishing. We link this meditational focus with feminist and de-colonial theoretical perspectives to make visible the role of power in the development of programs and pedagogies for children, and in the characterization of children’s learning as related to norms of development (Borgnon, 2007) and minoritized identities (Alcoff, 2006). Through a set of meditations on our work with pre-service and in-service teachers, we suggest how philosophy, teaching, and teacher education might be put in productive dialogue: how philosophy can help contest framings of educational improvement as reducible to students’ acquisition of skills and teachers’ deployment of instructional interventions; and how the day-to-day realities of teaching and teacher education can foreground the power differentials and situatedness of philosophical projects. Ultimately and most directly, we argue that these meditations can support dynamic attempts by teachers and students to cultivate meaningful and more equitable educational experiences.


In the remainder of this paper, we unpack some of the complexities and possibilities of what it means to “improve” education at the intersection of multiple disciplinary approaches. Because we locate at least part of this contested terrain within the ways improvement is a debated concept whose lineages include longstanding hierarchies of what counts as knowledge, we posit that the practice of philosophical meditation, infused with critical theories that attend to power dynamics in knowledge production, may assist us in uncovering some of its traces in our own practices and theories. Below, we unpack the connected frameworks that inform our orientation to philosophical meditation.

Although in modern times, meditation has come to symbolize emptying the mind through yoga or breathing exercise, a philosophical meditation is an exercise in using the mind to closely examine a text, idea or practice. Rather than an image of emptiness and tranquility, to meditate in this way is to adhere to the mind’s ability to think, sort, and focus. The task of philosophical meditation is not to clear the mind but to attend to the mind’s anxiety and its emotions in order to focus attention on life experiences through contemplation and transformation of the self.

Though philosophical meditation is situated well within the traditions of Western philosophy, it also has other roots, as thinkers from Confucius to the Sage Vyssa upheld rich traditions of critical thinking and careful deliberation (Tan, 2017). To engage in philosophical meditation is to align ourselves, not with Western modern philosophy qua theory, but within a long tradition of practicing philosophy as a way of life (Hadot, 1995).

In Hadot’s analysis, this approach to practicing philosophy is an engagement in forming the mind to interact with daily experience. The goal is to educate oneself through daily habit, not by theorizing but by practicing and training the self to better see and act in the world. Hadot writes, “We must discern the philosopher’s underlying intention, which was not to develop a discourse which has its end in itself, but to act upon souls” (1995, p. 274). To live as a philosopher is to choose to attend to the choices one makes about how to live, and how to live well. The task of philosophy then is to engage in discourse that continues to justify this way of living. It is to constantly examine and undertake practices that support the examination of how one lives in the world. To engage in philosophical meditation is to engage in critique, but a critique that is embedded in reflection upon the self or a concerted focus of one’s social and personal values. Meditations are located in the realm of ethics and spirituality as much as they are rooted in critical thinking and logos.

This way of doing philosophy and being a philosopher is traced by Hadot through the figure of Socrates, the schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism, and through the monks of the Middle Ages. Its lineage continues through our modern era but is and was never free from threat of disruption and ridicule (Hadot, 1995; DeMarzio, 2007; Zajonc, 2016). Our point in discussing the lineage of this tradition is not to provide an in-depth history of philosophical meditation but to show its entanglement with philosophy as theory. While attentive to the ways that philosophical meditation may shy away from addressing Eurocentrism and issues of equity, we also wish to note that philosophy as a practice of transformation too has been marginalized from the academy (Zajonc, 2016). As a platform for change, philosophical meditation has deep roots in its practitioners being able to speak out and outside from the structures of power and social mores of their times (Hadot, 1995, p. 156).

Philosophy as practice goes beyond commentary and requires one to submit one's thinking as a work upon oneself (Hadot, 1995, p. 263). To do so, however, requires the ability to see oneself genuinely in dialogue with another. The philosophical meditation decentralizes oneself, foregrounding instead the journey of thinking that occurs in time, in practice, with others. Hadot (1995) writes of the philosophical dialogue, “A dialogue is an itinerary of thought, whose route is traced by the constantly maintained accord between questioner and respondent” (p. 91). The position and place of the interlocutor is thus of capital importance. He writes,

It is what prevents the dialogue from becoming a theoretical, dogmatic exercise, and forces it to be a concrete practical exercise. . . . We must let ourselves be changed, in our point of views, attitudes, and convictions. This means that we must dialogue with ourselves, and hence we must do battle with ourselves. (1995, p. 95)

To do battle with the self and others indicates that the role of dialogue within the meditation is to inspire transformation of self-in-the-world and the world itself. If the meditation only circles back to the self and the self remains static, unchanged, fixed within its position, the exercise has failed, because the point of philosophical practice is not to win at rhetoric but to prepare one to act well in the world (see Furman & Larsen’s article in this issue on thinking in action). We thus find ways in which philosophical meditation in our modern times can offer a place for transforming the world as it is to the world as it ought to be.

Philosophical meditations are never neutral, and we found that the theoretical orientations we bring to this practice matter in what they can make possible.  In particular, we emphasize the need for philosophical meditation to be attuned to the situated nature of knowledge production and the ways that the epistemic resources of non-dominant communities have historically been devalued. In his essay, “I am where I think,” Walter Mignolo (2011) traces existing hierarchies of knowledge as related to the particularities of location and of colonial encounter. Mignolo, following Harding’s (1993) standpoint epistemologies and Anzaldúa’s (1999) theorizing of the border, argues for the need to make visible the plurality of ways of knowing and the positions where this thinking is situated—the “where” of knowledge generation. This contextualization pierces the façade of a universalizing world view or system of inquiry that is detached from the particularities of its social context. Through his work, Mignolo surfaces “the mechanisms by which knowledges are constructed as non-knowledges, and non-knowledges are constructed as absolute” (Alcoff, 2007a, p. 94). Attention to “where we think” invariable raises issues of power about what ways of knowing are legitimated; in our case, we are concerned with what knowledges about children’s learning are privileged in schools, and the narratives that characterize their participation in formal education.

Linda Martín Alcoff (2017b) argues that “denying the contextual influences on philosophical systems and trends is the work of an epistemology of ignorance” (p. 397) that has served to perpetuate colonial power and its current manifestations. Alcoff draws on theorists from the Global South such as Enrique Dussel, Ramon Grossfoguel, Kwame Nkrumah, and Walter Mignolo to trace how decontextualized Western thought became the “measuring stick” of rationality and progress, and a means of erasing existing intellectual traditions in order to justify the subjugation of others, who through these logics become rendered as less civilized, intelligent, or human, and thus in need of salvation. In this we might read much of the modern discourse of improvement in schools which centers conversations about children, teachers, and districts. These genealogies of philosophical thought—their particularities in time and space—are predominantly erased in efforts to universalize a Eurocentric worldview. As a corrective, Mignolo and Alcoff, among other feminist and decolonial scholars, urge us to foreground “the particularity, embodiment, and materiality of philosophical projects” (Alcoff, 2017, p. 399).

In our meditations, we take up this call through “teaching where we think”: being attentive to the concrete circumstances of where we are meditating from, to the materiality of particular classrooms, children, and educators, and to how these local contexts relate to systemic issues in early childhood education and the preparation of teachers. This attention to situated theorizing is not to say that where we you are determines what you think, but that being self-reflexive about positionality can enable one to interrogate assumptions and expand epistemic horizons. Far from deterministic, being and teaching where we think is the first necessary step toward growth and transformation.  

Below, we briefly sketch the landscape of how issues of power intersect with early childhood education and teacher preparation. We then turn to our meditations that tease out, complicate, and rethink aspects of these issues within our contexts of practice.


The recent focus on early childhood education in the United States has made it clear that the construct of improvement trickles down to the youngest members of our society (National Institute for Early Education Research, 2016). Without fail the conversation in early childhood often rests on what it means to make sure that children under age 5 are “prepared” for in terms of both the rigors of the K–12 curriculum (Camilli, Vargas, Ryan, & Barnett, 2010) and the future job market. Despite various competing orientations to early childhood learning and pedagogy, overall, it is the developmental model which dominates this improvement landscape. This view of childhood has been widely critiqued in our respective disciplines of philosophy of education (Lipman, Sharp, & Oscanyan, 1980; Matthews, 2009) and literacy studies (Dyson, 2015), yet it remains prevalent in discourses of early childhood initiatives and the practices of many schools. While we do not dismiss child development as an important tool for educators, what we strive to consider is how (in particular) the developmental view of childhood helps frame a structure of improvement built around career or college readiness as the primary aim of education or personhood, and which sorts children along a readiness scale that too often maps onto social hierarchies.

In her examination of the development of mass schooling in France and the United States, Anderson-Levitt (1996) identifies what she refers to as “batch-produced children,” the organizing logics that all children of a particular age begin formal schooling on the same day of the year, and that they move through stages of learning as tied to the sequences of the year’s curriculum. These constructions of children’s mental abilities in relation to chronological age shape the social production of students and what comes to be seen as the purpose of schooling.  As Anderson-Levitt argues, “instruction by stages or grades has made ‘falling behind’ and ‘getting ahead’ key metaphors for academic success and failure” (p. 69), and schooling might be aptly characterized as a “race-track” (p. 70). Through these logics, and their attendant tools of measurement, students get sorted into, for example, “regular” or “special education” students, (Mehan, 2000), as “a lifelong learner” or “a child left behind” (Popkevitz, 2004, p. 1), or as “limited English proficient” or “SIFE” (student with interrupted formal education) (Guitiérrez & Orellana, 2006; Menken, 2008; Orellana-Olivares, 2016). Who is seen as an ideal learner in early literacy classrooms is often entangled with Eurocentric conceptions of childhood (Souto-Manning & Rabadi-Raol, 2018), and the supposed universality of skills and child development stages forecloses opportunities to see children in their diversities and particularities.

While there may be broad agreement on the importance of early learning, it matters what the underlying assumptions behind particular initiatives and policies are. Many well-known programs for children of color are based on the premise families are not educating their children well—that they don’t have the vocabulary, knowledge, or modes of interaction to adequately scaffold children’s development (Michaels, 2013). These perspectives animate a range of initiatives from boarding schools for Native American children that separated children from their families (Wallace Adams, 1995), to Head Start programs (Genishi, 1981), to minority recruitment programs that send Black children to elite preparatory schools (Meyers, 2018). Schooling has a long history of cultural deprivation theories engineered to explain the supposed inferiority of minoritized communities. These theories mask explicit acts of oppression: Colonizers burned indigenous forms of writing to portray them as “illiterate” and “uncivilized” and thus in need of “salvation” (Rasmussen, 2012; Saldívar, 2004); slaves were prohibited from learning to read and write as a means of social control (Willis & Harris, 2000); and literacy tests were deployed to curtail civic participation (Willis, 2008) and immigration (Goldin, 1994).

In the following sections we pose a series of meditations on our particular, embodied, and material experiences with improvement discourse in early childhood, literacy, and teacher education inspired by a year of systematic conversation. Through our collaboration, in which we engaged our respective backgrounds in philosophy and literacy, we surfaced the ethical implications of what it means to understand teaching and learning as dialectically entwined with the positions from which we think and their encounter with abstracted and universalized notions of what counts as knowing. Stephanie primarily teaches undergraduate pre-service teachers attending a liberal arts college. Much of her work is located in involvement with teaching in alternative schooling environments across many parts of the United States. It is also located, in part, to her own experiences as a young white girl growing up in a Midwestern suburb and the echoes of these experiences as she parents two daughters in a similar setting. Stephanie takes up questions about the work that needs to be done in predominantly white contexts to challenge structures of oppression. María Paula’s focus on literacy education within a graduate teacher education program and through collaborative inquiry with in-service teachers is located in part in her own history as a Latina immigrant to the United States and her experiences with assimilationist schooling. She takes up questions about the impact of school segregation and high stakes testing on how emergent bilingual children and children of color are framed in schools and how they might be reframed through intentional inquiry.

Stephanie’s Meditation: On Reading with Children  

As a philosopher of education who also teaches methods courses in early childhood and elementary education, my students and I are confronted by competing definitions of “child” and “childhood” and the demands of modern schooling. We struggle to make sense of policies that on one hand direct us to care for the whole child against those that demand we sort, categorize, and label children against a singular standard or norm. For instance, while we know that school days start too early and end too late in terms of children’s physical development (CDC, 2015), we also recognize that it provides many children with food they may not otherwise have. We read research that assures us inquiry models in math and science support children’s learning and then have to argue for taking longer than the ‘math block’ to complete an inquiry lesson. We know that book leveled reading limits children’s choice and thus their motivation to read and yet most reading programs begin by sorting children by reading level and ability (Miller, 2013).

Hadot’s (1995) description of the Stoic practices of attention, what is called prosoche, serves to illuminate the present-ness of the philosophical exercise, whereby we are ready at the moment for all that is unexpected and are thus able to confront “life’s difficulties face to face” (pp. 83–85). How can we gather all that we know about the individual children we work with, their challenging and complex selves? What does it mean for them to be tackling the very real business of learning to be selves in this world? How do we educate children within structures that often limit our interactions with them and also seem to reduce the relational aspects of schooling? My sense is that part of our practice must be about holding these lived tensions in attentive gaze. In particular, as I read John Dewey, the tension between the time of modern education and the life of the child seems to be held in a precarious balance (Dewey, 1904, p. 272) which deserves our attention. For Dewey, to be concerned with a child’s growth is to consider the entire child in all their potential, but not in terms of an unspecified future (Hook, 1959, p. 1013). Moreover, this growth is accomplished within the everyday practices of daily life.

I begin then with a young boy and one story about learning to read. Shaun never stops moving, except when someone is working with him on reading. And then, though he holds his eyes on the text in front of him, you can see the wriggling rising to the surface in his small frame he holds tight. This constant movement is a topic of much discussion among the teaching staff in his classroom. They describe his motions and emotions as “chaotic” and “disruptive.” His progress in reading class is a jagged line on the scoring graph. Though teachers use evaluations of his reading to incorporate new strategies when they work with him individually, his scores seem to lead to more testing, more behavioral interventions, and increased separation from his peers. In particular, I worry about correlations between these intervention strategies and his identity as the only African American boy in the classroom. While this young child participates in discussions in ways that showcase the depth of his meaning-making and raises critical questions about race, social class, and equity, these powerful ways of knowing go unrecorded on his academic record (Ballenger, 1999).

I am challenged to think carefully about whether or not Shaun’s racial identity, is necessary and even harmful to share in this essay. How do I, as a white teacher educator, question the deleterious effects of testing on Shaun without reproducing stereotypes that children of color are too often struggling academically? If, as I have argued, the pervasive evaluation of reading is a sub-construct within a larger discourse on improvement, itself wedded to a deficit concept of childhood, then isn’t it true that we might just as well tell this story about any child in a public-school class? Are there children in this same class who are not evaluated as reading on grade level but who can draw amazing pictures or who can weave fantastic imaginary games on the schoolyard? And couldn’t we recognize in any one of these stories that the constant vigilance teachers engage in to improve a child’s learning based on markers of deficit instead of their strengths could mask the selves of all children?

Philosophical meditation brings with it a strength of being able to hold steady in the gaze that which is troubling, which causes doubt, and which raises fear when I ask this question. For in answering it, I realize that sharing the racial identity of this child does make a difference, for his evaluation and description of him as a child is markedly different from his peers. Thus we find in holding this tale up to examination, that while all children are potentially harmed by educational practices that center on limited views of their childhoods, for some children, narrowing constructions of childhood are compounded due to their race, class, and gender, and to the limitations of the teachers’ gaze. The portraits of this student crafted by teachers and staff working with him are insufficient as well as dangerous not only because they limit what childhood means but because they forward stereotypical assumptions about African American children and their capacities to succeed in school. My justification for sharing his racial identity is wedded to the concern and the recognition that how we describe a child matters.

I spend a significant amount of time with my pre-service teachers locating images of childhood and childhood development that center not on gaps or deficiencies but on the strengths of children and their childhoods. I find ways to share our own stories on childhood and schooling into our conversations so that we may de-center the ways in which the dominant story of childhood structures our conversations about pedagogy and curriculum. In particular, I often share parenting stories, stories of my own life that help me rethink descriptions of childhood that dominate the educational landscape.

Watching my daughters grow, I realize that a child’s life exposes us to the assumptions of adult thinking regarding “preparedness” and “future.” To prepare implies considering the development of a child as linear, a march through time ordered and predestined. Children do not move towards the future by climbing the rungs of an objectives and standards ladder. Their development is less orientated towards progress than it is to fulfilment of the self in its own locality, what Dewey called “growth” (Dewey, 1916). It appears more akin to a filling up and a spilling over rather than an emptying out and starting again. Although there isn’t a child out there who doesn’t notice the privileges and new capacities of the “next” age, this is a qualitatively different future-directed thinking than what educators are currently tasked with when asked to “prepare” children for the future. I am not sure that children see themselves as incomplete, lacking anything until we start pointing out deficiencies. As Annie Dillard (1992) writes in her essay on age and nostalgia,

The child is riding her bicycle up the hill. I stand and look around. . . . At once, imperceptivity, she starts down. The pace increases. The cards are slapping and she is rolling; the pace speeds up, she is rolling, and the cards are slapping so fast the sounds blur. And so she whirs down the hill. . . . She is fine, still coasting, and leaning way back. (p. 164)

Dillard masterfully contrasts her own perception of growing into old age against the freedom her daughter experiences going down the hill. She allows us entry into the competing understandings of time that adult and child perceive moving through the world. Is it possible to see children in their present moments, as persons unfolding, sometimes prepared but often times more than not, just fine with throwing themselves down the hill? How do we foster thinking about improvement with children that does not focus on preparation for a life not yet lived but instead on meeting children when and where they are?  Those of us who work in education are always caught between the present child and the child moving towards the future.

Dillard (1992) describes childhood in ways that foster new ways of seeing the child’s body, inscribed in space and time but also open to new ways of seeing. As Dillard describes a child racing down the hill, might my students and I learn to describe the children with whom we work incorporating their space and time? As one example, I read with them Liselott Borgnon’s (2007) essay that focuses on the opportunity we have as educators and philosophers to locate new images of childhood beyond the structures of development. She takes us on journeys such as a child’s first steps using the imagery and construct of surfing. The language of waves and motion causes the adult to be unable to make any sense of it except by revising and re-imagining learning to walk, herself (pp. 264–274). How might the disciplining of children’s bodies that is a regular part of reading instruction (Luke, 1992) become more visible when we consider how our own lenses impact who gets labelled and surveilled? How can we create more expansive accounts of learning (and moving to learn) in early childhood classrooms?

I am brought to attention again by a child reading, this time my own child. She is a voracious reader. She tests far beyond her peers in standardized tests. She came home from school this fall excitedly telling me about a story she and some of her classmates had recently read—Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh. And she catches me off-guard during our conversation. The picture-book is a beautiful artistic and narrative retelling of the experiences of one Mexican-American family and their resistance to school segregation, challenged in the federal courts by prior to the Brown vs. Board decision. She expressed feeling “sorry” for the “Black and Brown children” and told me that they “lived long ago” and that it “reminded her of the stories her teacher read to her about Martin Luther King” and that “she was glad schools were no longer like this.” To her, racial injustice was located in a more distant past, and she now she lives in a world where these inequities are no longer a problem. As with many of her white peers, her response, while empathetic, also shows how race-blind and ahistorical her childhood schooling has been. Though she is not timeless, she can carry herself through the world that way.  Our localized knowledge can feel universal.

What would it mean to locate childhood within time, focusing on its presence rather than its orientation towards the future, while being attentive to how the past has shaped what we come to see as desired or preferred? Part of that task would have to center on locating my child (as well as my students) in recognizing and naming the structures of present time and how the past manifests within the time that she/we live. Asking my child to think about the present world, as it exists, is a critical move to locating the time and the locale of our thinking. And it will require that we give up our position that the present day is a time that all of us experience in the same way.

What of the children, my students and I might ask Annie Dillard, whose bikes are not racing down idyllic wooded hills during summer break but who race bikes in streets where they find their bodies, movements, and identities constantly policed? What of children who race their bikes down hills only to remain unaware of other children and their lives? Shaun does not yet read fluently on school-based measures, but clearly communicates issues of inequity to his peers, articulating his lived experience, with emotion and depth of knowledge. My daughter reads well but has little idea how another child might listen to the same book and be overcome with a fierce and righteous anger. Charting improvement on reading exams masks these children from each other and the adults who work with them. Is it possible to see beyond where we are when we, as adults, think of the child only through the lens of their deficits in an as yet unknown future?

Feminist theorist Castañeda finds possibility in interrogating one’s own concept of “child” or “childhood” (Castañeda, 2001, p. 49). Thus, when we spend time in my classes (so much time) asking ourselves, “What was it like to learn to read?” “Did I like school as a child?” “Where was my hidden space of my childhood?” we are not simply re-telling stories, we are learning to share—and question—the constructs of childhood that shield us from seeing other possible incantations of this most universal but individual of experiences. Requiring us to share these stories of childhood, revisiting them and holding them in our attention throughout our courses and times together as educators, offers inroads to collectively build recognition that childhood takes place in time, place, and history, and is not out-of-time or of the same time (see as well the article in this special issue by Cammarano and Stutelberg on teachers as handlers of memory).

María Paula’s Meditation: On Leaving Children Behind

In New York City, where I taught dual language kindergarten and now work with teachers on multilingual literacy learning, terms like “in need of improvement,” “low performing,” and “renewal” are official designations that characterize the schools primarily attended by children of color and from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. New York City is the most segregated in the nation by race and class (Hannah-Jones, 2016). Schools labeled as underperforming, and which overwhelmingly serve Black and Brown students, language learners, and students with disabilities, have been most impacted by the high-stakes reform paradigm. Teachers in these schools are afforded less professional leeway and curricular autonomy than peers in affluent settings (Au, 2007). The very real possibility that if student test scores don’t improve, a school may be shuttered has resulted in a narrowing of curriculum, a focus on rote skills, and the erosion of bilingual education and critical and inquiry-based pedagogies in these contexts (Lipman, 2004).  

These issues were very resonant in a public school where I worked to support teachers in facilitating writing instruction with children in grades K–1. The school served primarily Latinx students of immigrant backgrounds, including Mexico, Colombia, Perú, and Ecuador. It was located in the most crowded district in the city—classes were held in stairways and closets, the school staggered arrivals, dismissals, lunches, and even bathroom breaks to accommodate the number of students, and a good portion of the outdoor space was taken up by “temporary” trailers that had been there for 20 years. There, I witnessed first-hand the challenges teachers faced—classrooms with too many children, the pressures of assessments, and the disconnects between the mandated curriculum, the school’s bilingual program, and the diversities and realities of their students. I also observed how seamlessly entrenched narratives of deficit could be mobilized as explanations for a perceived achievement gap. For example, I felt knots in my stomach when, in looking across six-year olds’ writing samples with teachers, many of the observations—that students had few or no marks on the page when asked to write about what they are experts in, that they copied the teacher’s story, or that they kept recycling the same surface writing with little detail—too often converged into assertions that “these” children lacked “background knowledge.” That their parents didn’t work with them. That they did “nothing” after school so they understandably had “nothing” to write about.

It is easy to find evidence to back up these views because such ways of characterizing children of color and from immigrant backgrounds are not the purview of individual teachers, but part of a broader discourse of difference that pervades reform initiatives at schools labeled as underperforming. The dissonances I experienced regarding teacher learning within the accountability paradigm—the ways that teachers’ partial readings of students’ school performances were assumed to be neutral markers of their abilities—became the impetus for a photography and literacy project at the school in collaboration with my university colleague Dr. Patricia Martínez-Álvarez. Children were invited to use the camera as a semiotic tool to put the focus on their interests, experience, and knowledge. We wondered—could we ask children themselves to show us what they know and want to learn about in school? What would we, and the teachers, learn from students, and how might this redirection help shift how we imagined their capacities and their learning?

The children brought back so many photos. One showed a young man bending over first grader Antoni, his hands over the child’s, guiding him to the lines of text on an early reader.  Another child took us on a tour of the local hair salon, where he spent afternoons while his father worked. Ana discovered she could make videos with the camera and came back with a recording of her sitting at the kitchen table, helping snap beans for that night’s dinner. The businesses we passed on the way to the school stopped being anonymous, and we learned to see the children eating there, shopping there, playing there, helping there. The care work that children did to support their families, and the literacies involved in these endeavors, was evident in the images and in the children’s conversations (Ghiso, 2016).

As a class, in partnership with their teacher, we spent a lot of time talking about the photos and using them for oral storytelling and writing. Sofía, like many of the children in the class, described helping at the Laundromat, noting with critical awareness the struggles of her family and also her contributions to their collective wellbeing. One image showed Martín, a first grader, in the bedroom with his younger sibling, an alphabet chart on the wall, as he tries to lift him to up onto the quilt. Martín told us that every night he puts his hermanito to bed while his mom attends to other household duties. Both parents work long hours. Helping his little brother is hard, Martín shared, but he does it because he knows his mom is tired and has more to do. Who will do it if he can’t? Through their stories, Sofía, Martín, and the first graders showcased cultural values of interdependence which they explicitly contrasted with school’s focus on individual reward systems and individual achievement.

The following year, we were invited to facilitate this photography and literacy instruction at a trilingual school in an elite neighborhood. I still remember the cafeteria, which served organic food, cooked from scratch on the premises and served on ceramic plates with real cutlery. This particular day was rainy, so the children spread around the class for indoor recess, inventing games, jumping and twirling, playing pretend, the usual stuff of childhood with none of the imposed rigidity of school routines and its disciplining of children’s bodies (Luke, 1992). Like in our other school, we led an activity using Martín photos. The children made connections, talked about their own siblings and their routines. But the difference was their reaction when posed with Martín’s dilemma, who considered putting his sibling to bed a hardship but took on this role for the benefit of his family. “I wouldn’t to it, I would tell my mom to do it,” noted one child, summarizing the sentiments of the group. Mindful of my long-term work with young immigrant children who often were living in conditions of economic precarity, I could not help but ponder, with discomfort, the ways school segregation and inequality may function as mechanisms for social reproduction. Were immigrant children’s practices of interdependence, which had become visible through their photos, setting them up to be caregivers of others? Were some children being taught to follow and others taught to delegate? Where might there be room in teaching and teacher education to cultivate opportunities for self-reflexivity, which might allow us to join in solidarity with others different from ourselves?

Feminist philosophers in the tradition of postpositive realism (Alcoff, 2006; Mohanty, 1997; Moya, 2002) argue that individuals’ experiences derived from their identities can be a source of knowledge that can lead to more accurate understandings about our shared world. In particular, the experiences of communities whose knowledges have historically been devalued may have an epistemic advantage or privilege (Campano, 2007; Moya, 2002) in understanding how the world is structured hierarchically, while members of dominant social groups may have “a pattern of belief-forming practices” that result in mystification and “systematic ignorance” (Alcoff, 2007b, p. 48) of inequality. The knowledge and perspectives of students from historically minoritized communities may, in the day-to-day communications of classroom life, be dismissed because of dominant narratives of deficit such as the construction of the “struggling student” (Vasudevan & Campano, 2009) who is perpetually behind peers. To return to the opening example, a teacher may not appreciate the value of an immigrant student’s story for academic learning, even if they are sympathetic to the child’s life experiences. The absence of culturally relevant (Ladson-Billings, 2014) and sustaining (Paris, 2012; Paris & Alim, 2014) curricula, especially when there is a pressure to focus on test preparation, would deprive students of the opportunity to link their particular narratives to legacies of oppression and resistance, as well as to new possibilities for enacting alternatives.

As much as the photography project opened spaces for deepening students’ and teachers’ learning and shifting the school curriculum, we have to be cautious in recognizing that photos are not neutral and that we read them through our particular, situated perspectives (Luttrell, 2010). In subsequent years my co-researcher and I invited teachers to gather together in inquiry communities to grapple with their interpretations of children’s photos, to think through how the images might become platforms for learning from others and for critical reflection, and to infuse these insights into the official literacy curriculum. Words posed to the group one evening by Julián, a second grade teacher, stay with me—“I got this one image and I don’t know how to handle it.” With input from others, Julián meditated on his complicated feelings around a photo of shoes in one of his students’ homes, which for him denoted the many family members sharing such small quarters. It called up questions about how to honor the private lives children were making public, how to not assume a discourse of deficit or sympathy for students while also remaining attentive to the socioeconomic struggles of their families, and how to think about the connection of what he was learning about children to classroom instruction. These big questions were not meant to find resolution within our inquiry meeting; however, opportunities to talk through the images became a backdrop for Julian’s pedagogical decisions months later. While in the initial conversation Julián expressed feeling hesitant and unsure about how to navigate children’s individual experiences within recognition of systemic inequities, in his facilitation of a classroom discussion later in the year, Julián supported students in inquiring into this link—using a student’s photograph of construction near the school to highlight the gentrification of the neighborhood and to question who is included or excluded from economic prosperity. Through his pedagogy, Julían was helping students cultivate civic participation and enact agency.

For the Latinx young children in the photography and literacy project (Ghiso, Martínez-Álvarez, & Dernikos, 2014), the camera provides an opportunity to center knowledges that have been marginalized in the curriculum, including insights about equity and oppression that were derived from their embodied experiences in terms of race, class, gender, and linguistic stigma. For the teachers, working as part of an inquiry community encourages self-reflexivity about how their (our) own social locations, and the broader system of schooling, work to marginalize the literacy practices and knowledge claims of Latinx students and their families. A critical interrogation of “where” we are reading students’ photos, writings, and school performances from works to disrupts the neutrality of initial impressions. Recognizing our invariably partial reading of students shifts our perception of them—from empty vessels to be filled to partners in a shared learning journey. Collective inquiry, which can be inspired by philosophical meditations, can become a means of pausing and attending to the particularities of students and classrooms, and thus has the potential to make visible—and to challenge—systemic inequities percolating through routine school practices.

Meditation: On Motherhood

In our collaborative journey of writing and thinking together, our inquiries about children’s learning are inherently influenced by our shared positionings as researchers and as mothers. We recognized that the vantage point of motherhood—often a marginalized identity in the academy—impacted our perspectives on children in light of the developmental norms to which they are subjected from birth, viscerally helped us account for children’s education beyond (and at times in spite of) schooling, and invariably influenced our dialogic relationship to the inequities of teaching and living in the current sociopolitical context. We gave ourselves permission to reflect on how time spent away from our desks and deadlines, with our daughters, gave us insight into the realm of education. We shared moments of storytelling, laughter, connection and also cultural loss, anxiety, illness, and pain.

For instance, we reflected on the ways that the medical model of development has marked our daughters as outliers on the normal curve (Dudley-Marling & Gurn, 2010) of growth, expected milestones, or appropriate behaviors, and the emotional toll of our advocacy in talking back to these framings and their related interventions. Much of what we knew of our children from the day-to-day practice of parenting contrasted with the labels and assessments of others and to the related recommendations aimed at optimizing their development. These experiences with our own daughters helped us view educational improvement as necessarily related to the complexity and singularity of individual children in the multiple contexts of their lives. Our philosophical meditations, and our dialogue across them, led us to question how we might redesign our teacher education practices to account for this “loving perception” (Lugones, 1987), especially across difference and in light of cultural constructions of childhood.

Stephanie wrote about a summer travel spent with daughters, “It was a fantastic reminder of the many ways in which growing up (and also of being an adult) is a constant figuring out, re-sorting, re-placing, and then re-imagining the many stories we hear about ourselves and others” (Email, Aug. 31, 2017). Being a parent is to be daily responsible for the growth of a young child. One is faced with the recognition that childhood is wonderfully and woefully complex. María Paula’s response to Stephanie carried us into a new moment as we more directly linked our work within the political realities affecting children and school in our country, writing, “I agree with you that we can't separate or bracket the issues of equity and justice going on around us as we consider our work” (Email, Sept. 6, 2017). We recognized ourselves as mother-scholars (Lapayese, 2012, p. ix), those who work to make the world better for their own children but also all children.

We would be remiss if we were not to recognize an urgency in writing about recognizing children’s capacities to be thinkers and actors in their own time. We find the material and existential conditions of childhood threatened daily, with the continued discourse about children’s gaps and deficiencies impacting the misrecognition of the rights of all children and their families. For example, in the course of our collaboration, the current U.S. administration has threatened to rescind the rights of DACA recipients and young persons organizing activism to protest violence perpetrated in a mass school shooting have been ridiculed by their own government. Additionally, there an estimated 2,342 young children who have been imprisoned and separated from their parents, their very bodies being used as a deterrent for their families to seek asylum in the United States (Domonoske, 2018; Phillips, 2018; Tillet, 2017). Attending to our own locally situated contexts of practice, and our converging foci as part of this writing collaboration, helps to make visible relationships of power in our work supporting pre- and in-service teachers and the learning of children, and to imagine alternative arrangements that foreground theorizing in and from practice.


We recognize in our orientation a philosophical response about practical life. Far from an abstraction, our meditations are grounded within the particular, embodied, and material dimensions of our lives with others, including the norms, habits, and routines that shape children’s varied trajectories through schooling and teachers’ efforts to support them.

In the arena of teaching and teacher education, our meditations allow us to both mark and potentially disrupt the accountability paradigms that demarcate children’s learning (See also Frank and McDonough, this issue, on the dynamics evaluating teacher effectiveness) and learning as an individual cognition along a predetermined developmental trajectory. The psychological underpinnings of many teacher education programs likewise privilege pedagogical content knowledge as informed by dominant models of child development (Friedrich, 2014). The practice of philosophical meditation, as we are taking it up in this collaborative project, allowed us to linger on these propositions and to shift our attention to what school improvement initiatives leave outside the frame, as well as to the frame itself. A meditation may move the focus from the implementation of developmentally appropriate practices (DAPs) to the questioning of the historical roots of DAPs, the underlying notions of childhood that inform them, and how to respond to particular children as informed by our own locations. Or it may shift assessments from value-free measurements of students’ skills and teachers’ effectiveness to practices that have origins in oppression and inequality and to teachers working within and against the constraints of the testing paradigm to foster classroom cultures that are attuned to children’s uniqueness and sociocultural knowledge (Schneider, 2017).  

Our philosophical meditations have helped us probe the roots and contradictions of what it means to teach better (Lytle, 2008). Educational flourishing occurs within the life worlds of particular classrooms, in the alchemy among teachers and students, and within broader social and historical contexts. Considering schools as contexts where colonization is not a remote event that has been overcome in the trajectory of human progress, but a legacy that is still very much present, reorients us to viewing contemporary school improvement efforts in relation to past (yet enduring) systems of domination. Current reform initiatives and the related emphasis on student and teacher improvement may not be chronological steps toward more equitable educational opportunities, but aspects of recursive and asymmetrical relations of power that continue to marginalize historically disenfranchised groups. This perspective on teaching and teaching education allows for investigation into ways a colonial past is enacted in the present.

Making visible the historically constructed experiences of childhood, and the contingencies of different childhoods, is a necessary dimension of teaching that goes hand-in-hand with content, pedagogies, and curriculum. Encouraging pre- and in-service teachers, for example, to view learning as social and tied to the lived experiences of students goes far beyond the curricular themes characterizing early learning (e.g., community, family) or the routines of schooling (e.g., group work, learning through play). It also entails accounting for the particular cultural knowledge that children may convey in these themes (e.g., communal sense of interdependence, family separation/reunification, challenges to the work-play dichotomy), as well as social justice issues including racism, nativist sentiments and the militarization of the border, the erosion of affordable health care, or the humanitarian crises of refugee populations. These are all matters impacting, explicitly or implicitly, children’s learning and educators’ questions about what current realities mean for teaching, and how to invite children to make these visible within the context of school.

Although our meditations were not oriented toward a specific outcome, over the course of our work together, we have each found that this cross-disciplinary orientation has been a means to deepen our research and practice. It has helped us rethink the content of our teacher education courses, find opportunities to linger on (rather than resolve) tensions, contradictions, wonderings, and imaginings, and cultivate more historically informed inquiries. In a course on early childhood literature taught by Stephanie, for example, pre-service teachers were learning about pedagogies for supporting children’s thinking prior to and after reading a text and would subsequently visit her daughter’s school to read with children. Stephanie made a concerted effort to bring in children’s books that represented the experiences of historically marginalized groups, as well as the most recent United States census data to look at the racial and economic dynamics of the town in the local school district. These contextualizations invited pre-service teachers to situate their reading instruction in light of particular texts, particular children, and particular school cultures of reading, and to examine their subjective readings of books and their own conceptions of childhood. Likewise, the cross-disciplinary collaboration has led María Paula to infuse more opportunities for reflection that surface assumptions of childhood in her work with teachers in graduate courses on early literacy and in school-based professional learning. Beginning by interrogating our lenses about how we see childhood learning, how this might differ from families’ perspectives, and how our notions of what children need to know and do to be seen as “proficient” is shaped by histories of inequality, rather than beginning with what we observe about particular children’s literacies, foregrounds inquiry, and meditation over evaluation.

Our shared investigation has underscored the need for more local structures of engagement that cross institutional boundaries and roles. In isolation, meditations could potentially reinforce existing views, whether the silos of our respective disciplines or our situated and inherently partial vantage points. In contrast, our intellectual journey has been fortified by our multiple perspectives, helping us question educational structures, consider the ethical implications of teaching, and forge new ways of being in community. Philosophical meditations at the crossroads of philosophy, teaching, and teacher education thus extend beyond critique toward imagining and enacting a better world in our classrooms, even though (and especially when) this path is not clear.

Meditations as a practice of teaching and teacher education work toward a re-framing of who students are, of what counts as knowledge, and of how we might configure school spaces for learning attuned to the riches of children’s insights and also to the ways educational opportunities have been systemically and unequally distributed. Disrupting and playing within the disconnected histories of childhoods, their role in our present, and their possibilities in the future seems essential to any way of moving forward with the present in our hand, rather than a universal and generalized image of the progress of an idealized child. This is both a philosophical project on rethinking universal themes of childhood which can be systemic and totalizing, and it is also a project of the particular, spending time in the experiences of daily life with students, teachers, and families. Our habituated response as adults, to see children as future selves, misguidedly seeks to ameliorate any perceived lack in the present in service of a successful future, without questioning why something might appear to us as a “gap” and why some children are more prone to be seen as having academic gaps even before they enter schooling. Philosophical meditations are a means of re-learning to actively perceive the present in its possibility.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 4, 2020, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23079, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 4:50:19 AM

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About the Author
  • María Paula Ghiso
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    MARIA PAULA GHISO is an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her scholarship focuses on literacy in multilingual and transnational contexts and on community-based and participatory methodologies. Recent publications: Ghiso, M.P. (2016). The laundromat as the transnational local: Young chidren’s literacies of interdependence. Teachers College Record, 118(1), 1-46, which received the 2017 Arthur Applebee Award for Excellence in Research on Literacy from the Literacy Research Association. Campano, G., Ghiso, M. P., & Welch, B. (2017). Partnering with immigrant communities: Action through literacy. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, which received the 2017 Edward Fry Book Award from the Literacy Research Association and the 2018 David H. Russell Award from the National Council of Teachers of English.
  • Stephanie Burdick-Shepherd
    Lawrence University
    E-mail Author
    STEPHANIE A. BURDICK-SHEPHERD is an assistant professor in the Department of Education at Lawrence University. Her current research focuses on the philosophical and ethical issues demanded by the work of teaching and working with young children. She facilitates an innovative approach to elementary teacher certification at Lawrence University in cooperation with local schools. Recent publications: Burdick-Shepherd, S and Cammarano, C. (2017). Philosophy for children goes to college: transformative changes in philosophical thinking when college students practice philosophizing with young children” Childhood and Philosophy, 13(27), 235-251. Burdick-Shepherd, S. (2019). Souls in the lab: Enriching practical experience for pre-service educators and young children” In C. Lowry, (Ed.), Handbook of Dewey's educational theory and practice (pp. 175-188). Rotterdam, NL: Sense Publishers.
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