Creating Curriculum that Opens Minds and Advances Critical Thinking

A Lesley Ellis Teacher engages students on the discussion of differences.  Photo by Richard Howard

The Lesley Ellis School Antibias Curriculum
Racism, homophobia, sexism, bias—these are hot topics in schools. On one hand, schools want to create welcoming communities where differences are respected and students can ask questions. On the other, they want to avoid a political firestorm, high emotion and hurt feelings. Talking about differences can be emotionally challenging to many people. Family perspectives sometimes conflict with school or social points of view. Hoping to skirt controversy, many academic publishers won't go deeply into the topic of bias for fear of losing their audience or challenging the wrong people.

Finding material that was relevant to students, academically challenging and interesting proved to be a difficult challenge for Lesley Ellis School. Unable to find an existing program that met their goals, Lesley Ellis teachers decided to invent their own.

Start With What You Know

Working together, the school's teachers  carefully crafted a unique school-wide effort. They studied the impact of bias on the children’s social and intellectual development. They focused their work on eight major areas of bias: racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, ageism, religious intolerance and size acceptance.

While many schools, both public and private, have initiatives aimed at creating tolerance and respect, the Lesley Ellis program is rooted in a developmental model of learning that engages children’s emerging critical thinking skills. It's designed to address the intellectual as well as the social dimension of learning.

“It’s not the same old PC stuff,” said one fifth-grade parent. “It really is about teaching kids to think independently without resorting to assumptions or ready-made answers."

It's The Differences That Count
Instead of minimizing discussions of difference,  teachers are trained to encourage it. For example, children in the preschool classrooms regularly talk about family structure, cultural traditions, skin tone, and religion in a way that builds from children’s natural conversations. “There’s an innocent curiosity at this age, which we try to encourage,” says preschool teacher Janet McLaughlin. “It’s the same kind of curiosity that drives their interest in other subjects." Children, especially young children, notice differences—they want to know why a friend has two moms, or why one child is a different color from his parents, or why someone’s parents seem much older or younger or richer than their own.

“You can’t spend 30 minutes teaching about the differences among plants or animals and then turn around and ignore the differences among the children themselves," said first-grade teacher Gray LeMay. "That kind of dissonance stifles children's intellectual development."

Observing and Organizing To Make Sense Of The World

“The anti-bias curriculum’s success has a lot to do with this school’s developmental, progressive pedagogy,” adds Andy Stratford, first-grade teacher. “The natural process of learning is to make observations about your environment and then to create rules for ordering your experience. Young children are remarkably observant and quick to find rules. Rules help children generalize about the world and organize what they know.”

Fourth-grade teacher Jon Pfeifer was heavily involved in the development of this new curriculum program. “Rules for organizing information and experience are typically acquired from logical thinking, learned from parents and teachers or absorbed from the culture. What we try to do is provide children with enriched ideas, knowledge, and experiences so that they can develop better, more powerful and more sophisticated rules. And we want to help children to evaluate and refine the rules they have for organizing the world.”

A curriculum that helps children recognize bias not only deepens their understanding of other people, cultures, and families, but also strengthens their fundamental thinking skills. Knowing how to recognize stereotypes and preconceptions, how to distinguish between opinion and fact, how to draw valid conclusions from observations—these skills are needed for a lifetime of learning.

Setting A New Standard
For their work with in developing this program, Lesley Ellis School received the 2005 Leading Edge Award for Equity and Justice from the National Association of Independent Schools. “Independent schools have the freedom to experiment and model innovative programs that other schools can then adapt within their own settings,” said NAIS President Patrick Bassett.

Lesley Ellis School is a private school with a public mission. Through Schools for Children's consulting services, this curriculum and an associated teachers workshop is now available to other interested schools.