CI, Equity, User-Error & Inequitable Practices

I don’t agree that the statement “CI is equitable” is harmful. Yet, I also don’t think the message behind “CI isn’t inherently equitable” is wrong, either. John Bracey said one can still “do racist stuff” while teaching with CI principles. Of course, we both know that’s an issue with content, not CI. Still, I get the idea behind that word “inherent.” In case you missed the Twitter hub bub, let me fill you in: People disagree with a claim that CI is “inherently equitable,” worried that such a message would lead teachers to say “well, I’m providing CI, so I guess I’m done.” I don’t think anyone’s actually saying that, but still, I understand that position to take.

Specifically, the word “inherent” seems to be the main issue. I can see how that could be seen as taking responsibility away from the teacher who should be actively balancing inequity and dismantling systemic racism. However, teachers haven’t been as disengaged from that equity work as the worry suggests. I’ve been hearing “CI levels the playing field” many times over the years from teachers reporting positive changes to their program’s demographics. What else could that mean if not equity? But OK, I get it. If “inherent” is the issue, maybe “CI is more-equitable” will do. If so, though, at what point does a teacher go from having a “more-equitable” classroom to an “equitable” one? And is there ever a “fully-equitable” classroom? I’m thinking no. So, if CI is central to equity—because you cannot do the work of bringing equity into the classroom if students aren’t understanding (i.e. step zero), and nothing has shown to be more equitable than CI, well then…

For fun, though, I’ll throw in a third perspective. Whereas you have “CI is equitable” and “nothing makes CI equitable per se,” how about “CI is the only equitable factor?” I’m sure that sounds nuts, but here it goes: Since CI is independent from all the content, methods, strategies, etc. that teachers choose, as a necessary ingredient for language acquisition, CI might be the only non-biased factor in the classroom. Trippy.

I don’t think that third perspective is really worth pursuing, though, so let’s get back to the main points. Again, I understand the message behind “CI isn’t inherently equitable” as a response to “CI is equitable.” However, I suspect the latter is said by a lot of people who aren’t actually referring to CI. Don’t get me wrong; some get it, and are definitely referring to how CI principles reshaped their language program to mirror demographics of the school. However, others are merely referring to practices they think is “CI teaching.” This will be addressed later with the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Otherwise, let’s talk equity…

Do we not have data on the kind of equity that teaching with CI principles brings to the classroom? Grant Boulanger has some, although the lack of equal numbers across the board in terms of retention has been met with undo criticism. Here’s a guy whose school increased the rate of retention in students of color by double that of white students. Still, since the numbers of the former didn’t catch up fully to the latter, such data is dismissed (re: at what point does a teacher go from having a “more-equitable” classroom to an “equitable” one, though. Is there ever a “fully-equitable” classroom?). Grant also has a second post on achievement. If that last chart isn’t evidence of CI being equitable, I dunno what is. As for other data, the teachers of Parkview High School, GA have been collecting data since 2005, and Bob Patrick shares a summary in Vol. 95 2020 of The Classical Outlook:

“Our school with just over 3000 students in grades 9-12 is in 2019 30% white, 30% African American, 20% Latino/a, and 20% Asian, Asian Pacific Islander, and bi-racial or not identifying. Our Latin program in 2019 made up of 700 students shows the same representation as the student body. We also served in the 2018-19 academic year 124 special education students within our program, all of whom earned credit and made progress in the Latin program. We attribute these fairly significant changes to our willingness to step outside of traditional paradigms for teaching and learning Latin towards teaching primarily centered in the principles and practices of Comprehensible Input…”

I’ve also heard from teachers who haven’t kept data, but have noticed changes in equity (re: “CI levels the playing field”). Perhaps we should all go back to counselors before the school year gets underway and go back as far as we can; let’s show the data! At this point, I’m reminded that not one person has claimed that CI is the *only* thing needed for equity. I asked Bob Patrick to say more about his program:

“We speak of equity as if it’s a perfect identifiable number. The truth is that as soon as you think you’ve got it, you see something else that needs attention for the sake of equity. It’s constant work.”

These are people achieving the goal of equity. I’d say we should listen. Also, saying “CI is equitable” doesn’t negate the need for a more critical look at one’s teaching, especially how CI is being provided. The connection between CI and equity is strong. What happens when we send messages diminishing that connection, though? I don’t know that we want to find out.

It’s 2020 and teachers are still calling CI a method.

That right there should give us all a sense of how difficult it is to hold a conversation about CI and equity. Enter the Dunning-Kruger Effect! I’ve experienced it myself, and I’ve observed it in other teachers who get into comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT). Terms like “CI” are tossed around willy nilly, and confidence is super high after some revelatory discovery. This confidence, however, is usually specific to one activity, or a narrow aspect of CCLT. That is, the underlying theory/concept is often still unknown. This tends to happen when teachers imitate something they see, or try out something they’ve recently had training with. In this stage of the effect, a lot of overgeneralizing is done. One problem? A lot of sharing of ideas and materials between teachers happens when confidence is high. This can have negative effects due to lack of knowledge and experience.

Image result for dunning kruger effect

So, people who say “CI is equitable” might be at the Peak of Mt. Stupid, not yet realizing that something they’re doing is actually inequitable. Or, maybe they’ve already gone through that valley, addressing inequitable practices related to providing CI and content, and are working their way up that Slope of Enlightenment. Given so much variation to what CI actually means to teachers, there’s almost no way to know what a teacher is really talking about. Therefore, “CI is equitable” and “CI isn’t inherently equitable” can both be true, and false depending on who’s saying it and what they mean. Crazy town. Perhaps it’s more productive to look at concrete examples, then...

Inequitable Practices
Here’s a short list of common inequitable practices I’ve seen that can be associated with CI, but aren’t CI. Note, too, how these could exist in a variety of language teaching approaches using different methods:

  • pretending you don’t share a language, and/or forcing students to speak the target language
    • the squishiest hypothesis is the Affective Filter, yet everyone seems to recognize its existence, or something like it when students clearly shut down as a result of being put on the spot
  • immersion
    • often results in submersion (drowning under incomprehension) when implemented for only a short time every day or two (vs. structured Immersion Programs with hours upon hours of exposure)
  • grading on memorization
    • grammar rules or story details doesn’t matter; highly capable people can have terribly bad memories
  • grading on proficiency
    • some learners still develop proficiency slowly, even when doing everything you expect
  • not establishing meaning
    • using *only* English when there are EL students in class, and/or *only* using pictures, etc. that invite ambiguity and incomprehension—sometimes it takes multiple languages and/or strategies to establish meaning, and that’s context-dependent
  • actors reinforcing problematic content (see below)
    • yeah, start noticing who gets chosen to play the protagonist, etc.

I fully admit falling into a few of those traps in the past. For example, grading on proficiency is SOOOO much more equitable than grading correct/incorrect grammar responses. However, it doesn’t take the learner’s internal syllabus into account. That’s an example of heading down into the Valley of Despair. So, that list above has inequitable practices for the delivery of CI, but what about content itself? That’s a biiiiiiig topic, but here’s a short list of common inequitable content I’ve seen that can be associated with CI. Again, these aren’t exclusive to teaching with CI principles, and are found in various language teaching approaches using different methods:

  • stereotypes
    • depictions of people during collaborative storytelling, or found in media resources, especially if students are going to play those roles
  • lack of diversity
    • majority of white cis male characters and perspectives
  • gendered roles
    • why wouldn’t the hero be a woman?!
  • body image
    • it doesn’t matter if words for “pretty” or “fat” are cognates, you really, really don’t need to describe people that way in class, especially if students are going to play those roles
  • flat-out racist content
    • we’re definitely looking at you, Classics, but surely there are racist tropes everywhere, in every target language

In sum, CI is most certainly equitable (i.e. more, not inherently, only non-biased factor, etc.), but you can mess with it by bringing inequitable practices of delivering CI, as well as inequitable content into the classroom. Don’t do that, and don’t do that under the guise of CI. Instead, strive to be even more equitable after starting at a common ground of teaching with CI principles, figure out what you don’t have a clue about in that Valley of Despair, and then head on up the Slope of Enlightenment.

3 thoughts on “CI, Equity, User-Error & Inequitable Practices

  1. Since our goal as CI teachers is to be comprehensible to all our students, perhaps the only way to be truly comprehensible is to be able to understand our students and how they think, to be empathetic. Can we be empathetic and not be equitable? .

  2. So how do you assess if you aren’t assessing proficiency? This one completely stumps me! And has for years. The only way I get around it is that I refuse to compare one student to another. I only look at how they have improved from one assessment to the next. Maybe at assessment 4 they could write one or two complete sentences and otherwise just words for a free write. But at assessment 5, they could write 5-6 understandable sentences. That is improvement for that student that is measurable and visible. The ONLY time I grade otherwise is end of year proficiency exams. These are used if a student is changing schools to another program so that they are placed correctly. It is also filed away as credence to our program, since I am building it from ground zero.

    Otherwise, it seems to me, that the inequity comes from the teacher primarily. You raise really good points about things to look for like student actors and words that are used. For that reason, among others, I have not really had students act out stories. I see value in it, but it has been too problematic. I try to make a good part of my class just sitting chatting with the students in target language, especially advanced students, about what is important to them. With my tiny classes of around 10 or less students, everyone participates and everyone is heard. In my mind, the most critical part of equity is that everyone is heard and valued.

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