By way of the historically persistent school-to-prison pipeline, boys of color are more likely to face destructive and unjust systems of oppression in their everyday school settings. Compared to their White peers, boys of color are punished more often and more severely for the same infractions in schools and are often subjected to increased levels of hyper-monitoring and excessive policing (Nowicki, 2018; Peguero et al., 2018). Our research has identified these disparities as a form of racial criminalization (Basile et al., 2019), and that many boys of color regularly resist this racial criminalization as a healthy response to oppression (Basile, 2018). This racial criminalization continually denies boys of color opportunities to participate in STEM learning. Along with significant negative mental health implications, criminalization of boys of color also leads to drastic and unfair underrepresentation in higher-level and advanced STEM courses, many of which serve as vital gateways to college and career pathways (Musu-Gillette et al., 2017; Witenko et al., 2017). In this way, criminalization of boys of color specifically in STEM education classrooms may be particularly and acutely harmful across multiple dimensions.
Boys of color – just as all students – have legal (Alexander, 2012), civil (Tate, 2001), democratic (Anderson & Tate, 2008), and ethical (Noddings, 2005) rights to an equitable and empowering education, devoid of discriminatory and oppressive practices. Further, these oppressive measures must be disrupted before we can hope to answer the calls for diversity in STEM education (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2010). Efforts to disrupt these practices, such as multicultural education and culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies, continue to be developed and advanced but may be limited in their effectiveness by some of the unconscious (and conscious) racial biases enculturated into our teaching workforce. Because of this, educators who are not actively engaging in efforts to disrupt racial criminalization and working towards creating STEM classroom environments that recognize and celebrate the brilliance of boys of color are participating in the continued replication of the status quo. Thus, it is vital that teachers purposefully and continually commit to a mindset and practice that assumes and sees the brilliance in our boys of color—to recognize it above other unjust, punitive, and deficit views.
Disrupting Racial Criminalization
Disrupting racial criminalization in schools requires purposeful and thoughtful teaching practices, while simultaneously working toward systemic change. To begin to better understand these complex processes and practices, the lead author spent two academic school years conducting research at three elementary schools participating in a district-supported STEM after-school and summer program which serviced multiple low-income urban elementary schools. The program was well established for over a decade in the district and was interwoven into each of the schools it serviced. It had a reputation throughout the district and the region as being particularly impactful for boys of color. Across the two years of the study, the lead author visited each of the three schools one to two times per week on average, observing, participating, conducting formal and informal interviews with students and staff members, collecting disciplinary data, and recording their stories. Findings from this robust research revealed intricate ways in which boys of color were routinely criminalized; the sophisticated and healthy ways in which the boys resisted this criminalization; and a collective set of practices some educators employed to actively and purposefully disrupt these cycles (Basile, 2018, 2020; Basile et al., 2019). These highly effective decriminalizing practices often had immediate and consistently positive impacts on the boys and their learning experiences. Since conducting this study, we have seen iterations of decriminalizing practices being used successfully by individual teachers in multiple middle and high school science classrooms across Colorado, California, and elsewhere in the United States.
We define decriminalizing practices as those rules, policies, words, and actions of educators and other school staff which reduce the likelihood of racial criminalization occurring in schools and classrooms; identify and make racial criminalization visible for the purpose of reducing its frequency and negative impact on boys of color; and actively work against the negative effects racial criminalization has on boys of color (Basile, 2020). We grouped decriminalizing practices into six useful categories: (1) structural and procedural, (2) honoring space, (3) highly respectful interactions, (4) positive reframing, (5) repair, and (6) assuming brilliance. Because of its salience among pre-service and early-career teachers, we focus on the practice of assuming brilliance as an entry point for educators taking up a decriminalizing approach to their teaching praxis (Basile & López, 2018).
Assuming brilliance as a classroom practice involves a fundamental shift away from the dominant thinking of boys of color as underachieving, disruptive, and hyper-physical. In its place is movement toward a humanistic, celebrative view of boys of color as having unique and valuable insights, and understandings born from both individual and often challenging shared lived experiences. In practice, assuming brilliance involves purposeful approaches to verbal and nonverbal communication with boys of color that embodies respect, empathy, and authenticity. It is rooted in the premise that boys of color are brilliant in both conventional and unique ways, and that it is the teacher’s responsibility to see that brilliance.
For example, in this previously published story told by one of the educators, a teacher assumed brilliance in a boy of color who was frequently labeled as “low performing,” “not so bright,” and “unwilling to learn.” Students were working in small groups with various types of rocks at the table and a large piece of construction paper. The assignment was to use the construction paper to create a model of the rock cycle:
When I passed by him, Marvin was slamming rocks together and breaking the edges off of them, leaving bits of rock on the table. He looked at me and said, ‘I broke it.’ I thought he was gonna get in trouble with the teacher and get kicked out again…Before I could say something to him, the teacher quickly came up very close to Marvin and asked him what he was doing…Marvin said he was breaking rocks and put his head down. The teacher told Marvin in a happy voice, ‘This is great! Marvin, you made sediment! Now, can you figure out how to use it to make a metamorphic rock? I’ll be right back to see what you come up with.’ Marvin looked up at me all happy, [and said] ‘Sedimentary is where all the dinosaur bones are.’ The teacher left and came back a few moments later after quickly visiting another table. As soon as she arrived, Marvin picked up all the [pieces of] sediment and squeezed them together in his hands as hard as he could. After a few moments he said, ‘You may wanna come back…this is gonna take a while.’ As the staff member smiled and walked away, Marvin shouted out very loudly, ‘Like in a gazillion years or so.’
In this story, the teacher entered into the interaction with Marvin assuming he had done something brilliant (which he had). By doing so, she provided the space for Marvin to further demonstrate the unique method he was developing to represent the rock cycle. The alternative outcome, as the teacher indicates, was for Marvin to get kicked out of class for “destroying” school property and be denied the opportunity to continue to learn and complete the project. Arguably, this demonstration shows a deeper understanding of the process compared to his peers who did such things as gluing rocks to a poster with arrows drawn between them. It also clearly demonstrates innovative thinking.
In other examples in which boys didn’t know how to solve the problems or were stuck, when educators assumed brilliance in their interactions with them, it typically led to the boys continuing to attempt to solve the problems or to at times search out resources, including other students, to help them. In these instances, the boys were not always successful at solving problems, producing ideal outcomes, or demonstrating understandings, but they almost always continued to engage in academic activities and learning. Contrastingly, these instances are notably different from standard outcomes when staff or teachers more commonly criminalize boys of color, which often leads to boys of color disengaging with or being denied the opportunity to engage in learning, due to punishment or removal from class. Assuming brilliance is not the same as other rhetoric common in K-12 science around “raising expectations and students will meet them” but rather a shift in thinking about what a boy of color already knows and can do. In other words, it is not a way of expecting them to be brilliant and then they will be, but rather an authentic assumption that they are already brilliant.
Implications: Taking up Assuming Brilliance as a Pedagogical Practice
Assuming brilliance has the potential to increase the amount of time boys of color spend interacting with their learning, particularly in science and mathematics, while simultaneously decreasing the amount of time both instructors and boys of color spend interacting over punitive issues. For educators who wish to take up the practice of assuming brilliance in their interactions with boys of color, we offer these suggestions, derived from the voices of educators and our observations from multiple educational research contexts.