Ways of Knowing: Dismantling Master’s House, Part 1 | Nick Dawkins

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“And hip hop is tied up in the back room
With a logo stuffed in its mouth
’cause the master’s tools will never
dismantle the master’s house.”

Ani DiFranco, Serpentine, 2003

Through a critical exploration of the current ideas and implications of the structural functional epistemologies dominating public education spaces, our cohort is currently learning to diagnose and distill the mental models and multi-layered histories behind educating the nations’ students. What continues to rise to the surface in my own understanding is how deeply embedded the conditioning of beliefs and values are within organizational frameworks and individual mindsets. I previously understood the importance of mental models, values, and getting to what is beneath the surface, however, I was less aware of how our stories, of how we learn, and how we have come to know, were implicated and situated within organizational structures. This emerging understanding has shifted my learning into deeply personal places and reflections.

The golden age of hip hop music and culture we grew up in was governed by golden ratios of rhythms and patterns; mathematical sequences of beats, rhymes and life. The math moving in our bodies is the best way I remember feeling and knowing geometry and the motion of numbers inhabiting both seen and unseen galaxies of life. My most intimate ways of knowing, feeling, understanding, and learning math are also connected to some of the most insecure and sacred areas of heart. I have always questioned inside and suspected that my indigenous, guttural and innate ways of knowing were only the ways that we knew, that we grew up learning, and that learning wasn’t validated, or good enough for inside the walls of a Math classroom. My childhood friends and I learned outside the walls of classrooms, and left behind the tattered Math books, broken binders and dingy pages of math practice problems.

While studying Organizational Theory this term, my learning has been coupled with Introductory Statistics, an area of research that has long been dominated by a kingdom of white male thinkers, “White guys who are now dead based on studies of White guys who are also now dead” (Capper, 2017, p.15), and in an area of academics where I have watched literally thousands of students of color struggle. As a school leader, every year I marveled at how little progress is being made in students of color reaching grade level standards in mathematics at scale and across various public-school districts. In my principal role I have held countless conversations with students and parents about upper level math classes, lack of access, performance, competency and confidence. Once, I demanded that my assistant principal supervising math instruction integrate our highest math class in the school after observing an all-white advanced math classroom for two semesters in a school that was highly diverse in student ethnicity. The hardest part of following up on that directive was my conversation with the single young Black student we placed in the class, based on our perception of her ability to succeed with supports. One day after school she waited by the school’s office and begin to say to me softly, “I don’t want to be in that class. I’m not smart enough.” I fought back and replied with an affirmation and stated my belief that she had everything she needed to succeed and that we would support her. She lifted her head filled with fuzzy corn rolls, and I noticed the ash from the tears she had been hiding on her coffee brown face, “Mr., I’m not good enough.”

What currently endures most in my continued learning of organizational theory is the idea of ways of knowing and the development of epistemologies connected to ways of knowing (Tabron, 2017). Our critical dialogues in the classroom coupled with Capper’s text have expanded my thinking about organizational theory. My newer understandings include the ideas of lived experiences, underpinning assumptions, systems, values, and the structural functionalism it is connected to in relation to the creation, crafting, and continued shaping of the status quo (or Null Hypothesis!) that exist within educational spaces, policies, and practices. (Tabron)

“Educators taking structural functional epistemologies strive toward efficiency and effectiveness via regulation, and directly apply the principles of natural science to social science (Foster, 1986a; Ritzer, 1980; Skrtic, 1991). Burrell and Morgan (2003) explain: ‘The functionalist approach to social science tends to assume that the social world is composed of relatively concrete empirical artifacts and relationships which can be identified, studied, and measured through approaches derived from the natural sciences’ (p. 26, cited in Capper, 1993, p. 11). These educators believe the world to be measurable, quantifiable, and predictable, as their unitary view of reality posits a steady baseline against which behavior may be compared (Capper & Jamison, 1993a; Popkewitz, 1984).”

(Capper, 37)

This exploration of organizational theory has sharpened my clarity as to the extent in which these elements expand and impact the work of improving outcomes for all stakeholders. My own sense of deep failure, hesitation, and inherent flawed-ness in relation to my Statistics course took me back to the children in the classroom seats, the little Black boys who are often kicked out, removed, and remediated within Math classroom spaces. In my heart I still felt just like the young student who approached me in my principal role years later, and inside I may have replied to the young lady that I am not good enough either.

Return for Part 2 of this article on November 13.


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A leader and catalyst for change in the current educational reform efforts, Nick Dawkin’s two decades of experience in working in schools and communities has given him a deep insight, inspiration, and commitment to the youth in our cities. As an educator and school leader, he has tirelessly worked to close achievement gaps and increase access and equity to experiences that create significant impacts in the lives of our students from various cultures and regions throughout our country. Nick is currently working on his Ed.D. at the University of Denver.