Rising Tides, Sinking Boats – A Focus on Equitable Practices

This article supports the following characteristics from The Successful Middle School: This We Believe:

Educators respect and value young adolescents.
The school environment is welcoming, inclusive, and affirming to all.
Policies and practices are student-centered, unbiased, and fairly implemented.

In a time of unprecedented student diversity, exposure to trauma, and advocacy against inequality, it would behoove members of the education community to employ equitable practices and programs that adequately serve the needs of all students.

While educators are navigating the pandemic, the inequities within various systems are becoming more apparent. Yet, there are still educators who continue to use mantras such as “a rising tide lifts all boats.” I disagree. A rising tide does not lift all boats, especially those boats with chronic, systemic holes in its hull. When we fail to engage in responsive practices to meet the needs of middle level learners, we will never see how well-intended practices and programs can move students further away from cognitive elevation and academic success, and particularly during a global health pandemic.

I invite educators to consider students who do not have figurative boats. Some students have been wrecked by traumatic events that have left them with nothing but wood planks where their boats should be. Rising tides in a one-size-fits-all approach may leave students and teachers to suffer drowning-like conditions when invisible factors are not accounted for.

Educators must do the work to evaluate how bias and systematic oppression cause achievement gaps and fail to address educational debt (Hammond, 2018; Ladson-Billing, 2006). To effectively educate students, the focus should be on equity, which assumes that diversity does exist, and different approaches will have to be utilized for marginalized groups to have a fair chance (Boutte, 2016). Our solutions should not be vested in rising tides, but they should be vested in the effects educational practices have on diverse students’ visible and invisible needs.

Industrialization Does Not Work for Humans

While the concept of industrialization has functioned in agriculture and manufacturing, it has not been so effective in the purview of education, particularly for adolescents who represent a diverse collection of human beings, cultural backgrounds, and life experiences (Cozolino, 2013).

An attempt at industrialization was made during the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era of accountability, which oversimplified the complex factors that have influenced education to date. Testing became the primary goal in place of excluded outcomes such as students’ physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and character development. The assumed solution to closing the achievement gap in schools was to focus on what students should learn versus acknowledging and responding to their various developmental needs (Rimm-Kaufman & Jodl, 2020).

That goes to say, a rising tide of testing and increased documentation of accountability benchmarks would be adequate in supporting all learners in achieving 100 percent proficiency in math and reading content areas, causing schools to focus less on other areas in which students demonstrated their natural intelligences such as arts and social sciences. The projected outcomes of NCLB were absent of the potential, individualized conditions of students’ boats to safely navigate the demands of a more standardized approach.

How did this industrialized approach impact students? In Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey’s (2018) study of more than 140,000 students, they found that only 29 middle and secondary students felt their schools provided a caring, encouraging environment. Consequently, as we transition out of this era of accountability reform, educators are adopting holistic approaches with a focus on best practices.


Powell (2014) offers a provocative inquiry: if the results of efforts do not increase learning, self-awareness, and growth in all areas of development, then why commit to continually doing it? Why continue practices that undermine the intelligences of under-achieving populations? Why unearth data to justify programs that do not serve underrepresented populations?

A more refined understanding of neuroscience interpretations would better position middle level educators to be developmentally responsive to the intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and character challenges that learners are faced with.

Brain Research and Networks

Brain research is revealing that the brain’s processing systems are constantly interacting with both social and physical worlds by analyzing, integrating, and synthesizing information from the world (Sousa, 2006). As we know, learning is largely prompted by social and emotional opportunities for cognitive development. Understanding this presents a viable context to address the social-emotional needs of middle grades learners.

Immordino-Yang, Darling-Hammond, and Krone (2019) present three networks through which the brain coordinates to integrate social, emotional, and cognitive functioning, which allows one to leverage social-emotional learning amidst learning opportunities. Default Mode Network, Executive Control Network, and Salience Network help to conceptualize the biological restraints and affordances to better nurture learning-related constructs. Here is how they work:

  • The Default Mode Network (DMN) posits that attention-demanding tasks such as listening to the teacher’s instructions are suspended when students are focused on concrete tasks or when the learning environment is deemed physically or emotionally unsafe. Many students working to master new concrete tasks will need to isolate their thoughts and focus on new means of interpreting and reflecting on new information.
  • Unlike Default Mode Network, Executive Control Network (ECN) is responsible for blocking irrelevant information and distractions to focus on the completion of goal-directed tasks. In the middle grades, students are still working to master this network as their conversations in group work shift rapidly on and off task due to an excessive need to talk (Lorain, nd).
  • With the emotional implications of learning, the brain’s Salience Network (SN) weighs the relevance and perceived importance and urgency of thinking, which engages emotional responses when activities are personally relevant and emotionally meaningful. The Salience Network is provoked when students are exposed to topics that provoke concern, such as their favorite music, a thought-provoking movie, or an error (Immordino-Yang & Knecht, 2020).

Through environments that sustain flexible attention and productivity, offer reflective support, and leverage emotional relevance, teachers can provide the optimal learning experience that is appropriate for adolescent development.

What do these appropriate learning spaces entail? Supportive learning spaces for adolescents ensure positive adult relationships among teaching teams that can meet the social-emotional needs and allocate available resources to meet students’ needs. These educational settings (our schools and classrooms) help students to develop critical thinking skills through topics that are of interest to them. With healthy feedback and affirmations from trusted adults, students will be able to make necessary adjustments to their work and engage in metacognitive habits.

During puberty, the brain tends to be more vulnerable to the effects of stress and social rejection due to an array of challenges such as foster care, sexual identity, intellectual exceptionalism, body image, poverty, violence, racism, etc. As Immordino-Yang et al. (2019) suggest, we can optimize student development through tailored activities that help students build constructive connections through community involvement, perspective-taking, and making meaning of themselves and their worlds. This approach creates personal agency in adolescents to explore alternative social identities and cultures in a community of diverse learners.

In essence, implementing an effective pedagogical model helps students to accept and affirm their cultural identities while developing their critical perspectives to challenge the inequities in social-political institutions through questioning and seeking answers (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Thus, culture becomes the mechanism to advance brain development.

Culture as a Pathway to Brain Development

What role does culture play in brain development and student learning? As new discoveries are made, the evidence points to culturally responsive teaching and social-emotional learning experiences playing critical roles in the development of the brain and impacting learning (Hammond, 2018; Immordino-Yang et al., 2019). Honoring the culture of students allows educators to recognize experiences that shape how students have interpreted the world around them, how they view themselves in the world, and how to identify meaningful opportunities to capitalize on their learning.

Hammond (2018) and Ladson-Billings (2009) suggest that the goal of culturally responsive learning is to connect to pre-existing learning patterns and make use of the bank of information taken from everyday life. For many, this cannot happen without us, as teachers, acknowledging the differences between our culture and students’ culture. We should, then, make the necessary instructional adjustments once there is recognition of the various intelligences students offer to the learning spaces (Emdin, 2016). Truthfully speaking, we may not always value student culture as teacher perceptions of such may be defined by our own culture. The dissonance that occurs between these paradigms may cause a distortion in student self-images.

Self-concept is the way we see ourselves in the world according to emotions encompassed within the realm of previous experiences (Lee, 2018). In relation to self-images, the brain uses sensory registers and temporary memory systems make use of past experiences to determine if and how new information will be processed. For example, an individual in a new learning situation references previous encounters with information to determine if they will accept or reject new learning (Sousa, 2006). If past experiences produced failure, the sensory registry is likely to block incoming data. The work of educators, thus, is to create a safe environment that supports the frontal lobe (rational system) in overriding emotions that block out new information.

Because the brain is malleable over time, overriding students’ emotions takes time and concerted effort. Results are linked to the quality and duration of interventions as well as appropriateness of activities over time (Jensen, 2009). In response, I have found myself affirming students daily and allowing them to experience small victories to broaden their scope of personal success. In the sentiment of Dr. Rita Pearson, we should celebrate students’ progress and provide affirmations to celebrate the individual qualities that contribute to healthier self-images.

Now What?

With what we currently know about neuroscience findings and middle level learners, it is especially important to organize our efforts in ways that equitably benefit all students. But this understanding of the brain’s networks does not suggest that all students should receive the same accommodations for their growth. It means we employ empathy to understand students individually through establishing trusting relationships and respond by allocating the resources needed to reach a common standard.

We must move in from the shore to gain insight as to how educational programs are impacting students’ academic performance and overall development. Once we recognize oppressive practices, let us commit to doing the work to dismantle what is not working, giving all students the chance to cultivate agency and personal responsibility. To that end, we are pressed to discover ways that better serve students amidst COVID-19 challenges and virtual learning.

In his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (2000) contends that we should transform the structure so students can become beings for themselves. The structures represent the boats and wood planks with which students navigate educational settings. Their ability to stay afloat may be impaired by low expectations, irrelevant curriculum, foster care experiences, physical changes, emotional instability, peer pressure, and damaged self-concepts. But we will never be able to truly serve them until we assess what we are doing and adjust our educational philosophies to include their voices and experiences.


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Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. John Wiley & Sons.

Lee, W. A. (2018). Self-concept is a thing: Exploring Title I middle school teachers’ alignment to self-concept enhancement pedagogy for African American students. Proquest.

Lorain, P. (nd). Brain development in young adolescents: Good news for middle school teachers. National Education Association. http://ftp.arizonaea.org/tools/16653.htm

Powell, S. D. (2014). Introduction to middle level education. Pearson Higher Ed.

Rimm-Kaufman, S. E. & Jodl, J. (2020). Educating the whole child. Educational Leadership, 77(8), 28-34.

Sousa, D. A. (2006). How the brain learns. Corwin Press.

Walter Lee, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of middle level and secondary education at University of South Carolina – Upstate. He has special interest in equitable practices for students of color, culturally influenced instruction, and self-concept development.

Published in AMLE Focus on the Middle, January 2021.