Ensuring equity in learning through quality, empathetic teaching

Opportunity to Learn  I  Empathy & Expertise  I  References  I  Comments


The notes from the first section come from the following journal article by James Paul Gee:

  • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J.P. Gee, E. Haertel, and L. Young (Eds). Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76-108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The main premise is quite important; that is, we need to be conscious of what teaching and learning practices need to be in place to ensure that all learner have the opportunity and access to learn.


Ensuring One’s Opportunity to Learn (OTL)

“Ensuring that all learners have had equal Opportunity To Learn is both an ethical prerequisite for fair assessment and a solid basis on which to think about educational reforms that will ensure that all children can succeed at school.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 76)

“I will then turn to a more direct consideration of sociocultural perspectives, starting with the relationship between learners and their learning environments ... I will spell out this relationship in terms of the connections between learning and learners’ experiences in the world; how knowledge is distributed across people and their tools; the central importance of people’s participation in shared talk and social practices” (Gee, 2008, pg. 76)

“A traditional way to view knowledge (e.g., Fodor 1975; Newell and Simon 1972; Pylyshyn 1984) is in terms of mental representations stored in the head (“mind/brain”). These representations are the way information from the world is stored and organized in the mind/brain and how it is processed or manipulated. Such a perspective leads to a focus on questions about how information gets into the head, how exactly it is organized in the head, and how it leaves the head when people need to use it.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 77)

“This traditional perspective leads rather naturally to a way of looking at the notion of Opportunity To Learn. Learners have had the same Opportunity To Learn if they have been exposed to the same information (“content”). If they have been exposed to the same content, then, according to this view, they have each had the opportunity to store this information in their heads; that is, to ‘learn it.’ Even in this traditional view, complexities arise. For example, there is the problem of “prior knowledge.” Most learning theorists agree that the representation of something new in someone’s head varies in important ways – important for the material that is learned – on the basis of what is already in the person’s head (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000).” (Gee, 2008, pg. 77)

“New information that cannot be tied to any prior knowledge is not learned well or at all. New information that is well integrated with prior knowledge is more deeply learned than new information that is only superficially integrated with prior knowledge. Thus, even in a traditional view, the notion of Opportunity To Learn would have to consider not just the information to which learners have been exposed, but also what prior knowledge they have brought to the new learning encounter, because this affects the type of learning that takes place or even if any learning occurs at all. Even according to a traditional view, therefore, there is an unavoidable historical dimension to learning and to questions about Opportunity To Learn.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 77)

“A second complexity is what we might call the “power of representation problem.” Some ways of representing information are better for some purposes than for others; some forms of representation are more efficient or effective than others. A list is one way to represent information, but a principle from which each member of the list can be deduced and from which new members of the list can be generated is more powerful for many purposes.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 77)

“Thus, even in the traditional view, learning and Opportunity To Learn cannot just be a matter of the information to which one was exposed. For true and equal Opportunity To Learn, learners must all have the capacity to form the required representations at the required degree of ‘power.’” (Gee, 2008, pg. 78)

“The power-of-representation problem shows that, even in the traditional view, we must consider which tools – in this case, tools in the sense of representational resources – the learner has brought to the learning encounter or picked up there along with information (data, content). This is, of course, a different sort of “prior knowledge” issue, in which the required prior knowledge is knowledge of powerful representational schemes.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 78)

“Thus, learning these domains – and talking about Opportunity To Learn in these domains – is not a matter of mere exposure to information, but also exposure to and practice with the requisite representational means of these domains.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 78)

“[This startss in the early years of a child’s learning.] These home- and community-based ways of building meaning interact with and form the initial base for the child’s new experiences at school and in academic content areas, the experiences with which the child will learn to build school-based models of the world.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 101)

“In any academic domain, the representational resources it uses – the effective ones that learning the domain entails – are not just mental entities stored in experts’ heads. These representational devices are also written down – inscribed – in public ways in terms of words, symbols, graphs, and so forth, on paper, and in machines and various tools the discipline uses. They are also available in the behavior and talk of other people who are experts in the domain.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 79)

“A third complexity that arises, even within the traditional view, is one that we can see clearly if we consider an analogy with language acquisition. Language acquisition theorists have long pointed out that there is an important difference between “input” and “intake” (Corder 1967; Ellis 1997; Gass 1997). Input is data from the language to be learned to which the learner is exposed. If these data are not processed (not paid attention to and used) by the learner, they obviously have no effect. Intake is input that has been processed in ways that can lead to learning about the language to be acquired. With any learning, there is an input/intake problem. Even if learners have been exposed to the same information (data, content) – thus, to the same input –it has not necessarily been intake for all of them.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 79)

“Another important variable discussed in the second-language-acquisition literature that can cause input not to be intake is that a learner resists using input for social, cultural, or emotional reasons – the learner resists learning because of some perceived threat or insult to his or her individual, social, or cultural sense of self. In the second-language-acquisition literature, this matter is sometimes viewed this way: Each learner has an “affective filter” (Dulay, Burt, and Krashen 1982; Krashen 1983). When perceived threat is low, the filter is low and input is allowed to get in the head; that is, to become intake.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 80)

“Proponents of this position attribute the lack of school success experienced by many students of diverse backgrounds to their preference for forms of interaction, language, and thought that may conflict with the mainstream behaviours generally need for success in school (Au & Mason, 1981; Philips, 1972) ... For example, Au and Mason (1981) found that Native Hawaiian students performed poorly in reading lessons, showing a considerable degree of inattentiveness, when teachers conducted these lessons following the rules of conventional classroom recitation. These students paid more attention to reading, discussed more text ideas, and made more logical inferences about the text when their reading lessons were conducted in a culturally responsive manner. In the culturally responsive lessons, the teachers allowed the students to follow the rules for participation much like those in talk story, a common speech event in the Hawaiian community.” (Au, 1998, pg. 302)

“Because the affective filter is tied to social, cultural, and emotional considerations – to learners’ views of themselves and their identities in relation to what is to be learned – such sociocultural and effective considerations arise even in traditional views of knowledge and learning.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 80)

“If we admit the importance of the ability to simulate experiences in order to comprehend oral and written language, we can see the importance of supplying all children in school with the range of necessary experiences with which they can build good and useful simulations for understanding subjects like science ... Not all learners have adequate experiences with concepts like reflection and refraction, atoms and molecules, or force and motion that will allow them to build simulations that can serve for thinking and meaning in science.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 86)

“This is clearly an important issue regarding Opportunity To Learn. If some children have had experiences through which they can build and manipulate appropriate simulations in a domain and others have only interacted with oral and written words, the latter have only general and verbal understandings; they cannot assign the richer and more useful meanings to words and texts that the former can.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 86)

“A situated/sociocultural viewpoint looks at ... knowledge and learning in terms of a relationship between an individual with both a mind and a body and an environment in which the individual thinks, feels, acts, and interacts. Both the body and the environment tend to be backgrounded in traditional views of knowledge and learning.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 81)

“Any environment in which an individual finds him or herself is filled with affordances. The term “affordance” (coined by Gibson 1977, 1979; see also Norman 1988) is used to describe the perceived action possibilities posed by objects or features in the environment.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 81)

“Of course, an affordance does not exist for an individual who cannot perceive its presence. Even when an affordance is recognized, however, a human actor must also have the capacity to transform the affordance into an actual and effective action. Effectivities are the set of capacities for action that the individual has for transforming affordances into action. An effectivity means that a person can take advantage of what is offered by the objects or features in the environment.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 81)

“When learners must generate knowledge as part and parcel of social practice, they must use more powerful representational systems in their heads and on paper – the sorts of representations that yield new results and do not just store already-provided information. However, to produce such knowledge, learners must be given both the authority for and the resources with which to build knowledge (tools and interactions with masters and more expert peers). In turn, placing participation in talk and other social practices at the center of learning allows us to investigate the affordances and constraints of different forms of participation, a crucial question that hardly arises in the traditional view. To the extent that different forms of talk and social interaction lead to different affordances and constraints for different learners, we confront, once again, a key concern for thinking about equitable opportunities to learn.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 94)

“Of course, other people (experts and peers) are one special category of “objects” in learners’ environments. Different people with different sorts of knowledge and skills afford different learners quite distinctive possibilities of action through talk and shared practices, provided that learners can effect the transformation of these resources into fruitful action and interaction.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 82)

“According to this perspective, learners have not had the same Opportunity To Learn just because they have been exposed to the same information or content. The learning and assessment environment must afford them similar capacities of action. A learner for whom certain objects, people, or features of the environment are not affordances, either because the learner cannot perceive their possibilities” (Gee, 2008, pg. 82)

“Yet environment is a complex term in this context. For human beings, the material world and our bodies are part of our environment; human-made tools and artifacts are part of our environment; and other people and their actions and talk are part of our environment.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 82)


Empathy and expertise in teaching practice  (back to top)

Effective teaching requires:

I. Empathy

  1. Begin by understanding the student(s)
  2. Understand the individual and group needs and expectations 
  3. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of student(s)
  4. Respect the knowledge, skills and “positive” values of the student(s)
  5. Understand the abilities and special characteristics (eg learning styles or learning difficulties) of the student(s)
  6. Balance individual and group needs with the external pressures (eg social expectations, graduation requirements) on the student(s)
  7. Balance learning with the internal pressures and limitations (both individual and group) of the student(s)

II. Expertise

  1. Education must be based on sound cognitive, social and cultural knowledge
  2. Education must be developmentally sensitive
  3. Education should be within the cognitive and behavioural capacity of the student(s)
  4. Education should not arbitrarily impose itself on the student(s) that may be deemed personally, socially or culturally insensitive, irrelevant or inappropriate
  5. To understand the student(s) one must understand the development of individuals and group dynamics within a wide spectrum of society
  6. Attempts to rectify individual or group problems or issues should be informed by sound psychological, social and cultural knowledge
  7. One must be sensitive to the role/relationship fulfilled by a teacher to student(s) in psychological, social, cultural, legal and political factors

III. Motivation and engagement

  1. The education must be relevant, appropriate and realistic
  2. The students need to comprehend the purpose of tasks
  3. Students need to see how the tasks fit into a whole
  4. The “whole” should be developmental and bring a sense of closure to learning
  5. Tasks need to be sensitive to the students’ world and/or expectations
  6. Students need to see and partake in the relevance and purpose of learning

IV. Perspective of control

  1. Education is not merely a matter of “doing stuff” or “doing school” but of exploration and understanding
  2. A student is his/her own teacher with own principles, habits and pedagogy 
  3. Education and learning does not only happen within a school and with teachers
  4. Exercises in thinking can be completed through discussion and exploration, qualities which can be diminished by the school and social pressures of being “productive”
  5. Being productive is being productive, not being intelligence, however productivity is a key to academic and social success
  6. Being measured by quality and quantity of output, and possibly not in terms of learning.

V. Organisation of learning

  1. Thoroughly explain and guide students through required skills
  2. Each skills must be explicitly taught and practised
  3. Learning should be divided into key stages:
    • Remembering
    • Understanding
    • Applying
    • Analysing
    • Evaluating
    • Creating
  1. Knowledge to be learnt and thought about can be organised into the following types:
    • Factual knowledge
    • Conceptual knowledge
    • Procedural knowledge
    • Metacognitive knowledge
  1. Teaching and learning should be paced and structured carefully for optimal learning according to knowledge of social and psychological development 
  2. No skill should be assumed natural

VI. Philosophy of education

  1. Reflect on the contextual, historical, epistemological and ontological nature of educational policies and practices

How can the above be achieved? One area is not any less essential than another when considering an educational direction. Like an airplane pilot, a teacher needs to be aware of many aspects of performance at any one time. 


  • Key words (needs, expectations, strengths, weaknesses, knowledge, skills, values, abilities, characteristics, external pressures, internal pressures)

One needs data, as a pilot needs the data from his or her instruments, to guide conclusions and to gauge direction. For example, drawing conclusions on “need” and “expectation” must arise from strong sources of information. Furthermore, conclusions on “pressures” must also be derived from good information and thinking through all possible explanations of such information, including conclusions drawn from contextual knowledge.  


  • Key words (cognitive, social, cultural, developmentally sensitive, behavioural capacity, insensitive, irrelevant, inappropriate, development of individual, group dynamics, rectify individual or group problems or issues, role/relationship, legal  and political facts)

The ever-expanding and ever-important process of research is to inform conclusions, decisions, and direction in the work of the teacher. This will be derived from understanding, application and evaluation of key concepts. Ideally, this contributes toward the creation of an educational perspective that can inform others. 


  1. What strategies do teachers use to illustrate and demonstrate the respective relevance of new and diverse discourse and knowledge practices in and across classrooms while also building from students’ previous language and knowledge experiences?
  2. What cultural, contextual, personal and interpersonal factors impact student engagement in literacy practices?

The [student] as a novice is continually attempting to make sense of new situations and to acquire the skills necessary to function in those situations. The teacher’s role is to help the [student] by arranging tasks and activities in such a way that they are easily accessible. Intersubjectivity, shared understanding based on common area of focus is seen by adherents of literacy engagement as a crucial prerequisite for successful communication between teacher and [student] (Verhoeven and Snow, 2001, pp. 5).


References  (back to top)

    • Au, K. (1998). Social constructivism and the school literacy learning of students of diverse backgrounds. Journal of Literacy Research, 30 (2), 297-319.
    • Au, K. & Mason, J. (1981) Social organisational factors in learning to read: the balance of rights hypothesis. Reading Research Quarterly. 17, pg 115 - 152.
    • Bransford, J., A. L. Brown, and R. R. Cocking. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
    • Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learners’ errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics 5: 160–70.
    • Dulay, H., M. Burt and S. Krashen. (1982). Language two. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Ellis, R. (1997). Second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Fodor, J. A. (1975). The language of thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
    • Gass, S. M. (1997). Input, interaction, and the second language learner. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
    • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J.P. Gee, E. Haertel, and L. Young (Eds). Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76-108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Gibson, J. J. (1977). The theory of affordances. In Perceiving, acting, and knowing: Toward an ecological psychology, edited by R. Shaw and J. Bransford, 67–82. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
    • Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
    • Krashen, S. D. (1983). Principles and practices in second language acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
    • Newell, A. and H. A. Simon (1972). Human problem solving. New York: Prentice-Hall.
    • Norman, D. A. (1988). The design of everyday things. New York: Basic Books.
    • Philips, S. (1972). Participant structures and communicative competence: Warm Springs children in community and classroom. In C. Cazden, V. John, & D. Hymes (Eds), Functions of language in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
    • Pylyshyn, Z. 1984. Computation and cognition. Cambridge: MIT Press.
    • Verhoeven, L. and Snow, C. (2001). Literacy and motivation: bridging cognitive and sociocultural viewpoints. In Verhoeven, L. and Snow, C. (Eds.), Literacy and motivation: reading engagement in individuals and groups (pp. 1- 22). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.