Teaching With Equity:
A Science Informed Practical Approach

So, you would like to incorporate equity into your teaching, but what does it mean to be teaching with equity?

Can you tell if you are doing it in the moment, or do you have to wait until you get back some test scores and grades?

This is an arena in which there are diverse experts making tons of suggestions. 

So, first of all, if you don’t rely on a sufficiently clear definition of equity you will waste time and effort.

You’ve heard suggestions before, hopefully a few definitions, as well.

Does the definition in your head clearly point you a direction where, if you could collect the right data it would unambiguously tell you whether or not you are teaching with equity?

I have yet to hear anyone else offer a definition that is that clear, so I offer one to you in this video. 

Scientifically Valid Equity Measure (not mentioned in the video): Classroom Climate Formative Assessment Tool 

The support resources for the Climate Tool linked to above includes more up-to-date recommendations for supporting needs than the PDF promised in the video.

Click here for the PDF promised in the video (300k).

Equity Definition for Teaching

My name is Don Berg. 

In this video I will share with you a new definition of equity that is clear enough to help you refine your teaching practice. 

Near the end I will tell you where to find a list of a couple dozen specific behaviors that you can rely on to achieve equity in your teaching practice. 

Without appropriate support from your principal and district you might not be able to collect the kind of scientifically valid data that you need to be 100% sure that you are succeeding, but that list of behaviors gives you solid tactics that you can be confident will get you there nonetheless. 

They will get you there because they are all derived from the scientific literature on needs. 

Based on the consensus definition of equity recently put out by the National Academies of Science I define a four-step pathway to equity as follows:

One- Define needs scientifically,

Two- Distribute resources fairly to satisfy needs,

Three- Remove structural barriers to need satisfaction, and 

Four- Satisfy needs with parity across groups. 

My definition of equity is embedded in numbers two, three, and four, and you might have caught on that needs are really important.

Science of Needs

Looking at that first step, what does it mean to define needs scientifically?

Well, it turns out that there is a group of psychologists that have been doing careful research for decades that delve into the most excruciatingly precise details of what needs are and how they work. 

That research community is organized around Self-Determination Theory.

I won’t go into the details, but they have been at it since the 1970’s and the community is growing by leaps and bounds. 

Self-Determination Theory has the most robustly supported scientific models of motivation and engagement.

In my view of that body of research there are four key types of needs; primary, secondary, particular, and derivative. 

The primary and secondary needs are universal to all humans while the particular needs are specific to individuals, groups, or situations. 

Derivative needs are what you arrive at if you mix and match all the other needs. 

You can think about it like an alphabet, where the needs are the letters. 

Let’s start with the first step towards equity: the scientific definition of needs.

You will notice that there are three primary psychological needs that may not be as well known as the other five primary needs. 

Supporting those needs is the most basic building block of teaching with equity. 

So in order for you to practice equity in your teaching, you will need to have a list of behaviors that are scientifically proven to support those needs.

On my webpage for this video I have a link to a PDF that provides that list for you. 


You will notice that the list has two names; basic memetic engineering and educational hygiene.

Let’s talk hygiene.

Back in the mid-1800’s society was navigating epidemic diseases using the idea that bad smells, called miasma, were causing those diseases. 

This included related ideas about the necessity of balancing “humours” in the body, which were conceived of as “vapors” inside the body instead of outside of it. 

If your internal “vapors” became unbalanced then you were susceptible to the infiltration of the toxic miasmatic “vapors” from outside. 

These ideas led to tragically disastrous medical strategies such as universally applying bleeding, cupping, and purging as “humour balancing” treatments for nearly any disease.

In public health it led to the Water Board of London in 1848 ordering raw sewage to be dumped into the Thames River which was the drinking water source for over two-thirds of the city. 

From our modern perspective we can see that miasma theory was a major source of medical and public health errors. 

Medical practices were horrifically ineffective back in the 1800’s. 

It was significantly safer to have babies or set broken bones at home rather than risk a visit to the local infirmary, due to the odds of becoming infected simply by being treated by a doctor. 

Most important to my point is that there was scientifically credible evidence that certain hygiene practices could significantly cut those errors down. 

As early as the 1840’s Doctor Ignaz Semmelwiess had solid data proving that postpartum maternal deaths at his teaching hospital were cut in half or more by the simple hygienic practice of handwashing. 

I turn now to the book Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Daniel Kahneman, Oliver Sibony, & Cass Sunstein to elaborate on hygiene and what it means:


When you wash your hands, you may not know precisely which germ you are avoiding—you just know that handwashing is good prevention for a variety of germs (especially but not only during a pandemic). … 

Hygiene measures can be tedious. 

Their benefits are not directly visible; you might never know what problem they prevented from occurring. 

Conversely, when problems do arise, they may not be traceable to a specific breakdown in hygiene observance. 

For these reasons, handwashing compliance is difficult to enforce, even among health-care professionals, who are well aware of its importance.

End quote

Medical hygiene is not about the skillful use of the treatments that doctors only become qualified to provide after many years of study. 

Everyone in the medical context, including the nurse, the administrator, and the janitor, needs to shape their behavior to conform to hygienic practices in order for medical institutions to be as effective as we expect them to be and enable medical interventions to have the best chance of success.  

Educational Hygiene

We need an equivalent in schools; we need educational hygiene. 

The majority of the errors that schools make are at least partly attributable to the effects of DE-motivation and DIS-engagement. 

The biases that are at the top of most people’s minds these days (race, gender, disability, etc.) are concerning because, when they don’t remove a student from learning opportunities altogether, they result in demotivation and disengagement from learning. 

When they are demotivated or disengaged, even if the children are physically present for the lesson, their learning will be shallow, at best.

Shallow learning is not acceptable in today’s complex world.

The most thoroughly supported model of human motivation and engagement in the world today is Self-Determination Theory, as I mentioned before. 

From this perspective we know that psychological well-being, motivation, and engagement are the result of the satisfaction of the primary human psychological needs for relatedness, autonomy, and competence. 

Educational hygiene, therefore, consists of practices that better support primary needs. 

Educational hygiene is not about the skillful use of instructional techniques that teachers only become qualified to provide after many years of study. 

Everyone in the educational context, including the student, the teacher, the administrator, the janitor, etc., needs to shape their behavior to conform to hygienic practices in order for educational institutions to be as effective as we expect them to be and enable educational interventions to have the best chance of success.

I will now paraphrase Kahneman et al. by adapting their statements to the context of educational hygiene: 

Just like handwashing, and other forms of prevention, [educational] hygiene is invaluable but thankless. 

Correcting a well identified bias [such as race, gender, disability, etc.] may at least give you a tangible sense of achieving something. 

But the procedures that [systematically support primary needs may] not. 

They will … prevent [demotivation and disengagement to some degree.] 

Yet you will never know when [or how.] 

[Demotivation and disengagement are] invisible enem[ies], and preventing the assault of … invisible enem[ies] can yield only an invisible victory.

Handwashing does not prevent all diseases. 

Likewise, [educational] hygiene will not prevent all [demotivation and disengagement.] 

It will not make every [student] brilliant.

But like handwashing, it addresses an invisible yet pervasive and damaging problem. 

Wherever there is [a situation that meaningfully challenges a student], there is [the possibility of demotivation and disengagement], and [I, Don Berg,] propose [educational] hygiene as a tool to reduce it. 

End paraphrase.

A Reliable Path to Teaching With Equity

When you apply the list of behaviors that support primary psychological needs to your teaching practice you will be starting down a more reliable path to equity than any other. 

I am confident that this path is more reliable because it was developed from decades of scientific research showing that need-supportive behaviors provide benefits to every student, regardless of their personal, cultural, or situational circumstances. 

Practicing educational hygiene is similar to medical hygiene, in that it is merely a starting point.

In the same way that the medical community creates the best possible STARTING POINT for treatment by applying medical hygiene practices, when you practice educational hygiene you still have to follow up with the application of instructional expertise.

Academic “Needs?”

Having done quite a bit of research on how equity is presented online in preparation for this and several of my other videos, I noticed that in education there is a tendency to use the phrase “academic needs.”

As a psychologist who has specialized in needs, the phrase seems like it could present a problem if we do not put it into the proper context of how needs really work. 

Remember the four types of needs: primary, secondary, particular, and derivative.

Right off the bat, academics cannot possibly be a primary nor secondary need.

There have been too many humans who have achieved well-being without those skills.

That leaves the question of whether or not it rises to the level of a need at all.

And if it does rise to the level of a need, is it particular or derivative?

In order to rise to the level of a need the satisfaction and thwarting of it must have some impact on well-being. 

While I have not made a formal study of the topic, I am pretty sure that most people would concede that the impact of having solid academic skills in the complex technological society we live in today is positively correlated with the achievement of well-being. 

It is not clear exactly what the ultimate cause of that correlation is but academics seem to have some impact on well-being.

So, conceding the possibility that the phrase “academic needs” might be a legitimate application of the term “needs,” the question becomes whether they are a particular or derivative need.

Making this particular distinction will require further research because I am not sure whether particular needs are a distinct category from derivative needs or a subset of them.

The idea that particular needs are a subset would entail figuring out whether the well-being impacts of using academic skills are completely accounted for by the primary and secondary needs.

If the use of academic skills are merely the fulfillment of those already established needs, then it is derivative and particular needs may be a subset. 

On the other hand, if there is some portion of well-being that cannot be accounted for by the established need categories, then particular needs are a distinct category from derivative needs, not a subset.

In any case, you can focus on supporting primary needs in order to ensure that you are teaching with equity.

Teaching With Equity is Catalytic

The result of effectively and consistently teaching with equity is that your pedagogy automatically becomes catalytic. 

Being an educational catalyst means that you have become an effective facilitator of deeper learning in students.

And there is a specific set of school or classroom climate data that can be collected in order to prove that your pedagogy has become catalytic. 

But that topic is beyond this video.

You can find out more about creating a Catalytic Pedagogy at HolisticEquity.org.

Remember that list I promised, you will find a link to the PDF file at HolisticEquity.org/teaching-with-equity.html.

The link is just below this video.

Thanks for watching. 

This article was printed from HolisticEquity.com

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