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The Common Ground Defense of Critical Race Theory...

(and Formalism, Structuralism/Post-Structuralism, Modernism/Post-Modernism, Feminism, New Historicism, Marxism, Post-Colonialism, Gender Studies, Queer Theory, etc…)

I work closely with in-service teachers in what I call CRE (Culturally Responsive Education) Residencies and Design Studios. It’s a job-embedded professional development space where we seek out the intersections of theory and practice. It’s not exactly coaching though there is an aspect of that, of course. I think of it as a thought-partnership. I’m clear that I learn as much (or more) than the residency participants; but to be sure, our growth, mine and the participating educators, is tied together. These are not intended to be sit-and-get experiences that focus exclusively on specialistic, technical assistance. To thought-partner means to agree to a period of co-contemplation. We rely on social learning and the sharing of experience and insights from every person in the space to maximize the learning opportunities for all… kinda like what we hope for in a culturally responsive classroom.

I begin each residency with some version of the same meditation. I display a timer and ask for all participants to reflect in journaling on what they intend to gain from this professional development (PD) on Culturally Responsive Education. I join the group in the exercise, and we all ask ourselves: Why am I here?

I get many thoughtful responses. Most teachers want to improve their teaching, to raise the quality and effectiveness of the instructional environment. It’s a vulnerable position to be in… especially when you care a lot about your craft. We want to be able to see better, to read the classrooms in which we teach in such a way that we can regularly capture our students’ attention by inviting their interests, their assets, and their stories—their whole-self engagement.  

I hope to set the expectations for the residency by expressing my own intentions. My job is to be helpful, and that’s why I’m here; and to be helpful is something different than being right. My task as the facilitator in these PD spaces is to cultivate a common ground, a platform through which all participants can share in the collective understanding of our primary task—which is, to present fair and meaningful opportunities for students to learn.

The Work of Equity and CRE

The word Equity embodies the belief that we will see achievement in all student groups when all students receive opportunities that they are able to perceive as meaningful and that allow them to draw on their social and cultural literacies in order to be academically successful (Stembridge, p. 5). The purpose of culturally responsive education is to create equitable opportunities for students to learn.

The CRE Residency model is intended to support critical habits of mind that lend to the design of culturally responsive learning experiences. It’s an exercise of the integration of beliefs into the structures of practice (which is another way one might define craft). Brilliant teaching is much more than following some scripted algorithm. It’s the alignment of our core beliefs about fairness and opportunity with the day-to-day, moment-to-moment choices made by school professionals.

I think it’s useful to cast a wide net in the search for tools and insights that can serve the purpose of providing fair and meaningful learning opportunities. It’s important that we are asking the right questions—inelegant though they may be. In the work of Equity in education, Critical Race Theory (CRT) is one tool among many that can be used to support the kind of deliberation necessary for such insights. Much like Formalism, or Feminism, Queer Theory, or any analytical device, CRT is a tool that enables critical thinking, close readings, and better understandings of literature and situations through thoughtful investigations and the uncovering of contextual insights. These are lenses that expand our capacity for understanding the human experience. 

At its essence, CRT is intended to isolate race and racism as featured variables in any analysis. I have witnessed where CRT provides an illuminating vantage point through counter storytelling and critiques of the racial status quo. I have also seen instances where CRT and other analytical devices are misrepresented and even weaponized in bad-faith arguments that fail to honor the integrity of the tools in question. I don’t believe, however, that to be sufficient justification for the over-policing of conceptual entry points that can broaden our shared bandwidth for understanding. My argument here is that CRT and other analytical devices are tools that can be helpful in building the common ground necessary for Equity work in education; and further, to restrict perspective is contradictory to the goals of culturally responsive pedagogy.

The Search for Common Ground

CRE Residencies offer both technical assistance and a kind of revival for teachers at various stages of their career. The growth available to any particular educator in any professional development space is more-or-less possible given the capacity for finding the common ground, the intersections of one’s craft with the work of Equity. But what exactly do we mean by common ground? Most would probably define common ground as shared understandings, ways of seeing the world that overlap with others’ views. It’s a foundation for all sorts of collaborations and interactions.

The philosopher Olufemi Taiwo emphasizes that we can also describe common ground as a resource—the resource of “public information,” the things we treat as true together. We use public information to do everything that we do together in any social context (Táíwò, p. 63).

Another philosopher, Robert Stalnaker, stresses the significance of beliefs within the infrastructure of the common ground:

“In the simple picture, the common ground is just common or mutual belief, and what a speaker presupposes is what they believe to be common or mutual belief. The common beliefs of the parties to a conversation are the beliefs they share, and that they recognize that they share: a proposition X is a common belief of a group if and only if all in the group believe that X, all believe that all believe it, all believe that all believe that all believe it, etc.” (Stalnaker, 2002)

Understood this way, common ground in the CRE Residency and Design Studio spaces is the shared property of the group. Our Equity work is the effort to clarify our beliefs about fairness, about opportunity, so that our pedagogy is a reflection of our intentions. Our common ground is the public information that we build and rebuild with words and deeds through attention to our social context, the “common beliefs” or mutual beliefs — not just things that I know that you know, but things that I-know-that-you-know, you-know-that-I-know, and so on (Taiwo, p. 44). 

The purpose of our professional development is to build useful insights into the practice of teachers through the appeal to their experience. In the CRE residencies, I argue that it’s important to be vulnerable in the pursuit of common ground. To be vulnerable means that we have to risk something. Maybe we have to risk revealing that we don’t have all the answers. But the common-ground building process can be fraught with challenges, errant presuppositions, and potential conflict. Can we accept a new idea that challenges our previous perspective?  Can we extend empathy to expand our point of view? Can we effort to see ourselves and our world through the lens of another? These are more than trivial gestures. Each furthers to incorporate the relevant public information into our shared sense of the common.

It’s also true that our interactions in PD spaces are affected by the external and internal influences of power, points of emphasis, and the legislative environment of the systems in which we team. This is yet another reason for us to be carefully attentive to the common ground because without it, we may lose sight of the questions that matter most to us. The common ground is a living entity made up of perspective and experience which means that we have agency and the responsibility to level-set the shared premises on which our growth and understandings are established. And from the perspective of Equity, we would rather be open and inclusive than closed and narrow. 

There is a classic thought-experiment which I can use to illustrate the limitations imposed by a narrow conceptual lens. Let’s imagine some scenario in which one person (teacher A) asserts and enforces some constraint as a condition of conversation—say, in this instance, that there can be no mention of or reference to rain by a second person, teacher B. What implications does that have for the conversation? 
The refusal by teacher A to acknowledge rain in any way is more than just a semantic inconvenience for their conversation partner. It alters the material and conceptual landscape for co-contemplation. Under these restrictions, teacher B isn’t able to discuss any forecasts of rain, the traffic delays caused by rainy road conditions, any instances of flooding caused by rain, or even the purchase of an umbrella or rain wear. And we could never ask any inelegant questions about the rain—questions like: “Why would you want to rain on their parade?”  or other questions like, “How have the schools in the lowest income and predominantly Black communities in New Orleans  been resourced following the regional trauma of Hurricane Katrina?” Under these conditions for communication, teacher B’s experience of the rain, however direct or abstract, is ineligible to contribute to shared understandings. Thus, the common ground is neither an as-effective-as-it-could-be, nor equal, nor an equitable public resource—at least not so much as rain is concerned (Táíwò, pp. 47-48). 

If we were to replay this thought-experiment, except this time ruling out the mention of or reference to race instead of rain, we can begin to see how limiting this constraint may seem to someone who sees race (or rain) as relevant in the understanding of the human experience.

What does this require of us?

Common ground is most possible when we’re intentional and attentive to sharing trust, respect, and authority—for the good of the growth of everyone sharing the space. These aren’t merely empty statements; rather they are to be embedded in the structures of professional development. Common ground is necessary for the thought-partnership we hope for in the CRE Residencies, the kind that benefits all learners in deepened awareness of ourselves as practitioners, our students as learners, and our craft as a living, viable instrument of our intentions.

The whole point of the CRE Residencies is not just to affect hearts and minds, but to affect the common ground—to produce an effect upon what information is useful to perform the work of Equity (Táíwò, p. 54). If we are willing to deny the mention of CRT for fear or disdain of the reference of race, we are catering to an inequitable status quo. We are shrinking the common ground without concern for the task at hand.

In professional development, we clarify and revise the common ground.  We are intentional about how we co-construct the social context and our sense of purpose for teaching itself. I argue that this means that we embrace the vulnerabilities incurred in the co-contemplation of building common ground. In fact—in terms of professional development—I would argue that to be the most important reason for why we are here.


Works Referenced:

Stalnaker, R. (2002). Common ground. Linguistics and philosophy, 25(5/6), 701-721.

Stembridge, A. (2020). Culturally responsive education in the classroom: An equity framework for pedagogy. Routledge.

Stembridge, A. (2023). Brilliant Teaching: Using Culture and Artful Thinking to Close Equity Gaps. John Wiley & Sons.

Táíwò, O. O. (2022). Elite capture: How the powerful took over identity politics (and everything else). Haymarket Books.



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