Books | Winter 2012


We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know

We Can't Teach What We Don't Know

By Christopher Smucker, SPU Sophomore


We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools
Gary R. Howard
Teachers College Press (1999), 160 pages


“What I want to know is why are they sending these kids to our school?” asked a Texas educator in a seminar on multicultural education. As someone interested in teaching children as a way to diminish the opportunity gap, I was taken aback by this senior educator’s challenge to integration. Although our nation has moved beyond the Jim Crow era, racial issues continue to impact America’s schools.


Part of my freshmen curriculum in the School of Education at Seattle Pacific University involves studying diversity in the classroom with professors Jorge Preciado and Max Hunter. This fall, I began to learn how racial difference in the classroom posed challenges to white teachers. Gary Howard’s book, We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know, showed me I need to take diversity in the classroom seriously.


Howard claims that his goal is to help white people understand the problem of diversity. To start the book, he gives a brief background of how his life had been drawn to the issue of race. He, like many of SPU School of Education students, grew up in a predominantly white, upper-class area. His only experience with someone of diversity was a blind date with an African-American student in high school. He then attended Yale University, where he worked with African-American kids in an impoverished area.


Teaching these children led to his feeling called to bring more understanding where confusion prevails around issues of race.


Acknowledging roles, contributing to transformation
According to Howard, white Americans need to own up to their role in America’s racial conflicts and tensions. In fact, he adds, whites have contributed to the current social context. Thus, we cannot just wait around for change in this area; we must contribute to social transformation.


Beyond recognizing our role in racial strife, teachers have to validate cultural difference. As educators, he points out, we need to understand that all students are not the same. And we need to abandon the “colorblind perspective” that leads us to believe ignoring the differences in race will solve the problem of racism. In fact, in EDU 2300 with Preciado and Hunter, I learned that “colorblindness” leads to disparities in performance and school discipline.

White Society: Culture and Customs

White society today, argues Howard, has trouble realizing that it has its own culture and customs. We struggle with this and get uncomfortable when topics such as white privilege are discussed in the classroom. Howard argues that one way to take on racism is to first find out what is white society’s identity, adding that whites must participate three ways to help solve this problem:

  • The first step involves "acknowledging the reality of white racism in its individual, institutional, and cultural manifestations.”
  • Then, educators must abandon “racism and engaging in active resistance to its many forms.”
  • And teachers must develop “a positive, non-racist, and authentic connection to White racial and cultural identity” (pg. 92).

I find Howard’s emphasis on white culture interesting. Usually the suggested solutions involve the diverse cultures; Howard’s strategy is to focus the solution on the white people.

Achievement Triangle

Finally, in We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know, the author stresses that, as educators, we must solve the problem of race in the classroom. The achievement gap is a true crisis in education. The success of Asian and white students is far greater than those of other diverse backgrounds such as African-Americans or Hispanics. Howard’s solution is what he calls “The Achievement Triangle.”


The three sides of the triangle — knowing my practice, knowing myself, knowing my students — become the base for succeeding as a teacher, he explains. About “knowing my practice,” Howard argues that students in diverse areas are usually taught by under-qualified teachers. But they and other teachers need to be taught and informed about race and use that knowledge in lesson planning.


Self-knowledge is important, he writes, because if we do not know ourselves, we may not realize when we’re doing something white-culture specific — and doesn’t apply to other races or ethnicities.


“Knowing my students” is important because if we do not know where the students come from, how can we expect to teach them? “We must know their cultures, racial identities, languages, family backgrounds, home situations, learning characteristics, economic status, personalities, and strengths of all students,” he writes.


To extend the achievement triangle, Howard puts doorways at each corner. Between “knowing my students” and “knowing myself,” he adds the doorway of relationship. Between “knowing my students” and “knowing my practice” there is the doorway of responsiveness; between “knowing my practice” and “knowing myself” there is rigor.

Lessons Learned

This book opened my eyes to the problem of multicultural education. Howard’s lessons are essential to future teachers, and even while reading this book for class, I was suggesting it to fellow education majors.


Howard’s ideas excited me, as I consider the opportunities I’ll have to impact the lives of my students. Along with being highly informative this book was also highly motivational. In my future I am truly going to try to use the achievement triangle to mandate the type of teacher I want to be. To master the triangle, to me, shows what a well-rounded teacher should be. I will be there academically, as well as emotionally. And even if I teach in an area with little or no diversity, I feel Howard’s ideas are a great teaching style for countering any social inequities.


Christopher SmuckerChristopher Smucker is a sophomore at Seattle Pacific from Canby, Oregon. He is majoring in mathematics, with an endorsement in secondary education.




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