Teaching Tolerance Today

In divisive times, a look at how one group pushes back on prejudice, starting early

By Bari Walsh, on May 17, 2017 10:46 AM

When the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) launched its Teaching Tolerance initiative in 1991, the goal was to intervene early to prevent the formation of prejudice — the kind of hate that could fuel the Klan-related crimes the SPLC was fighting.

At the time, the school integration movement seemed in full force, and the project’s work drew on the notion that bringing people together — not expressly to get along, but to engage in meaningful work alongside one another — would allow them to see the world from each other’s perspectives and would break barriers between groups, promoting harmony.

The ideas were grounded in research around contact theory, says Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, in an interview recorded for the Harvard EdCast. “We had a lot of suburban schools that had once been 100 percent white, that were being newly integrated, and the idea was that this was really important in those kinds of places. What we did not know at the time was that 1989 was the peak of school integration in this country, and it has in fact decreased ever since” she says. 

The ensuing 25 years — with a movement away from integration, with tidal waves of school reform, and with growing awareness of inequities in schools and the limitations of contact theory — have seen the scope broaden for Teaching Tolerance. The organization now focuses on "prejudice reduction, intergroup relations, and promoting equitable experiences in our nation’s schools,” Costello says. "In the last year, we’ve begun to reimagine our mission again. We are now thinking that what we really have to do is to educate for a diverse democracy."

The climate of political and cultural divisiveness is making group's practice-related resources feel newly relevant, often essential, and, at times, controversial. "We have heard from so many teachers who are really struggling” to navigate the current climate, Costello says. Among the thousands of teachers responding to two national surveys Teaching Tolerance conducted last year (the first during the 2016 presidential campaign, the next after the election), one was a science teacher who reported teaching a STEM lesson about the importance of having more women and minorities in science. "She said, ‘The next day a parent complained that I was spouting liberal nonsense.' Now that’s a science class — so yes, we’re seeing a lot of hesitation to talk about diversity, to talk about the value of diversity," Costello says.

"We used to get criticized because ‘tolerance' didn’t go far enough,” she continues. "And it seems like now, it’s too much for some folks. I always thought of it as a basic American value."

That's essentially what Teaching Tolerance advises: Educators should talk about tolerance "as a basic American value, talk about it early, talk about it often, and talk about it in a lot of different contexts, so that when the context does seem a little bit political, it’s part of a bigger picture."  Today's best practices? They’re the same as always, Costello says. Among them:

  • Strengthen communication with parents and make sure they are partners in education.
  • Start the year with clear classroom norms, and engage students in creating those norms.
  • Practice dialogue.
  • Work to develop in students the skills and spirit of inquiry.

What are the resources teachers are looking for these days? A lot of it falls into the ‘Oh my God, what just happened in the news, what do I need today?’ category, Costello says. Another key topic: supporting kids from immigrant families. "Educators want to know what the law is, how it’s changing, how they can best address the emotional needs of these kids, and how they can support the families," she says. Digital literacy is another big source of concern.

Teaching Tolerance will engage all of these topics in the coming year. The organization is also launching a racial history project that will result in recommendations about how that history should be incorporated into K–12 curricula. And it’s focusing on civic literacy, too, recognizing "that a diverse democracy not only involves getting along with people, but also having a sense of agency and having a sense that 'I can do something.' So we want to support teachers as they support the development of those skills and dispositions in students."