‘Learning Laboratory’ in Northern Wisconsin high school works to reduce racial disparities


The Culturally Responsive Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (CRPBIS) research center at UW–Madison has published a study in the leading journal Race, Ethnicity, and Education, titled “Transformative agency for justice: Addressing racialization of school discipline with the Indigenous Learning Laboratory.”

Aydin Bal and Aaron Bird Bear
Aydin Bal (left) and Aaron Bird Bear

The study was co-authored by UW–Madison’s Aydin Bal, a professor in the School of Education’s Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, and Aaron Bird Bear, UW–Madison’s inaugural tribal relations director and an alumnus of the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.

Dosun Ko (Wichita State University), Annalisa Sannino (Tampere University, Finland), and Yrjö Engeström (University of Helsinki, Finland) are also among the study’s co-authors.

The study focuses on CRPBIS’ implementation of its Learning Laboratory methodology at a high school in northern Wisconsin, to examine and address the racialization of behavioral problems collaboratively with local stakeholders. 

Learning Laboratory is “both a platform and a process,” according to CRPBIS’ website: It “challenges schools and school districts to form a problem-solving team consisting of students, family and community members, and school professionals representing the diverse make-up of the school to participate in an ongoing, collaborative discussion” and engage in a cycle of transformation. 

CRPBIS’ Learning Laboratories aim to democratize schools’ decision-making activities and increase historically marginalized communities’ power over knowledge production and systemic design in educational research and practice. 

The high school in Northern Wisconsin where the study took place serves predominantly white students from 12 townships, as well as students who are bused from a nearby American Indian reservation. Bal explained that the school and community has long experienced tensions between its white settlers and Indigenous community members, as well as racially disproportionate behavioral and academic outcomes.

While American Indians are a minority at the school — making up about 20 percent of students — they accounted for 50-60 percent of suspensions and experienced disparities in other areas, such as academic achievement and graduation rates.

The Indigenous Learning Laboratory implemented at the school was designed to reduce these disparities. By fostering an inclusive problem-solving process through which Indigenous students, parents, community members, and school staff could collectively examine the disproportionality in school discipline, the school community worked together to design a more equitable future for their school. 

Bal described the study as being about how multiple stakeholders, “with different — and often opposing — interests, goals, histories, and desires,” can come together to engage in identifying problems and then solving them collectively.

Through this work, Bal wants to show that it is possible to form and maintain efficient, inclusive decision-making teams in schools. When the school closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those involved in the Learning Laboratory continued to meet and make progress.

“Against all the odds, this group stuck together and designed a new system,” Bal said.

Though the new system is still being implemented — and it will take awhile to see its full impact — it has already made a difference. For one, said Bal, just creating the Indigenous Learning Laboratory has made American Indian students feel more valued and included. And the school is developing classroom-based interventions and resources for teachers to help build bridges and design culturally responsive curricula with American Indian students and the community.

CRPBIS is housed within the School of Education’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Anti-racist and Indigenous Learning Laboratories have been implemented in schools and school districts in Wisconsin, Kansas, Florida, and Indiana in the United States; the Anishinaabe Nation; and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

The study was supported by the School of Education’s Grand Challenges program. Learn more and access the study at Taylor & Francis Online.