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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 03, 2006

Re: What It Takes to Make a Student
By Paul Tough, New York Times

This was an interesting article, well worth the read.

A couple of things are happening here. First, and at surface level, the author is attempting a defense of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, even though even he admits, near the end of the article, that it will probably fail. He does this by focusing not on the mechanics of the legislation - standardized testing and penalties for 'failing schools' - but rather on the intent: reducing the gap between students from poor and minority households and their contemporaries from white middle class households.

By the measures taken to demonstrate achievement (which are at no point questioned by the author) NCLB is failing. On almost all measures there has been virtually no movement in the gap in achievement (and it is worth noting that, even by this measure, the achievements of students from the two groups have been falling in tandem).

The second, and more interesting, part of the article is the author's examination of how he thinks NCLB can be saved. First, he argues, we need to recognize the value of the objective; we need to move from saying "these kids can't be saved..." to "these kids can be saved only if...". Then the question becomes, what's working?

This is where the study of the different parenting styles between upper income and lower income households becomes significant:
- children of higher income parents are spoken to more frequently
- they hear a larger vocabulary of words
- they hear more encouragements, and fewer discouragements
- their parents are more involved in their lives

The suggestion here is twofold: first, that children of higher income parents get a better foundation for their education, and second, and much more interestingly, they acquire a different set of cultural values than those of poor parents, a set of values that is more valued in society, and it is the having of these values that gives then a significant advantage.

I think there is merit to this observation.

Take smoking and exercising, for example. My observation is that people with higher incomes are much more likely to exercise and stay in shape, and much less likely to smoke. Consequently, a person from a lower income home, even if very well educated, will enter society with these different habits. They will remain in lower class social circles (the smokers congregating outside, rather than the exercisers at the club).

Many cultural mannerisms are a lot more subtle. The story looks at how polite people in the different groups are and how they listen to other people. But the range of phenomena is there for the studying: dress and hair style, eating habits, musical preferences, speaking style and accent, and the more.

"The real advantages that middle-class children gain come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey. However you measure child-rearing, middle-class parents tend to do it differently than poor parents - and the path they follow in turn tends to give their children an array of advantages."

Leaving aside the criticisms of that for the moment, we can see now how the schools singled out by the author apparently succeed. In a word, they are immersive. They occupy much more of a child's time, and they require the child's total attention while they are there. They deal with all aspect of the child's life. They treat learning as immersion into a cultural community as much as (or even more than) the acquisition of a certain set of facts. And they explicitly instruct the children in those aspects of this culture they may have missed in their home life.

Some of these result in almost immediate improvements in outcomes. The 'slant' listening method, for example (sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the speaker). I notice when I speak that this is how people listen to what I'm saying, and I employ these cues to adapt my talk as I go along (interestingly, the style of listening I learned was rather different - "active listening", where you actually restate and echo what was said, was much more to my style, much more immersive, though considered 'disruptive' in a classroom).

A lot of the cultural discipline has to do with work habits, this based on work showing "self-discipline scores were a more accurate predictor of G.P.A. than the I.Q. scores by a factor of two." The trick to 'attitude', of course, is how to get it. The author writes, "Duckworth's paper connects with a new wave of research being done around the country showing that 'non-cognitive' abilities like self-control, adaptability, patience and openness - the kinds of qualities that middle-class parents pass on to their children every day, in all kinds of subtle and indirect ways - have a huge and measurable impact on a child's future success."

A third part of the article looks at how the successes of these schools to tout the benefits of segregated learning and charter schools. "KIPP, Amistad and North Star were embraced by advocates from the right who believed in the whole menu of conservative positions on education: school choice, vouchers, merit pay for teachers." But the more important lesson, he writes, is "the effort that would be required to provide those students with that education."

This is significant. Because in one sense, what these programs show is something we have always known: that if you immerse a child into a culture, they will generally adopt the beliefs and values of that culture. And it follows that if the culture is one that values learning, and behaviours that lead to achievement in learning, then the child will, all other things being equal, learn to achieve in learning.

But, first of all, this is not sustainable. As the article notes, the level of education provided in these schools is much higher, much more intensive, than in traditional schools. Students are in class 60 percent longer, and the instructors work 15 hours a day. This means the students cannot work part time, which excludes the poorest of them. And it will not be possible to require teachers to work such hours (or to pay for the staff to provide an equivalent level of support). Charter schools are premised (in part) on the idea of getting more out of teaching staff but eliminating their unions, but experience is beginning to show that better working conditions, not worse, are required to get the most out of teachers.

Secondly, though, we need to question the wisdom in the long term, and across a wider scale, of what amounts to cultural subversion. The methodology involves what is essentially a separation of the students from their own culture, placing them into a substitute culture. This creates the tension between home and school captured in such films as 'Dangerous Minds'. More, it also carries the connotation that one culture - the white middle class culture - is 'good' while the minority and lower class cultures are 'bad'.

My observation is that in Canada we have taken a different approach to obtain the same outcomes. This approach is characterized in an advertising campaign that ran frequently on all television channels (though the program seems to have ended with the current government). "Babies' brains do not grow by themselves," the announcer says. "You need to help them grow. Talk to your baby. Sing to your baby. Play with your baby." What is significant is that in the background we hear people talking in their own language, singing their own songs. (You can also see the British equivalent online, ).

What this program recognizes is that children are already immersed in a cultural environment, and while there is nothing particularly wrong with that environment, the children need supports that they are not obtaining from their family and social milieu. So, instead of removing the children from their culture entirely, they are attempting to foster the behaviours and attitudes that will lead to improved learning. Instead, in other words, of taking the students to the learning, it takes the learning to the student. And instead of rebuilding a culture from the ground up, it supplements existing cultures.

This is more difficult because it doesn't address the second part of the equation - that society values some cultural traits more than others. For while in some cases this valuation is reasonable and rational - valuing self-control and openness, for example, promotes safe and trusting environments - in other cases - valuing straight over gay, for example, or short hair over long - the valuation creates barriers that exist only for the purpose of exclusion and defense of privilege. Tacitly and passively accepting the valuations made by the dominant culture creates an environment of permanent privilege, for no matter how much a person adapts, they will never be able to 'fit in'.

For this reason, creating an environment that fosters greater achievement by the children of lower income and minority families also involves creating an environment where the values favoured by society as a whole are not cultural values per se but rather values that are culturally neutral. To create, in other words, to foster a common cultural syntax, rather than a common cultural semantics. To, in other words, value certain behaviours, mechanisms and protocols, but to encourage independence and diversity with respect to belief, style and appearance. Where 'cultural syntax' is a description of the mechanisms that enable each other to interact, while 'cultural semantics' describes the mechanisms that give meaning and value to individual cultures.

Cultural syntax, unlike cultural semantics, can be treated as (and thought as) a 'game': "Middle-class Americans know intuitively that 'good behavior' is mostly a game with established rules; the KIPP students seemed to be experiencing the pleasure of being let in on a joke." It is a set of movements and actions that you undertake, a protocol, a process - a game, in other words - but emphatically not an abandonment of cultural value.

What this involves in practice, then, is not the segregation and isolation of children in what amount to 'cultural factories' but rather an understanding of and adaptation of the environments children already inhabit. It involves, in other words, the 'seeding' of these environments with the knowledge, tools and values children need in order to become effective and capable learners.

We have already seen this effort undertaken with significant effect in previous societies. Propaganda and advertising work. That is why propagandists and advertisers spend billions of dollars every year. That is why, in every moment of every day, we are subjected to a barrage of commercial messages. That is why, through the watching of television programs, sporting events and musical presentations each generation acquires a particular set of shared icons and images, a particular vocabulary, a particular ethos. That is why it is even possible for people like Drucker to talk about a 'net generation'. They (or, at least, the white middle class version of 'they') are the product of what we have taught them, through our society and our media.

In order to address the problems of inequality in education, we need to begin by recognizing that learning occurs not merely in the hours in front of a teacher but also in the many more hours spent watching television, playing video games, surfing the internet and inhabiting society generally. And that in order to foster a learning culture it will be necessary to take the learning to where the children are and to seed those environments with exemplars of the values and virtues desired.

This is possible but may in some societies be very difficult. In all societies commercial media more or less predominates, and the messages contained in these media are fashioned in such a way as to promote the consumption of the products and services offered by the sponsors. From time to time good models and good values appear (one thinks of the work of people like Bill Cosby or Henry Winkler) but on the whole this is the exception rather than the rule. It is not necessary to cynically observe sponsors would prefer that their customers remain uneducated, rather merely to observe that public education simply isn't one of the things sponsors think about.

This is not a situation that will be reversed through public policy. The government cannot ordain that the environments of all its children will be converted into environments supportive of a learning culture, with positive role models. Even programs such as 'talk to your kids' and only have a limited effect. Only total control of the media would even make this possible, and the dangers inherent in total media control are now apparent to us all. It will not be possible to 'manage' or 'construct' a pro-learning culture.

What is needed is a constant, persistent and positive reiteration throughout all of media of those practices and values needed in order to foster a learning culture. People need to demonstrate their commitment to learning, and to do so in a public manner, and in such a way that they will be emulated by those who follow. Children - and their parents and communities - need to be encouraged and supported in the development of their own learning cultures and environments. We need to put into the hands of these parents the knowledge and tools that will increase their capacity to teach, and the models they can point to in support of this practice.

There is no quick fix - and that is perhaps the greatest disservice this article does. There will not be a turning around of society in a few years. Not because there is a lack of will, and not because there is a lack of resources, but because the attempt to engineer, rather than grow, a learning culture is fraught with difficulties and dangers the planners cannot imagine. Paul Tough is quick to say academics do not examine schools to see what's going on inside. I have stood inside former residential schools in Canada, however, and taught their former students, and can speak of the damage caused when you attempt to replace one culture with another.

Indoctrination, however much it appears to work in the short term and on a small scale, is not the answer. Empowerment is, and only ever has been.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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