Monday, November 27, 2006

What It Takes to Make a Student...Part II

I’ve been teaching for 38 years now. If you were to ask me to name off the top of my head the five, or the ten, or the fifteen best students I have had the chance to work with, pretty much all of the names would be female. I’ve often wondered why that is. Some small proportion of it probably has to do with sexual politics: I would assume that at some preverbal, perhaps Oedipal level women teachers might be expected to do better with male students and male teachers do better with female students. I’ve noticed that male students in male-taught classrooms—not just my own— tend to opt either in favor of a breezy camaraderie or a kind of calculated withdrawal into the cocoon of cool, neither of which is going to give them much credibility as a student. But I don’t think it’s only that, and it’s certainly not only me. There have been rafts of books published in the last few years about the achievement gap between girls and boys, and experts like Michael Thompson now earn a very good living trying to explain what is going on inside the heads of our young men, most of whom feel uncomfortable at best in the role of student.

A few years ago a colleague showed me an article which described the frustrations of a group of university professors working with low-achieving students in an after-school setting. Using computer-assisted programmed instruction, they were able to significantly raise the students’ performance on standardized tests given in the lab.

But the professors were surprised to learn that these advances did not carry over into the classroom. So they decided to go to school and see what the problem was.

"With few exceptions our students acted like dummies," they noted, "even though we knew they were ahead of the rest in knowledge. They were so used to playing the class idiot that they didn't know how to show what they knew. Their eyes wandered they appeared absent-minded or even belligerent. One or two read magazines hidden under their desks thinking most likely that they already knew the classwork. They rarely volunteered and often had to have questions repeated because they weren't listening. Teachers on the other hand did not trust our laboratory results. Nobody was going to tell them that "miracles" could work on Sammy and Jose."

They began to work with their students on a limited set of interactive strategies that included looking the teacher in the eye, raising their hands, and asking questions. And, after some initial skepticism on the part of both teachers and students, their grades began to improve.

In the article referenced in yesterday’s post, Paul Tough talks about KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program) and Achievement First, programs which are trying to help struggling students succeed. But, as the researchers above noted, success has behavioral as well as academic components. Paul Tough writes:

Students at both KIPP and Achievement First schools follow a system for classroom behavior invented by Levin and Feinberg called Slant, which instructs them to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the speaker with their eyes. When I visited KIPP Academy last month, I was standing with Levin at the front of a music class of about 60 students, listening to him talk, when he suddenly interrupted himself and pointed at me. “Do you notice what he’s doing right now?” he asked the class.

They all called out at once, “Nodding!”

Levin’s contention is that Americans of a certain background learn these methods for taking in information early on and employ them instinctively. KIPP students, he says, need to be taught the methods explicitly. And so it is a little unnerving to stand at the front of a KIPP class; every eye is on you. When a student speaks, every head swivels to watch her. To anyone raised in the principles of progressive education, the uniformity and discipline in KIPP classrooms can be off-putting. But the kids I spoke to said they use the Slant method not because they fear they will be punished otherwise but because it works: it helps them to learn. (They may also like the feeling of having their classmates’ undivided attention when they ask or answer a question.) When Levin asked the music class to demonstrate the opposite of Slanting — “Give us the normal school look,” he said — the students, in unison, all started goofing off, staring into space and slouching. 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.


I think it’s interesting that a fairly simple strategic paradigm like SLANT can such a strong impact not only on how the students are perceived by the teachers but also on how they actually perform: “it helps them to learn.”

I think back over 38 years of faces, is it any wonder if I remember the ones who were sitting up, listening, asking questions, nodding, and tracking me with their eyes? And why do those behaviors seem to come more naturally to girls than to boys?

I remember seeing a striking video done by a researcher (email me if you know the source) who took small groups of kids of various ages and placed them in a room with some chairs strewn about. At every age, if it was a group of girls, they would gather the chairs in a circle, lean in, and begin conversing animatedly, eyes on each other. At every age, if it was a group of boys, they would place the chairs side by side, lean back with their feet out in front of them, and converse without looking at each other. Can this be biological? Or is it learned behavior? In any case, it’s apparent that students can be taught how to act like students. Is this something we should all be doing? If not, why not? If so, when and how?

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Hey, Bruce--
I think the researcher you're thinking of is Deborah Tannen (He Said, She Said).