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Learning at its Best

The pedagogy of poverty

My friend Rachel sent me a link to an essay by the always feisty Alfie Kohn in which he condemns “the pedagogy of poverty.” That’s when schools serving low-income kids of color focus the curriculum on drill-and-skill, repetition, and maintaining a tightly controlled routine. Kohn advocates a pedagogy centered on “meaning and understanding.” He writes,

Rather than viewing the pedagogy of poverty as a disgrace, however, many of the charter schools championed by the new reformers have concentrated on perfecting and intensifying techniques to keep children “on task” and compel them to follow directions. (Interestingly, their carrot-and-stick methods mirror those used by policy makers to control educators.) Bunches of eager, mostly white, college students are invited to drop by for a couple of years to lend their energy to this dubious enterprise.

Is racism to blame here—or perhaps behaviorism? Or could it be that, at its core, the corporate version of “school reform” was never intended to promote thinking—let alone interest in learning—but merely to improve test results? That pressure is highest in the inner cities, where the scores are lowest. And the pedagogy of poverty can sometimes “work” to raise those scores, which makes everyone happy and inclined to reward those teachers.

Unfortunately, that result is often at the expense of real learning, the sort that more privileged students enjoy, because the tests measure what matters least. Thus, it’s possible for the accountability movement to simultaneously narrow the test-score gap and widen the learning gap.

* * *

I spent nine years teaching in an urban high school, which was unique in that it served primarily two distinct populations.

There were the kids who grew up in the local neighborhood, which, while in the process of being gentrified, has been poor for generations.

The other group consists primarily of white students enrolled in the Accelerated Progress Program, which pushes kids two grades level ahead. These students bus in from more affluent neighborhoods around the city.

There was always pressure to teach these groups of students the same, to offer the same rich academic experience to both.

* * *

I taught some classes with students who were very serious about school and seemed to genuinely enjoy academic learning. They’d had success with academic learning their entire lives. It was an arena in which they excelled, so naturally they felt comfortable in it.

Delivering a curriculum grounded in meaning and understanding was a joy. I could say, “Read up to page 75 by Thursday,” and most of them would do it. On Thursday, I could begin class by saying something like, “What did those first four chapters make you think about?” They would respond by saying a bunch of thoughtful, interesting things. It was awesome.

I also taught classes with students who had not experienced a lifetime of success with academic learning. By the time they reached 10th grade, they had already come to some definitive conclusions about the role of school in their lives. Getting these students to engage in a learning process focused on “meaning and understanding” was often a major challenge, because in many cases they had already decided they didn’t care what it meant, and they weren’t interested in understanding.

The resistance that students can bring when they first walk in the door is a very real phenomenon. It’s one of the most important—and least talked about—issues in education.

* * *

The point here is that, from a classroom teacher’s perspective, teaching a drill-and-skill curriculum to students who have already decided that school has nothing to offer them might be the best option. To teach for meaning and understanding requires that students open themselves up to the process, and that they offer some of their life energy to participating in it.

Many kids living poverty are not going to do it, for very legitimate reasons. They’ve accumulated a lifetime of negative experiences in school, and they have five other classes with teachers who may or may not believe in them. Because they live in poverty, they go home to an environment in which the value of any particular lesson plan may not seem relevant. It’s only relevant as part of a daily practice experienced over time.

I remember teaching a class—I was teaching for meaning and understanding—in which students were reading and deconstructing a classic novel. A student named Joe, whose father had recently died from a lung ailment as a result of toxic conditions at his workplace, approached my desk. He was frustrated. He said to me, “Mr. Miranda, I need to know what’s real. You know what I’m saying?”

I had to grapple with some very difficult questions. Was I really serving Joe by teaching him to analyze a classic work of literature? Because of his life circumstances, was he able to get anything from the experience, or was it just a lot of white noise? Was he truly able to dedicate life energy to participating in a process that must have seemed so abstracted from his day-to-day life? Would he be better off getting daily practice in basic literacy, and daily coaching on sustained focus, respectful interactions, and delivering a completed product in a set framework of time?

I didn’t know the answers to these questions.

* * *

I tell this story to get at the real point of Alfie Kohn’s essay, because it highlights one answer that I do know. He writes,

“Remarkable results with low-income students of all ages have also been found with the Reggio Emilia model of early-childhood education, the “performance assessment” high schools in New York, and “Big Picture” schools around the country. All of these start with students’ interests and questions; learning is organized around real-life problems and projects. Exploration is both active and interactive, reflecting the simple truth that kids learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. Finally, success is judged by authentic indicators of thinking and motivation, not by multiple-choice tests.

* * *

This is why I’m such an outspoken champion for PSCS. The traditional public school model will never effectively serve low-income kids of color. It’s not because the teachers are bad; the traditional public school model suffers from a series of fundamental design problems. That big public school in your community that serves low-income kids of color will never deliver the outcomes that we want, no matter how many financial incentives and punishments are implemented by state and federal governments. It can’t, by design. Those institutions can only be laid to rest and re-invented as new kinds of schools with a different culture and a different environment, organized according to a different set of principles, brought into being by a different structure.

A great place to start—this is where PSCS starts—is with students’ interests and questions. Students need to know what’s real, to them.

You know what I’m saying?

(Join the discussion at www.facebook.com/reeducate. Get updates at www.twitter.com/reeducate.)

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Discussion

6 thoughts on “The pedagogy of poverty

  1. Hey Steve, This is a great post, and immediately reminded me of one of my favorite quotes about “not-learning,” the willful rejection of learning based on the need to express resistance to an institution that does not honor you or your experiences:

    “Learning how to not-learn is an intellectual and social challenge; sometimes you have to work very hard at it. It consists of an active, often ingenious, willful rejection of even the most compassionate and well-designed teaching…It was through insight into my own not-learning that I began to understand the inner world of students who chose to not-learn what I wanted to teach. Over the years I’ve come to side with them in their refusals to be molded by a hostile society and have come to look upon not-learning as positive and healthy
    in many situations.”

    -Herb Kohl, “I Won’t Learn From You,” 1994

    I agree with you that BY DESIGN conventional classrooms will not and cannot be successful with not-learners: this is an essential problem rather than a problem of practice. So when can we call come visit PSCS? Can you write a post about its fundamental precepts and features?

    Kirsten

    Posted by Kirsten | July 17, 2011, 8:18 am
    • Kohl is onto something about not-learning. I feel it is a stance I have needed to adopt in order to survive living inside a very sick system. I feel the need to be both accepting of them and obdurately for them. The not-learners are the greatest teachers of teachers there are. The pains-in-the-ass are our safeties in disguise. I am a pain-in-the-ass. You be one, too.

      Posted by Terry Elliott | July 17, 2011, 8:52 am
  2. I have similar experiences except that I taught ten years in a poor, rural high school. Your plight rang true for me too. I see a common theme here–we either teach students how to be strategic or we teach them how to be something more. Many of my parents especially those of color or first generation immigrants wanted me to teach their kids how to play the game. The game in this case is what James Carse called “the finite game” the purpose of which is to win, thus ending the game. This is the pedagogy of scarcity and can afflict rich and poor alike.

    The other game, the one that has no end played with the purpose of continuing the play. This is the game that is never learned utterly. This is the infinite game, the one whose first and third base lines run on into infinity. This is the game that doesn’t have to ask why we study the psychopathy of Iago in Othello. In the infinite game to know this will be of use intrinsically not strategically.

    The infinite game is like theory in that it is practical, useful and extendable. And that is a very tough sell to those who believe (and rightly so from their stance and place) that school is a finite, zero-sum game. School is a finite game, but learning is an infinite one. Each has its use. Each has its power. We must empower our students with both the rules of the game and the capacity to transcend them.

    You now what I’m saying.

    Posted by Terry Elliott | July 17, 2011, 8:41 am
  3. I know what you’re saying, Steve. The kids who are ready to relish Wuthering Heights are ready to do so because there’s room enough for that in their lives – they have the answers (or don’t have the need to ask the questions), that less privileged students rightfully want. I’m over-generalizing here, for which I apologize, but maybe what I really mean is this: what matters to the student needs to come first so there can be trust enough later in life to learn what matters to the big us.

    Does that make sense? Ring true? Bear up under scrutiny?

    I wouldn’t dare hazard a statement about the canon here ;)

    Best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 18, 2011, 9:28 am
  4. Thanks, Kirsten, for starting this thread! Interesting, I wasn’t really talking about not-learning in this post. I think I tried doing that here on my blog—http://stevemiranda.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/judgement/—although after reading Herb Kohl’s brilliant, concise quotation, I realize how vague and unclear my own thoughts were. I had never heard of not-learning before, what a fascinating notion. Thanks for sharing this.

    My point in this post was more about kids who come to school while living lives of desperate survival. To get any value from a school education, to be “well-rounded,” requires something of a daily commitment to participate in it. That is, each individual lesson plan by itself is meaningless. But if you’re lucky to have good teachers and you pay attention every day for 12 years, it all adds up to something important. But that doesn’t change the fact that each individual lesson means nothing on its own.

    For kids in poverty, my sense is that they don’t perceive it as realistic to lock in to a process that, on a day-to-day basis, has no meaning. They can’t see that far ahead. They can’t imagine themselves graduating and heading off to a nice college. It’s just not part of what they see in their lives. As teachers, you can try to help them see it, and you can try to keep them on message, you can try try try. But systems are working against you.

    @Terry, love the Finite and Infinite Games reference, one of my favorite books—so relevant to education, but haven’t connected with many teachers who see the relationship. Thanks for commenting.

    @Chad, “what matters to the student needs to come first so there can be trust enough later in life to learn what matters to the big us.” So good. Perfect.

    Posted by stevemiranda | July 19, 2011, 2:16 am
  5. Hey Kirsten, I found an opportunity to share your notion about “not-learning” tonight: http://wp.me/pFhGq-rb.

    Thanks!

    Steve

    Posted by stevemiranda | July 23, 2011, 3:09 am

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