In education, is poverty destiny?Posted: January 21, 2017
Periodically, someone will appear and claim that educational outcomes are not largely due to the quality of teaching. Instead, home circumstances, particularly poverty, play a massive role.
I understand where this reaction comes from. The No Child Left Behind act in the U.S. seemed to have been based upon the premise that if you provide strong enough carrots and sticks then teachers will somehow figure out how to eliminate educational disadvantage – the ‘motivate the teachers’ hypothesis.
This approach doesn’t work and socioeconomic reasons are part of the explanation. The other factor is that teacher simply don’t know the best approaches for mitigating disadvantage. It’s not what they are taught at college.
And I use the word ‘mitigate’ deliberately. Neither extreme of this argument represents a rational position. Clearly, teaching cannot eliminate disadvantages caused by social background. Teachers cannot fix poor nutrition or a chaotic family life. Yet teaching does have the potential to reduce disadvantage. Anyone interested in social justice as a practice, rather than a posture, should examine teaching methods in this light. What approaches are best for reducing educational inequality?
I think a key principle is to rely as little as possible on the resources children possess outside the classroom. What does this look like in practice?
At a basic level, we cannot expect all children to know what kinds of behaviours are acceptable and so we will need to directly teach these. Yes, some children will pick up normal behaviours implicitly from being in an environment that models and supports these behaviours but this cannot be assumed.
At an academic level, we should again focus on the agency of the school. An approach to early reading that places heavy emphasis on children taking lists of sight words home to learn is inequitable. So is an approach that hinges on practising reading at home. Instead, children need to be explicitly and systematically taught to read while they are in school.
Similarly, the latest Australian craze for Project Based Learning (PBL), which has seen the importation of experts from across the world to advise teachers and schools on the technique, is also inequitable because it relies on the resources that a child can marshal and bring to bear on the project. It is far better to directly teach the key facts and concepts before asking students to conduct open-ended work.
Those who dismiss the ability of teachers to mitigate social disadvantage are not on the side of social justice. As teachers, we cannot cure poverty and inequality but we can choose the best methods to address their effects.