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In The Classroom, Differences Can Become Assets

Author, speaker and education expert Sir Ken Robinson argues that today’s education system is anachronistic and needs to be rethought. Robinson notes that our current model, shaped by the industrial revolution, reveals a "production line" approach: for example, we group kids by "date of manufacture", instruct them "by batches", and subject them all to standardized tests. Yet, we often miss the most fundamental questions - for example, Robinson asks, "Why is age the most important thing kids have in common?"

In spite of the various theories about the stages of cognitive development (Piaget, etc.), it is difficult to decide how to group children. Academically and linguistically diverse classrooms have become a prevalent phenomenon in the U.S. and other parts of the world, posing important challenges for educators whose mission is to support the learning of all students.

It’s not only that children are dissimilar in terms of their interests, ethnicity, social class, skills, and other attributes; what’s even more consequential is that human interactions are built on the basis of those differences. In other words, individuals create patterns of relations that reflect and perpetuate social distinctions.

Indeed, social science research has shown that we hold cultural beliefs around some human characteristics (e.g. race, class, gender) very deeply. Without getting too technical, this means that these attributes help to determine social status – i.e., how influential/important someone is perceived to be relative to other group members.

Status is important because, simply put, we tend to anticipate "the best" from "the best." These actual anticipations or expectations are key in any social context, including the classroom. Unconsciously, we anticipate superior performances from those we imbue with the more valued state of a characteristic (e.g., in the case of race, whites over blacks or Latinos) – for a review see here. In our context, this matters because children’s status differences – not just their cognitive differences – influence how and what they learn in the classroom.

Expectations are self-fulfilling: since high-status individuals are expected to be more competent, they receive more opportunities to make contributions, have more influence on others, and receive more positive evaluations. In the classroom these dynamics hurt children. Low-status students can appear passive or unmotivated, when the truth is they are unable to command positive attention from the class. When this happens, and neither the student nor his peers believe he/she has something of value to contribute to a particular group activity, the kid usually ends up contributing very little; thus, learning very little as well.

Given all of this, efforts to homogenize schools, classrooms, or learning seem somewhat futile. Certainly, programs such as Head Start and subsidized preschool are crucial attempts to narrow the achievement gap by bringing disadvantaged students up to speed in terms of background knowledge, skills, and the norms of classroom behavior. But what if schools also were able to turn residual status differences into assets that could help improve the learning experience for all students?

One approach for doing so is built on the work of the late Elizabeth G. Cohen, an emeritus professor of education and sociology at Stanford University. Cohen was the founder of Complex Instruction (CI), a groundbreaking strategy that employs sociological theory to promote racial, ethnic, and gender equity in heterogeneous classrooms. Complex instruction is based on two pillars: (1) helping teachers understand how to structure group work so that the contributions of students of different backgrounds are necessary to accomplish intellectually challenging tasks; and (2) training teachers on how to change expectations within these groups by publically recognizing the contributions and competence of low-status students. “Because students tend to believe evaluations teachers make of them," Cohen explained, “when the teacher gives a low-status student a positive and specific compliment, other students overhear and revise their own opinions." Importantly, for such positive reinforcement to work, these remarks need to be genuine, concrete, and relevant to the group activity.

Over a number of years, Cohen and colleagues conducted a series of experiments (here, here, and here) showing that Complex Instruction can produce achievement gains across a variety of age groups and tasks, by elevating the participation rates and status of low-status students.

Although cooperative learning can be difficult to implement well, there is a large body of research demonstrating its benefits to student achievement (here and here). As a result, it has become one of the most widely implemented interventions at all educational levels.

What this work ultimately suggests is that, to improve educational outcomes for all children, we must do more than just focus on reducing student differences (e.g., the effects of poverty); we must also know how to capitalize on students’ diversity (which will never be in short supply). With the right approach, differences among children can become assets rather than liabilities.

The world outside the classroom is at least as diverse as the world inside it. In the long run, it can only help students to learn to thrive in a context that resembles the world they will inhabit.

- Esther Quintero


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