Out There

meaningful differences

Posted in teaching by Pete on February 21, 2012

This is my 3rd or 4th attempt to write about this.  Each time I write too much and make it too detailed and complicated (luuuv those details so this is generally a problem for me, esp in writing).

There is this book called Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of American Children, by Hart and Risley.  As an SLP (supposed to be an “expert” in human communication and communication development in children), I enthusiastically recommend it.  It is not new, and it is all about a gigantic longitudinal study done decades ago in a far away part of the country with families who share very little in common with my neighbors.  However, I think the conclusions of the book have profound implications for the people of western Alaska.

I’m going to steal some of the book description from Amazon and paste it here:

“Betty Hart and Todd Risley wanted to know why, despite best efforts in preschool programs to equalize opportunity, children from low-income homes remain well behind their more economically advantaged peers years later in school. Their painstaking study began by recording each month – for 2-1/2 years – one full hour of every word spoken at home between parent and child in 42 families, categorized as professional, working class, or welfare families. Years of coding and analyzing every utterance in 1,318 transcripts followed. Rare is a database of this quality. “Remarkable,” says Assistant Secretary of Education Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, of the findings: By age 3, the recorded spoken vocabularies of the children from the professional families were larger than those of the parents in the welfare families. Between professional and welfare parents, there was a difference of almost 300 words spoken per hour. Extrapolating this verbal interaction to a year, a child in a professional family would hear 11 million words while a child in a welfare family would hear just 3 million. The implications for society are staggering: Hart and Risley’s follow-up studies at age 9 show that the large differences in the amount of children’s language experience were tightly linked to large differences in child outcomes. And yet the implications are encouraging, too. As the authors conclude their preface to the 2002 printing of Meaningful Differences, “the most important aspect to evaluate in child care settings for very young children is the amount of talk actually going on, moment by moment, between children and their caregivers.”

To oversimplify it – future academic outcomes for these children were correlated very highly with their word count exposure as little kids.  Not what they were listening to between 2 other people, or on the radio or TV, but language they were involved in as an active communication partner.  There was a much higher correlation between word count exposure and later success in school than there was for race, socioeconomic status, parents level of education, or any other competing possible causal factor.

So what are the implications for a whole population that is, by dominant culture standards, very nonverbal?  We have all of these schools here that are “failing” under NCLB, and a large part of our students’ academic struggle is their difficulty with language.  Vocabulary, syntax, being able to understand or relate a coherent narrative, picking out or relating key details, making inferences, main idea, understanding verbal directions from the teacher, etc etc.

What if the main issue is a deficit in the amount of talk going on between the child and their peers and caregivers, particularly in the earliest years??  Yikes.  I’ve never heard anyone say this, but isn’t it an inescapable implication if you believe in the study’s conclusions?  Without making a value judgement, Yup’ik is a more nonverbal culture, compared to the majority culture.  The Yup’ik language is far more content-based and “telegraphic” than English, eliminating non-essential words.  After 8+ years here, the sparse, terse nature of the speech reminds me of how people live.  No wasted effort, no extra words, a survival-based commitment to parsimony.  And this carries over to how most of my neighbors speak in English.  If you’re at a feast, you don’t hear “Will you pass the salt please?”  There is no Yup’ik word for “please.”  You hear “Salt.”  The local schools have big community meetings once or twice a year and have door prizes (get a ticket at the START, drawing at the END) to encourage people to come and stay because it is hard for people to endure what is (in their view) the excruciatingly long-winded presentations in English, full of superfluous words that obscure the main point of the meeting.  The words are too numerous, come too quickly, and without sufficient pauses, so processing is difficult and tiring.  And the delivery is not direct enough, using a few words they don’t know, many words that are seemingly unnecessary, and not enough content words that matter.  The listeners have to unpack everything to find the telegraphic speech they are more accustomed to.

So what is to be done?  Many area schools have recently been cutting or altering the bilingual component of the school day, apparently in the belief that it will help kids learn.  I find this regrettable.  We try everything – extra tutoring, CSI, RTI, teachers presenting lessons in multiple modalities, the latest and greatest curriculum materials like storytown, everyday math, etc etc in a desperate effort to find something that will work.  I don’t want to make a generalization that is too broad or explosive, but in my limited experience I see village teachers that work much longer hours than their urban counterparts.  Teacher effort is not the problem (though turnover IS part of the problem, but that’s another post entirely).

Big, uncomfortable question time.  Is our kids’ nonverbal culture “holding them back?”  Well, from one perspective maybe.  But holding them back from what?  The materialistic, non-existent “American Dream?”  Maybe the culture and community of the village is a better alternative to the greed and loneliness of suburbia.  What is the point of school?  To go to college so you can marry another college kid and make big $$?  What if you want to live your life in the village, connected to your extended family and the land, where there are fewer jobs and none that make big $$?  What are we preparing kids for?  For a job? Where?  For life?  For college?  As educators we often have to have high expectations for our students and help/prod them to reach those expectations.  But what if your expectations for the kids are not what the students want, not what the parents want for their kids, and not what really anyone in the community wants?  This is the case in some villages, to varying degrees and it obviously causes major problems.  How much say do we give the local community in what/how their kids learn?  The stock answer is “a lot” but I don’t know that that is true.  The districts select the curriculum to learn the material outlined by the state, and the districts set forth some narrow parameters that the village school boards can move around within.  What if the local community said we don’t think kids need writing or reading class beyond the 8th grade level?  What if the community wanted to instead pay more attention to the emotional health of the students, to stem the tide of abuse/despair/addiction/self-hatred/suicide etc?  Is that a bad thing?  The western model we’re using now isn’t working in a lot of the schools – do we keep tinkering or when do we blow it up and try something new?  Under NCLB they can eventually fire the whole staff – but the staff isn’t the issue here, it’s more like the educational vision/model/framework and the interaction between two radically different cultures.  I have no easy answers.  But I got started writing this post because the conclusions of the Meaningful Differences study are compelling and seem legitimate and very applicable to the “failing” schools of bush Alaska, yet I’ve never heard a word about it.  So there it is and now you know.  ; – )

When I think about all this it only reinforces the critical need for local leadership and “ownership” of our schools.  Without ownership of the school and the programs therein, there is a disconnect that strips the school of relevance and authority and results in kids/parents/communities that don’t care or are openly hostile to what they perceive as an unnecessary, burdensome, alien program.  With ownership you instill commitment and purpose, and an intrinsic motivation to learn.

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2 Responses

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  1. Ian D. said, on February 21, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    This is a very thoughtful post. There are no easy answers as you say. The application of the results of this study to the educational challenges in the villages is an interesting angle to take.

    It reminds me of the fact that IQ is a cultural construct.

  2. krisrichards65 said, on March 20, 2015 at 2:11 am

    This is so good, Pete. I love the reference to that study. It can apply to where I am working with my Marshallese friends here in Hawaii. I’ve had some of the same philosophical discussions with my colleagues here. Is it right to try and urge my child to get the best grades he can so he can get into the best college he can? What about the cost of private colleges that are now like buying a new home every year of college (money down)? Now there are studies coming out that going to college may not financially pan out so well. It’s more the entrepreneur/connector who can flip between disciplines that gains or keeps the job. I’ve definitely pondered some of your same musings. KR


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