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The Value Of Verve

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As a graduate psychology student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, A. Wade Boykin remembers feeling dissatisfied with much of the research he came across on educating black children. The studies, he remembers, often blamed achievement gaps between black and white students on the "cultural deficiencies" of African-American children's homes. To Boykin, however, black culture was not "deficient." It was simply distinct.

"I decided to go out into the community, take a pencil and paper, and write down what I saw," says Boykin, who is the co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, based at Howard University in Washington and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "I noticed a vibrancy, a centrality of physical stimulation, and that struck me as 'verve.'"

Boykin formally defines verve in his research papers as "a particular receptiveness to relatively high levels of sensate stimulation." Typically, he says, in African-American homes like the one in which he grew up, there is plenty of stimulation. The television is on. Music is playing. There is lots of movement and loud talking, among other goings-on.

In contrast, he says, the traditional classroom environment tends to be more controlled and sedate, much like life in white, middle-class homes.

Boykin and his colleagues reasoned that black students might learn more if their lessons reflected verve--in other words, if the tasks the students were given were more varied.

To test that idea, Boykin and a colleague gave four different types of tasks to groups of black and white 4th and 6th graders. There were five items of each type--20 in all. Children were asked, for example, to look at patterns of dots on grids and then to reproduce them in 60 seconds. They were asked to pay attention to the number of times target words were repeated in stories read aloud to them. And they matched pictures of four-color bars set down in two columns.

The children performed the tasks under two different conditions. Under the first condition, all five of one type were presented, followed by five of another, and so on. This was the format deemed relatively low on verve. Under the condition set up to be high in verve, the 20 tasks were presented in random, sequential order.

What the researchers found was that the white children performed better than the black children when the questions were presented in an unvaried way.

Both groups of children scored higher when the tasks were higher in verve, but the black children gained more. Their performance increased to the point where they were scoring just as high as the white children.

Moreover, among the African-American children, the greater the level of stimulation in their home environment, the better they did under the more diversified testing format.

Interestingly, Boykin adds, teachers perceived black children from homes with high stimulation levels to be less academically motivated.

Boykin and his colleagues repeated the experiment, this time using tasks more rooted in school environments. Students were given paragraphs, for example, and asked to circle all the misspelled words or were told to solve pages of addition and subtraction problems, among other tasks. The results, however, were the same. The more varied the tasks, the better the black students did.

Sometime this year, Boykin says, he and his colleagues at CRESPAR plan to move their ideas out into precollegiate classrooms.

"What happens, for example, if you give 10 minutes of a spelling lesson as opposed to 40 minutes?" he says. "We're still just at a basic research stage now, and we need to put this in a real school format."

Boykin claims verve is a cultural remnant of blacks' African heritage. In all, he has identified nine such dimensions of "Afrocultural expression" that are manifested in the lives of many blacks. Some others include: the central role of movement in daily life, a valuing of communalism over competition and individualism, and an emphasis on cultivating oral traditions and speaking skills.

"What we're saying is certain themes may be salient," Boykin says, "and schools could do a better job of centering education on children's lived experiences."

--Debra Viadero

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