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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 black 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 co-directs the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, a joint project of Howard and Johns Hopkins universities. "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 lots of stimulation. The television is on. Music is playing. There is movement and loud talking, among other goings-on.

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

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

To test the idea, Boykin and a colleague gave black and white 4th and 6th graders four different types of tasks. They devised five exercises for each task 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 task-type exercises were presented, followed by five of another, and so on. This format was 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. In fact, the performance of the black students increased so much that they were scoring just as high as the white children.

Moreover, among the African-American students, 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.

Boykin and his colleagues are now planning to test their ideas in other ways in 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. Others include the role of movement in daily life, a strong sense of communalism over competition and individualism, and an emphasis on 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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