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Herb Kohl: The Perilous Road We Must Take

By Anthony Cody — August 31, 2009 1 min read

Why is the achievement gap so persistent? Herb Kohl thinks we are asking the wrong questions, and our efforts to close the gap are largely misguided. I first got to know Herb Kohl when I was a teen in Berkeley in the 1970s, when he was working to create alternative schools there. You may have seen Kohl’s provocative thoughts recently, as he has taken Arne Duncan to task for extending and expanding the education policies of the Bush administration. I thought of Herb again when commenters on my blog raised some questions about how teachers can balance direct instruction with an inquiry approach to best close the achievement gap.

Debra Buffington posted (in part):

I found that minority students learned best in my classroom with direct, hands-on instruction and drill. The old fashioned tried and true methods work for me. Sad to say we are not allowed to use creativity in the classroom any more and are told what to say and what materials to use. I sneak and use what works anyway.

Heidi Werling responded:

Has anyone else noticed the paradox in these posts? I found it interesting to read posts stating that research shows both inquiry based instruction and direct instruction are successful in closing the achievement gap. These two instructional methods are poles apart, yet both seem to work. I wonder if there is another factor at play here? Any ideas?

I wrote to Herb this week and asked him for his thoughts on this paradox. Here is his reply:

The main factor at play in achievement is the willingness of the student to learn what you want to teach. Young people want to learn and do all the time at home, in church, on the streets. They learn through music, by talking with their friends, by listening to TV, going to movies, and by reading - not necessarily what teachers want them to read, but through what they choose to read or what their friends tell them is worth looking at. If you define learning as classroom performance, you impoverish your understanding of who your students are and what the scope and nature of their intelligence is.
The comments I read from your blog talk about that narrow channel of school based, test-oriented learning which, over the course of a lifetime, provides the mind with trivial baggage that is best dumped and replaced with a personal relationship to understanding people, politics, work, nature, and the workings of the imagination and the complexities of living in the current world.
There are many ways to learn and it is foolish to say that specific students have single stylized modes of learning. We all learn in many different ways. Sometimes memorization is essential (for example if you acting in a play or have to perform set routines every day). Other times, attending a lecture is a useful way of absorbing new information or learning about unfamiliar areas of knowledge. Often the best way of learning depends upon experimentation and imaginative speculation, or critical conversation, or project based exploration.
To wonder whether inquiry based instruction or direct teaching is "the best way" is foolish. It depends upon what you are learning, on the demands of the subject matter or problem you are considering. It also depends upon how learning can become integrated into thought and action. Pleasure, motivation, mystery, challenge all drive learning. And even at times external rewards can push one to learn things that are functional.
However I think, from the way the contributors to your blog phrased their arguments, that they are not talking about learning or teaching at all. They are talking about how best to force children to perform on adult created instruments of convenience - that is convenience to the adults who are obsessed with measuring everything and controlling young lives. Narrowing the performance gap requires, most of all, treating poor children and children of color, as intelligent, sensitive imaginative human beings who have been deprived of all the opportunity to learn that more privileged children have.
The achievement gap is not created because privileged kids naturally perform better on standardized tests. These kids perform better because they are provided with multiple opportunities to learn in the sciences and the arts, with occasions to explore the cultural resources of their communities. Their parents and schools resource them, attempt to nurture their minds and imaginations, and, as pay-back, the teachers and parents expect their children to spend part of their time utilizing what they already know and learning to fit it into the straitjacket of high stakes tests.
To expect that children who do not have rich learning environments will perform in a way that is comparable to those who bring more "educational" sophistication to the testing table is probably foolish. The impatience to equalize test results through drill and practice, narrowing the curriculum, and inhibiting teachers' creativity is counterproductive. The best possible case is that students will do well on the test and then discover, in college and later in life, that they learned nothing in school. The worst case is to intensify the gap and the humiliation and frustration it causes. We have to dare to take issues of equity seriously and fight for resources and opportunities for all of our students. During the brief Allende administration in Chile one of the mottos painted on the walls in Santiago was: In the future the only privileged ones will be the children. I believe it is incumbent on all of us to struggle for this, but in the current climate of Duncan's Office of Education, it is a morally necessary but dangerous and perilous road to take.

What do you think? Do you agree with Kohl’s redefinition of the achievement gap? What sorts of learning opportunities should children of color and poverty be given?

photo by Anthony Cody

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