Avoiding the 'Stares' When Intellectually Challenging "Disadvantaged Students": Partnership Lessons from the HOTS Program
by Dr. Stanley Pogrow
Many, many years ago (more 'manys' than I want to admit) I was a public school teacher in New York City, trying to use a discovery approach to teaching disadvantaged middle and high school students from Harlem and Hells Kitchen.
Please keep in mind that I was a highly motivated teacher who loved his students. I think I was a hip (that is how we spoke back then) teacher who was liked by his students. I was committed to the ideal of using progressive approaches to education with disadvantaged students and was as knowledgeable about the research of the times as a teacher could be. All the advocacy and theory would therefore predict that I and my students would experience great success. However, amidst the successes that I had with individual students and different topics it was not an overall success. There was one stumbling block that I never was able to overcome. Whenever I asked an open-ended question, or any question that required real generalization or abstraction, the students would stare at me. My hyperactive students suddenly became silent and stared at me. The more I urged them to 'think' the harder they stared and the more puzzled they seem to be. Then the silence would become unbearable and they would averted their gaze. I then faced the dilemma that many of you face daily of: "What do I do now?" The only available choices appeared to be to either simply the questions, which would defeat the goal of bringing higher forms of learning to the students, or be happy with the same two or three students answering the more open-ended questions.
Frustrated by my inability to reach my students on a deeper level, I set off on a personal quest to understand why my students had stared at me and what the meaning of the stares were. I have devoted my professional life as a professor and researcher to finding the cause of the stares and to discovering a way to transform the stares into active, higher level forms of learning. I believe that overcoming the 'stare' is the key to making progressive approaches more successful. This article reflects what I have learned. It is devoted to all of you who are also frustrated and puzzled by student stares whenever you try to get your disadvantaged students to reach into the world of reflection and abstraction.
First let me tell you the two most frequent misconceptions about these 'stares'. The first is that the students are not capable of abstract thinking, and it is not fair to expect that. Nonsense! The second misconception is that the problem is usually that the teachers are not sufficiently trained or motivated, and that this can be solved with advocacy and yet more staff development. Nonsense! I and my peers were well trained and motivated--and still we could not produced the desired reflectiveness in students. While it is convenient for education professors to blame the teachers, that is not the core of the problem.
The real cause of the stares in these wonderful kids is that most disadvantaged students are not as well prepared to benefit from progressive approaches as the teachers are trained to provide them. Having teachers trained to ask reflective questions is of little value if students are not prepared to respond. This lack of student preparation is not because of ability, but because of access to the types of cultural interactions that do prepare an individual to engage in reflective and abstract thought. The key to such interaction is discussion with adults about ideas, a process that traditionally took place around the greatest educational institution of all--the dinner table.
Unfortunately, disadvantaged students today generally come to school without having had the opportunity to talk with adults about ideas. In addition, such a lack is not racial but economic. As you move down the economic ladder talk in the home diminishes dramatically. As a result, low-income students arrive in school with literally millions fewer interaction opportunities. Those interactions they do have largely involve listening to literal commands, i.e., "do this" and "do that". In addition, most of the adult talk is negative in nature, admonishing and criticizing. (For a more detailed description of home conversation by income level, see Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, by Betty Hart & Todd Risley, 1995.)
The absence of prior conversation with adults about ideas leads to disadvantaged students having so little cultural sense of how to engage in systematic or generalized thought that I refer to them as students who do not understand "understanding". They have no idea of how to engage in fundamental aspects of understanding that we take for granted and that underlie all learning. The stare means: "I do not know what you mean when you ask me to think or what you want me to do. Please tell me what to do so I can answer your question." But how can teachers even begin to develop a general sense of understanding? Indeed, this is the single biggest problem facing American education since the absence of a sense of understanding limits the achievement potential of disadvantaged students after the earliest grades where the curriculum becomes more integrative and abstract.
Are the schools helpless to develop a sense of understanding in disadvantaged students and thereby get them to become reflective learners who respond to open-ended questions? Are we doomed to forever be tortured by the stare because of environmental issues that are beyond the control of the school? .No! However, the key to solving the problem of the 'stares' is to be realistic and recognize that the deficit in opportunities to discuss ideas is so huge that it is impossible for any one teacher in the context of regular classroom instruction to overcome thisdeficit---nomatter how well trained or motivated. A partnership needs to be established among teachers to develop a sense of understanding and overcome the stare. Two types of partnerships are available.
The first potential partnership for overcoming the conversation deficit that stunts students intellectual development and instincts is for all teachers in a school to agree to ask the same type of key thinking questions on a day in and day out basis and push for student responses. Over time, repeated exposure to such questions produces the familiarity and confidence that enables students to start to respond. For example, I have done workshops on six key questioning techniques that all teachers in a school in grades k-8 can use in a practical fashion across all content areas to create a culture of student conversation, participation, and reflection. While valuable, such a partnership has some problems. It is hard to get all teachers in a school to buy into anything. Second, it takes a long time for such a strategy to work and this is problematic for mobile students.
Fortunately, a second type of partnership is available which accelerates the process of developing disadvantaged students' sense of understanding. 21 years ago I developed the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) program to accelerate the learning of disadvantaged students (Title I and Learning Disabled) after the third grade. The program generates a very creative and intensive Socratic conversation environment. It combines the use of technology and Socratic teaching techniques, i.e., teaching by asking. Socratic teaching is made possible by a combination of a sophisticated and creative curriculum designed in accordance with brain theory, and intensive teacher training that develops new reflexes for interacting with students. When consistently applied HOTS develops students' ability to understand things intuitively and to verbalize complex and abstract ideas in such a way so as to improve all forms of learning. Nor does this intensive process of developing a sense of understanding take that long. My large-scale research has shown that with just 40 minutes a day of such help provided by a good teacher, disadvantaged students develop and internalize a sense of understanding in 1-2 years.
HOTS is provided as a specialized intervention during or after school with a specially trained teacher or after school. At first glance this does not seem like a partnership but a self-contained program. The reason this is a partnership is that by providing an intensity of sophisticated conversation that cannot be done in regular content instruction, HOTS increases the ability of disadvantaged students to subsequently benefit from good content instruction. The stares are gone. As content teachers you can now increase the sophistication of your instruction and get much higher levels of student response. In other words, this is a partnership of teachers doing very different, but complementary, things.
The two main criticisms of a partnership built around a specialized program are that: a) specialized programs stigmatizes the students involved, and b) time spent in HOTS is time lost in test preparation. While the first criticism is valid for traditional pullout programs, HOTS is so interesting and challenging that Title I and LD students feel that being placed in the program is a special honor. As to the second criticism, the greatest misconception is that the more test prep you do, the better disadvantaged students do on tests. Test prep is indeed important, and up to a certain point it provides major benefit. But a point is quickly reached wherein the law of diminishing returns sets in and additional test prep retards development. Indeed, research has always shown that time spent developing a sense of understanding in HOTS produces three times the gains in comprehension tests than additional content/test prep activities. Our latest research is showing that: a) HOTS is able to produce substantial gains simultaneously on 18 different measures of academic and cognitive (thinking) development, and b) three years later close to 70% of these students were doing well academically, while none of the comparison students who received extra content remedial were doing well. In addition, our experience has been that close to 15% of our Title I students make honor role.
Most importantly, HOTS students do not stare when asked open-ended questions in regular content instruction. Teachers report that HOTSed low-income students become their best discussants and strategizers in regular content learning. The success of HOTS means that an intensive specialized program that eliminates a major learning blocker such as a lack of a sense of understanding can produce much higher levels of learning back in regular content learning. Content teachers now have more students responding to open-ended questions. Once disadvantaged students have a sense of understanding all things become possible--including higher test scores and self-concept. It's a win win partnership for everyone.
While it is possible to eliminate the stares of disadvantaged students and convert most Title I and LD students into sophisticated learners, doing so requires that we throw off the baggage of conventional wisdom. It cannot be done with simplistic or remedial pullout programs such as predominated Title I through the 90's Nor can it be done with use of the one-size-fits-all whole-school comprehensive reform models that predominated in the 90's, such as Success for All. (See my critique of Success for All in my first Teachers.Net article May 01, and in the Feb 02 issue of Phi Delta Kappan) These models did not work and the whole schoolwide philosophy resulted in funds intended for the disadvantaged largely benefiting the advantaged. As a result, learning gaps rewidened. Traditionalists are now over-investing in test prep. Progressive educators focus on criticizing state testing system and relying on the same type of advocacy they always have and have not come to grips with the associated problems that I and many other supporters have experienced--namely the 'stare'.
In other words, we can control our own destiny. There are reasons for the 'stares', and there are reasons why the predominant reform approaches used for the past 30 years have not stopped the stares of disadvantaged students or eliminated learning gaps. At the same time, good and appropriate education is a powerful force. Even small amounts of it can transform kids and overcome many of the limitations caused by non-school environments.
The transcendental power of good education is especially true when provided by teacher partnerships. Partnerships of good teachers, built around the right principles of instruction, provided at the right points in time can produce dramatic results. In addition, we need to combine different types of partnerships, some with all teachers doing the same thing part of the day, and some involving teachers doing different things at different times and in different ways under some key guiding principles. In terms of the latter, HOTS remains unmatched for its integration of technology and state-of-the art curriculum and teaching techniques powerful enough to eliminate the 'stares', and its ability to create synergies with other instructional efforts. HOTS not only maximizes the intellectual development of disadvantaged students, it also maximizes students' ability to benefit from improved content instruction. We need many other such specialized programs and partnerships.
What we most want as teachers are students whose eyes are alert and whose minds explore and expand. We can have that--even in the most challenging settings. The key is not to try and do it yourself, but to create a variety of partnerships.
For more information on the HOTS program (firstname.lastname@example.org), check out its website: www.hots.org.