kitchen table math, the sequel: John McWhorter on "oral culture" and the direct quesstion

Sunday, April 20, 2008

John McWhorter on "oral culture" and the direct quesstion

Have only skimmed Liz's post on Ruby Payne, on Ruby Payne, but it prompted me finally to get this passage from a John McWhorter column up. I had no idea -- none -- that "oral culture" was linguistically different from whatever culture it is I live in:
One wonders whether people .... truly understand what barriers poor kids face to learning how to read in a truly functional way. In countless American communities, flyers are routinely full of major misspellings, more than a few are only fitfully comfortable with e-mail, and few read newspapers above the tabloid level. Life is fundamentally oral.

Students from places like this — which include Appalachia and the rural white South as much as black and brown inner cities — get next to no reinforcement from home life in acquiring comfort with the written word. Eternally dismal reading scores make it clear that a school day ending at 3 p.m. is not alleviating the problem. We have become sadly familiar with every second black 8th grader reading below basic level.

Reading is not the only cultural hurdle. In black culture, for example, the direct question is not as central to normal communication as it is in mainstream culture (consult, for example, Shirley Brice Heath's "Ways With Words"). For kids from this kind of setting, getting comfortable with being asked point-blank "When was the Declaration of Independence written?" and answering clearly and directly takes work. Many black people of working-class or poor background mention how ticklish this kind of interaction felt when they first went to a decent school.

Direct questions as regular interaction are largely an epiphenomenon of the printed page. Most humans on earth lead fundamentally oral lives in the linguistic sense, and need to adjust to direct questions. Middle class American kids inhale them at the kitchen table. Poor kids learn how to deal with them in school, and it takes practice.

One objection is that supposedly, in the old days even poor kids just sat down in school and learned what they needed to know. But the grandparents who recount this were among the sliver of poor kids who even made it through school. A century ago, only 14% of native-born American kids even made it to high school, and more to the point, only 2% of Italian and Polish immigrant kids did.

Here is Betty Smith in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" on what poor children's schools were really like one hundred years ago this year:

"Brutalizing is the only adjective for the public schools of that district around 1908 and 1909. Child psychology had not been heard of in Williamsburg in those days. ... Few teachers had the true vocation for their work. They taught because it was one of the few jobs open to them; because they had a long summer vacation; because they got a pension when they retired."

Few children stayed around in places like this any longer than necessary. Today, however, even low-skill service jobs require a basic comfort with the written word. A school day that ends at 3 p.m., in the America that we live in, isn't enough to give that to people from bookless homes whose parents are unsure how to make the system work for their kids.

Fighting Words in Education Crowds
John McWhorter February 28, 2008
NY Sun
It never crossed my mind to think of "direct questions" as anything other than utterly natural and universal.

13 comments:

lefty said...

Interesting. When it comes to commands rather than questions, the reverse has been claimed. Education professor Lisa Delpit, who like McWhorter is African American, has argued in "Beyond Silenced Voices: Class, Race, and Gender in U.S. Schools" that one problem that many working class and poorer African American children face in school is that their cultures tend to favor direct comments like "Put the stapler back where it goes," as opposed to the diplomatic indirection preferred by many white middle class teachers & parents ("Is that where the stapler goes?").

SteveH said...

"A school day that ends at 3 p.m., in the America that we live in, isn't enough to give that to people from bookless homes whose parents are unsure how to make the system work for their kids."

Is this a plug for KIPP, or what? I don't like to see people agonizing over the complexities of education. I like to see schools that jump right in and get to work.

I took a quick look, but I couldn't tell whether KIPP schools are implemented as charter schools or not. How do public schools react to KIPP schools? Do they dislike separating kids based on their willingness to work hard? I know that even in our affluent community, the schools don't want to see charter schools skimming off the best or hardest working students, even if they know that it would be best for those students.

SteveH said...

Fifty-five out of fifty-seven KIPP schools are charter schools.

"Over 90 percent of KIPP students are African American or Hispanic/Latino, and more than 80 percent of KIPP students are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program."

"One of the 'Five Pillars' is more time. KIPP students are in school learning 60 percent more than average public school students, typically from 7:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. on weekdays, every other Saturday, and for three weeks during the summer."


"The average KIPP student who has been with KIPP for four years starts fifth grade at the 40th percentile in mathematics and the 32nd percentile in reading. After four years in KIPP, these same students are performing at the 82nd percentile in math and the 60th percentile in reading."


Our state doesn't have any KIPP schools. We have a moratorium on charter schools. I can just imagine what the union would say about changing their hours to match those above, even for one or two schools. They won't do the job and they won't let anyone else do the job.

This is what I don't like about education. Many talk about education in complex, scholarly terms when basic needs are not met. KIPP might use more time (rather than complex educational ideas), but they get the job done.

Catherine Johnson said...

I hadn't read Lisa Delpit's book but the study of vocabulary and language in low-income families by XXXXX (yes, I've forgotten the author's names) found something similar.

I'm intrigued by the fact that autistic kids don't ask questions (at least, more severely autistic kids don't ask questions).

Autistic kids use their language to "request and protest."

Catherine Johnson said...

For years I've been trying to get every SPED teacher we've had to teach Andrew & Jimmy to ask questions.

That was Lynn Koegel's core remediation in the 4 kids she worked with who lost their autistic symptoms.

Catherine Johnson said...

yup, KIPP schools are charters. Vicki Snider claims that KIPP attributes a great deal of its success to the long hours. I always wonder whether KIPP is doing things the hard way -- whether their teaching may not be as efficient as it could be.

On the other hand, I also assume that part of what KIPP is doing is creating a common culture within the school and it's entirely possible that the extra time in school is part of that.

In other words, they might be able to teach more efficiently, even to kids who come into the school 2 years behind grade level -- but efficient teaching would mean less time spent at the school.

I don't know, of course.

Catherine Johnson said...

The KIPP school in the Bronx is unionized.

Ed has a grad student who taught in a KIPP school in Georgia, I think it was. She said the schools are fantastic but the teachers do burn out pretty fast. She is a huge supporter -- so when she says teachers are burning out that's a problem in terms of expanding the schools.

Jay Mathews has a new article out on KIPP; they're looking at the burnout problem.

SteveH said...

"Jay Mathews has a new article out on KIPP; they're looking at the burnout problem."

Do you have a link?

What about the kids? Do they burn out? I suppose some do, but do you lower expectations just to keep them there? Maybe they can be more efficient and cut back the hours. With enough KIPP schools, it would be easy to test different solutions.

In software development, especially for larger, riskier, and unknown systems, I like to use a prototype approach. For these systems, you can analyze and design all you want in a top-down fashion, but you will still be wrong in some fundamental way. After a certain point, there is no efficiency in a top-down, hierarchical analysis. You have select an approach, dive right in, and learn as you go.

With a prototype system, changes can be incremental and carefully tested. You might run into a fundamental problem that requires large changes and additional work, but this also happens when you spend a lot more time on preliminary analysis or research. There have been so many times that I have never fully understood a problem until I have really dug into the dirty details of implementation.

This is perhaps why I don't like the theoretical educational babel.

Tex said...

Matthew’s article on KIPP.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/20/AR2008042001762.html

Just started to read it myself.

Catherine Johnson said...

What about the kids? Do they burn out?

My sense is that that's what they're looking at now.

The most recent attack on KIPP is that they have high turn-over in the student body. That may or may not be true; all schools serving disadvantaged populations have high turn-over as I understand it.

Nevertheless, it's an important question.

I've come to the firm conclusion that teaching should be as efficient as possible. Teachers have limited energy; kids have limited energy. Using time and energy wisely should be uppermost in everyone's minds.

Catherine Johnson said...

In software development, especially for larger, riskier, and unknown systems, I like to use a prototype approach.

Interesting.

That's exactly what Dorner says. (Logic of Failure)

Anonymous said...

--With a prototype system, changes can be incremental and carefully tested. You might run into a fundamental problem that requires large changes and additional work, but this also happens when you spend a lot more time on preliminary analysis or research. There have been so many times that I have never fully understood a problem until I have really dug into the dirty details of implementation.


Yup, but there's more to this model: it's the closed-loop phenomenon. In sw engineering, it's only going to work if after you've really understood the problem, you're willing to cut your losses, walk away from big chunks of your code, accept your sunk costs and do it again.

The willingness to admit that something you worked on very hard which took a lot of pain should be jettisoned requires a real level of maturity. It's not something taught ANYWHERE in ed schools--that entire school models should be jettisoned, that various curricula should be thrown away, etc. It's not just learning from your mistakes. It's about recognizing that learning from your mistakes is the beginning of the process--you have to then cut your investments and start fresh.

lefty said...

Catherine--

Do you know whether your boys understand the *concept* of a question? This is something that GT attempts to teach. There are lessons in Levels I and III in which the child sees a picture and an answer, and has to deduce the corresponding question, Jeopardy-style.