Learning and “character”

About six weeks ago the radio program This American Life did a back-to-school program largely centered on the book How Children Succeed by journalist Paul Tough (2012). Host Ira Glass was excited about Tough’s central message: soft skills such as impulse control and what Tough calls “character” are important to success in school and in life, perhaps more important than the cognitive skills we usually think of as the goals of education. Glass also spoke to Dr. Nadine Burke Harris about the negative effect of major stress, such as poverty or child abuse, on cognitive development, and with economist James Heckman about the benefits to individual children and to society of early childhood interventions. Glass came away optimistic: interventions such as preschool and mentoring can help children succeed.

My reaction was a sarcastic one. “Great,” I said to myself, “all we need is for every child in the country to live in a stable middle-class household, free from stress and disruption.” Even if I thought it was possible to create such a society, I doubt that it could be done cheaply or in short order.

I think what frustrated me is that this “new understanding” that so excites Paul Tough, Ira Glass, and Glass’s colleagues at Planet Money, who recently revealed “Why preschool can save the world”, is that it is not new to me. Anthropologists, sociologists, education researchers, psychologists and others have been linking experiences in early childhood with educational and socio-economic success later in life for as long as I have been in the field. Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron produced La Reproduction in 1970, and the English translation, Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture appeared in 1977. Shirley Brice Heath’s “Roadville and Trackton” work, which shows how middle class student’s early experiences with reading prepare them for school in ways that working class children lack, appeared in Language in Society in 1982 and has been republished several times since. Betty Hart and Todd Risley, whose 1995 book revealed huge differences in the linguistic input middle class and working class children are exposed to before school, were promoting preschool for disadvantaged children in the late 1960s. The Carolina Abecedarian Project, reviewed on Planet Money, began in 1972 and published its findings during the 1990s. The Perry Preschool project described on This American Life began in 1967 and publications based on its longitudinal data were published in the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s, and new analyses continue to be published. Even James Heckman’s economic work on the topic started to appear nearly twenty years ago with his critique of The Bell Curve. And yet, this understanding does not appear to have had a large effect on how education is actually organized and carried out.

Recently Planet Money’s Alex Blumberg appeared on This American Life with a counter-example to my frustrated observation. The state of Oklahoma now does fund preschool in every school district that wants it. The This American Life program on which Blumberg appeared was not a return to the theme of school or preschool, though. It was an episode called “Getting away with it”. Blumberg talks with state legislators Ron Peters (a Republican) and Joe Eddins (a Democrat) and retired oil executive Bob Harbison about how they essentially tricked the conservative state into funding preschool.

Peters, who describes his conservative political bent as “Rush Limbaugh incarnate”, had introduced a bill in the state house to cooperate with a privately funded non-profit organization to advertise the value of preschool education. He was surprised to find his bill, which spent no government money and did not expand public education, denounced by fellow Republicans as “a nanny-state bill”. But for businessman turned education advocate Bob Harbison, universal preschool seemed like a good idea, even for anti-government conservatives. Studies show that one dollar spent on preschool can save as much as ten dollars in government spending by keeping successful students out of jail and off welfare. So when Harbison and Eddins drafted the bill that led to universal preschool, they included that change in opaque language appended to a bill to reduce spending on kindergartens. The bill was passed and public education in Oklahoma was expanded to offer preschool to all four-year-old children, but this was accomplished despite the will of most voters. Asked what advice he would offer to those in other states who want to expand preschool education, Eddins suggests, “They don’t have a prayer. They don’t have a prayer because it’s expensive, and state legislatures are run by people [who] want to cut programs, not add programs.”

James Heckman suggests that the logic of testing has led schools to focus on cognitive skills and to ignore inter-personal skills or “character”. He’s not wrong; there is pressure to audit educational outcomes, and math and reading skills are much easier to quantify than self-discipline and socialization.

Audit culture is not the only roadblock, though. The neo-liberal response that labelled Oklahoma Republican Ron Peters a socialist, as much as anything else, seems to keep academic findings on preschool, community literacy, mentoring programs and like from finding wider purchase. Against the assumption that “human well-being can best be achieved by the maximization of entrepreneurial freedoms” (Rytteri and Puhakka 2012, quoted by Dick 2012), suggestions that community intervention through state-funded public education can contribute to individual well-being and social improvement seem like socialist heresy.

This post veers dangerously toward being yet another lament on linguists’ (and other scholars’) failure to educate the broader public, or the public’s ignorance of anthropological knowledge, and that is not where I wanted it to go. Instead, let me try to contribute to public understanding by summarizing one of the key texts in my education on this topic. In the remainder of this post I’ll try to summarize Shirley Brice Heath’s “What no bedtime story means” (1982).

What no bedtime story means

Based on field work in a suburban middle-class community (which Heath calls Maintown), an Appalachian mill town (Roadville) and a rural black community (Trackton), Heath describes different approaches to literacy in different socio-economic and cultural settings.

In Maintown, parents talk with and read to their children. Books and images or characters from books decorate children’s rooms. From the time they start to talk, children and their caregivers talk about books, and parents relate real-world experiences to the stories or characters in books. Parents also model various school-like practices such as asking questions and expecting the child to answer.

In various ways, Maintown children are taught not only how to read but how to be students and how to learn from literacy events. Middle class parents tend to think of this behavior as ordinary and unremarkable, and teachers, who often come from middle class backgrounds themselves, expect children to start school with the kinds of pre-literacy skills these experiences teach—though the expectation is often unconscious.

Experiences of literacy in Roadville are somewhat different from those in Maintown, however. In Roadville, as in Maintown, babies are brought home to rooms decorated with books and images from children’s stories. Roadville parents and other caregivers read to children, but such experiences tend to focus on words and letters more so than in Maintown. Roadville caregivers sometimes “interpret” story books for children, retelling the plot in simplified form and asking the children to recall specific elements from the story. According to Heath, “Adults in Roadville believe that instilling in children the proper use of words and understanding of the meaning of the written word are important.”

Roadville children learn the technology of literacy – how to hold and handle books, how letters make words, etc. – but they are not encouraged to connect the content of reading to their own lives and experiences.

Roadville children tend to do well in the first three years of elementary school. They know the alphabet and are willing to sit still and to listen to their teachers. But in later grades, when students are called on to work more independently, or to expand their interpretations beyond what is presented in readings or lessons, they begin to fall behind. “As the importance and frequency of questions and reading habits with which they are familiar decline in the higher grades, they have no way of keeping up or of seeking help in learning what it is they do not even know they don’t know.”

Unlike Maintown or Roadville, there are no reading materials especially for children in Trackton. There are no rituals marking bedtime, and thus no bedtime reading or stories. Sometimes older siblings will read to young children or try to “play school” with them. Adults generally look on such behavior as children’s activities and do not encourage the younger children to pay attention when they become bored and try to squirm away.

Trackton children can tell stories about their own lives, patterned on adult’s narrative practices. They are skilled in describing events and calling on their audiences to join in creating an imagined world. But Trackton children have little exposure to “Once upon a time” type stories or to adult-led questions about the content of books or stories.

When they arrive in school, Trackton children have little experience with the kinds of questions that teachers ask. They are unable to identify characters or items from (often highly stylized) images in books. They also lack experience with the technology of reading such as books.

Schools generally expect that all children have Maintown-style communication skills. As a result, Trackton students have trouble adjusting to classroom practice in early grades. Although Roadville students do all right with reading early on, by fourth grade they are unable to relate the facts found in books to their own knowledge or experiences and start to falter. The problems that Roadville and Trackton children experience in school are not only a product of their different patterns of socialization around literacy, but of schools’ expectations that children come to school with Maintown experiences and skills.