Race, class, opportunity, and deeper learning

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What happens when two sets of education advocates with valid perspectives collide?

A recent post at Education Week’s “Learning Deeply” blog discussed the tension between advocates of deeper learning practices (e.g. more student-directed and project based) and civil rights advocates concerned about achievement and opportunity gaps. The author, Jal Mehta, discussed some origins of the tension, including concerns that deeper learning practices don’t do enough to develop core knowledge and skills.

Several aspects of Mehta’s post called to mind Lisa Delpit’s discussion of how “basic” skills are defined. In her book, “Multiplication is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, and especially in Chapter 3, Delpit argues that the prevailing definition of “basic” skills and knowledge in our schools assumes a middle class upbringing.

For children of the middle class, the cultural context and knowledge they get at home is aligned with the education system’s cultural context, so school is a place to learn about problem-solving, working independently, and similar skills. Children from under-resourced families often come to school with much more skill in these areas but different cultural capital. To use some of Delpit’s examples, it’s the difference between knowing what polliwogs and canoes are (cultural context more commonly found in the middle class) and knowing how to react when paint spills or a jacket is lost (real world problem-solving, more commonly found in children from lower income backgrounds).

In other words, children in under-resourced communities typically have a head start on higher-order thinking and deeper learning but also need teachers who can help them build cultural capital. Teachers can still do this using deeper learning techniques. Delpit offers as an exemplar a teacher whose experiential, hands-on unit about the Silk Road (which also included water travel) also built students’ knowledge of and experience with different kinds of boats (not otherwise a part of their day-to-day lives or context), helping them expand their knowledge of middle class culture. One can also imagine Delpit finding things to like at High School for the Recording Arts here in Minnesota which offers deeper learning opportunities to students starting closer to their own cultural context.

Both Delpit and Mehta decry rote memorization and mindless worksheets. Both take seriously concerns about teachers’ readiness to implement deeper learning practices. Both would likely agree that ensuring cultural capital is built through deeper learning practices would be a better use of time and effort than the scripted, test-centric approaches currently in vogue. To close this opportunity gap, we need teachers who have the skills to do it well and the trust and support of administrators and policymakers.