Yvette Jackson, CEO ofÂ National Urban Alliance,Â opens her session, titledÂ Transforming Urban Classrooms Through Strengths: Making Students Smart Again, with helping the audience to understand the disconnect between students’ lives and what goes on in the classroom. Â How do many inner city students think about content? “You guys are talking about 1779, but this is today.”
She makes the case that in order to reach low achieving students we need to help students understand the target by making the objective clear and relevant. Â Students need to be given experiences from which they can process the constant question our brains ask, “What is relevant and what is not?”
She argues that we’ve lost the art of pedagogy by getting caught up in the tide of focussing on students’ weaknesses rather than strengths. Â “Data mining” = code for finding weaknesses. Schools areÂ inundatedÂ with programs designed to find areas that need improvement, but how would students feel and respond if we said to them instead, “I am here to find your strengths”?
Yvette sites research to propose that brains want challenge, feedback, and to be pushed to the edge.
That students are all different is without question. Â In light of this, she suggests we ask ourselves, “What are the behaviors that allow students to function at a high level? What do they need?”
Piaget says, “High level activities increase intellectual development.” This should guide us toward creating learning experiences that stimulate high intellectual performance.
As a bridge, she begins to move toward the idea that teaching should begin with a concept. For example, instead of starting with “Voting” we should give them a “frame of reference” by opening with “Choice”. Â This conceptual foundation provides multiple pathways to content from any experience base. Â All students understand “choice” in their worlds. Â From there, moving toward “Voting” as a version of making a choice connects the material to students’ lives beyond school.
This approach is supported by proponents of differentiated instruction and begins to connect Jackson’s assertions with some of the larger trends in education. Â It is herein, in my opinion, that her case goes from being a good idea to being possible. Â Here begins the strategies.
Low achievers vs. Underachievers. Â Intriguing, small changes in vocabulary can have huge consequences in how students see themselves, and how they perform. Â This “positional language” can be thought of as “Power over vs. Power with”. Â The brain research she sites (reportedÂ here in the USA Today) links the role of poverty on brain development and leads to the gap between a student’s potential and actual performance.
Yvette Jackson (here on YouTube) has something to teach us all about how to make education relevant to students who have been under-served (and perhaps mis-served) by our well-meaning attempt to help them overcome their weaknesses. Â And not just those students. Â The core of her point applies to all students. Â How can we help students fully realize their potential? Â Give them a pedagogy that builds on their confidence, their natural areas of high achievement, and a sense that what they learn in our schools is relevant to their lives.
This is most critical in urban schools where the gaps between teachers and students, high achieving and underachieving students, and the poor and the rich is most extreme.