I recently shared a fascinating study on the impact of the historical legacy of a place, which found that students living in neighborhoods with a legacy of economic and residential segregation had greater odds of dropping out of high school compared to their peers in other neighborhoods.
The existing social capital of a neighborhood, in other words, is associated with the historical legacy of that particular place.
This makes a lot of sense to those of us that work in communities with legacies of poverty and trauma. And it also relates to a concept that Will shared here back in 2012: hysteresis.As explained on Wikipedia, hysteresis refers to “the dependence of the state of a system on its history.” This concept can be applicable to a wide range of systems—in our case here, we are considering socio-ecological systems.
Another recent study presents further support for the impact of the legacy of a place on people. Researchers used online surveys of the “big five” personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and examined them in connection to a region’s historical legacy associated with industrialization during the 19th and 20th century.
Their results suggest “that the massive industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries had long-term psychosocial effects that continue to shape the well-being, health, and behaviors of millions of people in these regions today.”
“. . . .Our research shows that a region’s historical industries leave a lasting imprint on the local psychology, which remains even when those industries are no longer dominant or have almost completely disappeared.”
The author concludes that “Without a strong orchestrated effort to improve economic circumstances and people’s well-being and health in these regions, this legacy is likely to persist.”
Granted that this study is based on data gathered from online surveys. But the “big five” survey has a fairly robust research base behind it and predicts academic achievement and parenting behavior (you can also take the survey yourself; I found my own results enlightening). But of course, further research into the impacts of the historical legacy of a place should continue to be pursued.
In the meantime, for those of us who work with children raised in communities that bear the legacies of injury, we need to be mindful not only of the individual needs of the children before us, but furthermore the history of the place within which they live.
“Initially, medical audiences I spoke to in the 1980s listened politely, though probably some were dubious and did not really accept the findings [that views of nature improved patient outcomes]. But today, after so much progress in mind-body medical research, few would seriously question the notion that if an environmental design intervention is shown to reduce patient stress, then it could also foster better clinical outcomes. The idea that stress-reducing interventions improve clinical outcomes has become mainstream knowledge that medical students learn.”
And yet, for those of us who work in public education, this understanding is not so widely embraced even still in 2018. Despite the clarity of research in our field around the impact of toxic stress on children’s learning, we pretend that the design of the physical environment of our classrooms and schools has little bearing.
We may be ignoring what may be one of the most direct and sustainable methods to improving outcomes for kids — designing our schools to foster and promote health and well-being.
But I’m no longer quite as opposed to differentiation, and I can now see how there can be a strong symbiosis between scaffolding and differentiation.
I’ve been working with a school in the Bronx where we’ve been talking a lot about these concepts, and they’ve helped me to think a little more deeply. So I figured it would be worth sharing my updated learning.
Why it’s important
Teachers are often criticized by school and district leaders for not “differentiating” enough, yet rarely provided any clear guidance on how to do so. And there’s furthermore a lot of vagueness out there in the field on the distinctions between scaffolding and differentiation.
I want to share my revised thinking on the connection between the two concepts in the hope that I can help to clarify, rather than muddy, the use of these terms.
Here’s a visual model of how I now view scaffolds and differentiation:
Scaffolding = Steps
As students practice a skill or develop knowledge of a concept, their ability and understanding increases in complexity. A master teacher breaks down a skill or concept into smaller components, all the way down to the most basic and fundamental level, so that students can accelerate up the ladder towards mastery (just as jump school recruits do with a parachute landing fall).
Those sequential steps are the scaffolds.
Scaffolding, therefore, requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught (content/skills).
Differentiation = Where each student is on those steps and what they need to progress
Differentiation, on the other hand, requires a teacher to know their individual students well enough to know what each student requires at every step on their trajectory towards mastery, and where they are on that trajectory.
Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each of their individual student’s needs and current level of performance.
Distinguishing between Scaffolds and Differentiation
Scaffolding is aligned to a concept or skill.
Differentiation is aligned to the individual student.
Scaffolds are the sequential steps that lead to mastery of a skill or a deeper understanding of a concept.
Differentiation is in what manner and how much time a student may need to practice or review a step, as well as how much feedback may need to be provided.
Scaffolding requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught.
Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each individual student’s needs and current level of performance.
The two thus work in tandem.
A sidenote on how all this relates to personalized learning
This brings out something interesting about the edtech industry’s drive for “personalized learning.” The concept of personalized learning arguably aligns most strongly with differentiation.
What is not frequently discussed is that in order to personalize something, you must first define that “something” and break it into its component parts. How you do this and the decisions you make and the feedback you provide are just as important as matching that content to a student’s needs.
In other words, whenever you hear about personalized learning, ignore the inspirational student-centered rhetoric and home in on the content itself. What platform or curriculum is being used? What trajectory is presented by that content? Does this trajectory align with widely respected standards or guidance from national or international professional organizations.
Definitions and Characteristics
A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.
Smaller, sequential components of a complex concept, task, or skill
Requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught
At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, a scaffold isn’t about making something “easier” for students
Must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along or have a scaffold removed until they have demonstrated mastery of each component
Doubles as performance-based formative assessment
Differentiation provides an individual student with the targeted practice or thinking, and with the necessary feedback, in order to progress towards defined learning goals.
Adjustments in environment, content, process, or product to account for an individual student’s current level of knowledge, ability, or interest
Based on the trajectory of scaffolding for the current topic or unit of study
Requires the teacher to be deeply aware of an individual student’s needs and current level of performance
At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, differentiation isn’t about making something “easier” for the student
You’ll notice that there is a key characteristic that is shared between these two: neither are about making something easier for a student — they are both about moving learners closer to mastery of whatever it is that they are practicing and studying.
This is important because unfortunately there is a strong tendency by educators to deem some students as incapable of achieving mastery of success in academic learning.
But what is most often the case is that the educator doesn’t know what they are teaching well enough in order to provide specific and targeted supports for their students.
There’s still a lot more to dig into on this topic — specifically how it relates to formal education plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. But I think this is more than enough for one post!
Please push back on any of this to help me further clarify and refine my thinking on scaffolding and differentiation.
A few weeks ago, a middle school in the Bronx that I work with had a visit from their superintendent. She blasted them for their disorganized learning environments, and for good reason: classrooms were cluttered with charts serving little purpose aside from demonstrating the residue of what was once taught.
I also happened to speak recently with a pre-K teacher of children with autism who emphasized the importance of a calm, uncluttered environment for her students. She kept her walls mostly bare. She said that the idea that classroom walls need to have something on them is “old-fashioned thinking”; such educators think that “if I have a lot on the walls, then kids are learning a lot. But it’s more about the teacher than the kids.”
This teacher thinks deeply about what her students need, and she has realized that having very little up on the walls is critical to creating an environment for learning for students sensitive to visual stimulus.
I think at some level most teachers recognize this, when they are asked. At that middle school I mentioned, the leadership and then staff discussed what an effective classroom environment looked like, and the importance of a lack of clutter was raised.
Yet in all too many classrooms, especially in struggling schools, walls are strewn with the bricolage of lessons past. How many of those charts are actively referred to by students?
A small study in 2014 by Carnegie Mellon, as reported by NBC News, backs up the idea that clutter on classroom walls can have a detrimental effect on learning. They found that:
In the sparse classroom, the kindergartners got distracted by other students or even themselves. But in the decorated one, children were more likely to be distracted by the visual environment and spent far more time “off task.”
In other words, young children are easily distractable. So putting a bunch of stuff up on the walls will distract them even more. In heavens name, why would we deliberately make it harder for our kids to focus and learn?
And yet in too many classrooms and schools, we do exactly that. We create environments that make it harder for students to focus, rather than easier.
And why do we do that? Because all too often, we put things up for other adults, rather than for our students.
Look at all we are learning!, our classroom walls scream.
The irony: all those artifacts make it harder for students to learn.
Teachers, take an honest look at your classroom walls, and ask yourself: What is on my classroom walls? Why? Who is it for? How often (if at all) do my students refer to what’s there?
Here’s a rule of thumb to combat distraction: If what is up on your wall will not be referred to by your students in the next week or two, then take it down.
Take a picture of it if you want a record of it, or do like one great teacher I worked with did and tape it to a wire hanger and hang it in a closet or on a clothes rack for past anchor charts that you can bring back out as needed.
A recent study, “Towards Conceptualizing and Empirically Examining Legacy of Place: An Exploratory Consideration of Historic Neighborhood Characteristics on Contemporary Dropout Behavior” provides a novel look into such a perspective by examining the historical legacy of neighborhoods and how that legacy relates to inequality.
We argue that legacy of place is formed through historic economic and racial residential segregation, which influences economic and social status resource allocation in the present day. . . . School segregation influences the amount of social capital resources available to a neighborhood, which contributes to the existence of clusters of high poverty and high dropout rates among neighborhoods with low levels of social capital.
After testing their theory through multiple analyses, the authors found “that students living in legacy neighborhoods had over 16% higher odds of dropping out of school compared to their peers not living in these types of neighborhoods.”
“these findings should provide inertia for the creation of policies that address the lasting influence of historic neighborhood racial and economic segregation. Such polices may help to equalize racial educational outcome gaps considering minorities are more likely to reside in legacy neighborhoods compared to whites.”
This wider context is critical to bear in mind, especially in light of another recent study that challenges the benefit of in-school integration. As reported by the NY Times, “In School Together, but Not Learning at the Same Rate,”Nicole Mader, the co-author of the study, said the lingering achievement gap demonstrates that just having different kinds of students together in the same building is not enough to have true integration.”
Indeed. It’s bigger than that. It is the historical legacy that have led to segregated neighborhoods that must be actively fought.
But school diversity, even when it’s not enough, is at least a step in the right direction.
I can’t even keep up with all the discussion, critiques, and calls for desegregating our public schools — and that’s a good thing.
Errol Louis calls out limousine NYC liberals on MLK Day:
Today’s festival of liberal self-congratulation, in which members of New York’s establishment pat one another on the back, actually isn’t very King-like. To truly follow in the great man’s footsteps would mean summoning the courage to tackle the same issue he fought and died for — unraveling our city’s web of segregated housing and schools.
Honoring King would mean finally pressing for passage of a City Council bill, bottled up and ignored in past years, that would require boards of the city’s 300,000 cooperative apartments to abide by the fair-housing laws and provide applicants with the reason they were accepted or rejected.
A citywide housing lottery that gave equal preference to people based on need rather than zip code would begin to break down the city’s segregated patterns. A lawsuit has been filed by the Anti-Discrimination Center, a civil rights organization, but the progressive de Blasio administration is fighting the case tooth and nail.
Even if you develop affordable housing in a currently exclusive neighborhood, it you don’t address the social processes that lead people to sort themselves into those neighborhoods, it’s pointless. You have to address those social sorting processes as well.
These uncomfortable facts are often lost in school desegregation thinking. Too often, integration activists propose feel-good solutions to segregated schools that run aground on the sturdy self-interest of privileged white families. If we hinge a desegregation effort on white families’ good intentions, altruism, or willingness to change their minds … we can pretty much guarantee that it won’t work.
Back in 2014, NY Times Magazine published a piece called “The Tale of Two Schools,” recounting a program to bring together students from Fieldston—an elite private high school in Riverdale—and University Heights HS—a public school in the South Bronx.
The latest “This American Life” podcast returns to this program, exploring it from the perspective of students involved in the program from both schools, asking the question, “What impact did this program actually have on the perspectives of the students many years later?”
It’s a powerful and thought-provoking episode. Give it a listen here.
I’ve realized that part of the reason I don’t post much anymore is that whenever I do think of something to write about (which is all the time), it just feels too big to dig into with the limited time I’ve got.
So I’m just going to start posting tidbits, whenever I can.
Here’s two awesome articles today that excited me because they are both about topics I care deeply about.
There’s a problem with special education in the US. Marc Tucker tries to get down to the bottom of things
“The most likely explanation is that the very act of formally designating a student as a special education student lowers the expectations for that student’s performance held by everyone whose expectations count: teachers, parents, the student and their peers.”
I think Tucker’s hypothesis bears some truth. From my own experience as a special education teacher, I’ve seen how the label introduces its own set of psychological burdens. And we have a lot of kids being labeled who are simply struggling with academics, but not with any overt “disability” that can be clearly discerned.
“Far from suggesting that the top performers should learn a thing or two from us about helping special education students, we should be learning from the top performers how to keep students who do not truly need it out of special education by doing what they are doing to enable them to reach high standards in the first place.”
So how do other countries keep students out of special education?
“The top performers provide far more support than the U.S. does to families with young children—everything from cash awards to nutritional assistance to pregnant women to very long and well-supported family leave for fathers and mothers to universal, high-quality child care and early childhood education. But it does not stop there. It also includes a higher ratio of teachers to students in schools serving low-income, minority students; extra funds for schools serving large numbers of vulnerable students; coordinated social services; strong incentives for their best teachers and principals to serve in schools with large proportions of vulnerable students; more time for students who need extra time to reach high standards; close monitoring of student progress to make sure that students who start to fall behind get the help they need to catch up quickly and more time for teachers to work one-on-one and in small groups with students who need extra help.”
Reading this list, it just seems so common-sense, doesn’t it? Yet the tragedy is that there is little political will nor ideological support for these kinds of investments in the US. You start saying this kind of stuff too often, you get labeled as some kind of socialist or union shill. The reality is that when it comes to things like public education and social services, the people in the US who have the money and/or power to make things happen are most interested in things that sparkle and that offer the promise of a quick fix.
Yet Tucker also provides an interesting point in his conclusion, when he brings up the outlier in special education labeling, Finland, which labels upward of 38 percent of their kids:
“In Finland, they solved the problem by simply saying that many kinds of students need special help. Some may be gifted and some might have a hearing or vision problem. Some might need one-time-only help and others might need continuous help. In Finland, most students get “special education” help at least once in their school career. Because that is true, there is no stigma. Every school has a “special education” teacher trained to provide a wide range of special help to the students in that school who need it. This is an idea worth conjuring with.”
This definitely bears promise. In fact, this is how the special education team at my former middle school began approaching services. We recognized just how much of a stigma being labeled “special ed” had on kids, so we set about rebranding our work. We called ourselves Student Support services–because at some point, every student needs some kind of support.
Sounds a lot more positive, doesn’t it? Maybe special education as a system needs to be rebranded in this way.
Use #CharlottesvilleCurriculum for suggestions on what to start your school year discussions off with
Queens teacher Vivett Dukes writes:
“We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.”
I agree. I’ve written before about the need to have tough–and nuanced–conversations with kids about race. You can find some useful classroom materials for doing this using the #ChartlottesvilleCurriculum hashtag.
Betty Rosa and MaryEllen Elia call for integration
“We committed to, as a department and as a Board of Regents, [the] notion of naming it,” Rosa said, referring to the state’s draft integration statement, which referred to New York schools as the most segregated in the country. “You’ve got to name it.”
Elia chimed in too, tying integration to the recent events in Charlottesville.
“I would say the last six days have pointed out to all of us that, clearly, this is something that must be on the agenda,” Elia said.
It’s nice to see them taking a strong stand on this issue, and making definitive statements. This is the most positive direction I can point to from our state ed leaders.
On other issues, however, I’ve really been struggling to understand what the vision from NY state ed leaders is for moving forward on education. The Board of Regents seems very clear about its intent to dismantle prior efforts at ed reform, but not very clear about what sort of system they would wish to put in its place. It’s easy to lambast what’s wrong; it’s much harder to put in place something better.
Janie Tankard Carnock at New America has a useful compilation of points to bear in mind when looking at data on ELs.
Here’s a good example of one: ELs at different stages progress at different rates.
“This growth principle is an important one to keep in mind when evaluating current EL progress to make claims about a school’s performance. For example, it will be easier for an average kindergarten EL to move from level 1 to 2 on the ELP exam than a sixth grade EL to move from level 4 to 5. This reality suggests the need for differentiated growth goals, ones that are more ambitious earlier on and more conservative in older years and/or at higher ELP levels.”
And another key one: Poverty affects most ELs and, as a result, their educational outcomes.
“…the school and district context as it intersects with poverty is another significant factor for ELs. Around 70 percent of ELs nationwide attend schools with disproportionately greater numbers of low-income students and other ELs. Such schools are typically under-resourced and have higher dropout rates, higher student mobility, more difficulty hiring and retaining effective teachers, and poorer quality curricular resources.”
Data is complex, people. Too many folks in schools are judging their students and programs based on one state test score.
Uncommon Schools on why some kids weren’t making it through college
“Some of the obvious reasons included the very real fact that financial problems dogged many students, as did the difficulties of transitioning to a completely unstructured college setting with complete freedom.
But Uncommon also discovered other insightful reasons why students struggled. First, students, far too often, were “undermatching.” Capable students were enrolling in colleges beneath their academic level, which increased their odds of dropping out of school. Data collected from Uncommon Schools also revealed definitive evidence that students who received less than a 3.0 GPA in high school struggled the most to stay in college.”
All school systems should be tracking and taking action on whether their students are making it to and graduating from college. This is the real work.
Though I would suggest that tracking and taking action on whether students are entering a successful career should be another component of this as well.
Sometimes responsiveness to parents can result in inequity
Some private and suburban schools are inflating grades, most likely due to pressure from parents. This puts urban kids at a disadvantage when applying to college.
“This is one of those things that works like a contagion,” Weissbourd said. “If you’re an independent school or a suburban school and you’re giving Bs and the school in the next community is giving A-minuses, you start to feel like those kids are going to get a leg up. So you start giving out A-minuses.”
Another example that context is everything (rather than isolated data points supposedly based upon meritocracy). Some colleges are adjusting for this, but most are not.
“A lot of people are going to do what’s best for their own kids,” Nichols said. “They’re trying to set things up to give their kids the best opportunity they can have. And that doesn’t lead to particularly good public policy.”
UK research shows 2 month progress as result of “dialogic” academic discussions
“Children in Dialogic Teaching schools made two additional months’ progress in English and science, and one additional month’s progress in maths, compared to children in control schools, on average. The three padlock security rating means we are moderately confident that this difference was due to the intervention and not to other factors.”
There was one strange little tidbit in the overview on this, though:
“The consistent results across subjects and the lack of any subject specific content in the training suggest that the approach may improve children’s overall thinking and learning skills rather than their knowledge in a given topic.” (bold added)
This seems like a problematic assertion to me. I think these results across content areas demonstrate that academic discussion holds great potential as a general strategy, which therefore means that if we make it dependent upon domain-specific knowledge, then we can see much greater advances in knowledge, rather than only “overall thinking and learning skills.”
A really good piece from UK educator Harry Fletcher-Wood on approaching planning as a department
I strongly agree with this approach and have begun targeting departmental coherence as my focus when working with ELA teachers here in the Bronx. Fletcher-Wood provides some really concrete and useful guidance on how to do this work.
I’ll be writing more about how I approach this work with ELA teams.