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The Missing Element in Reducing the Learning Gap: Eliminating the "Blank Stare"

by Stanley Pogrow - October 03, 2004

This article views the failure of policy to reduce the learning gap over the past decade as a function of the reforms to solve the most pervasive and fundamental learning blockage faced by disadvantaged students and their teachers. This most fundamental problem is viewed as the tendency of the students to stare when asked an open-ended, analytical question. The basis thesis is that the learning gap cannot be reduced substantially, and that disadvantaged students cannot achieve at their full considerable intellectual potential, until this fundamental problem is solved. This article draws on the authorís experience both as a teacher in inner city schools and as a researcher to explain the cause of the stare, and the keys to eliminating the problem.

Many, many years ago (more 'manys' than I want to admit) I was a public school teacher in New York City teaching disadvantaged middle and high school students from Harlem and Hells Kitchen. I and my peers were using the latest reform; a discovery approach to teaching. Please keep in mind that I was a highly motivated teacher who loved his students.  I think I was a hip (that is how we spoke back then) teacher who was liked by his students.  I was committed to the ideal of using progressive approaches to education with disadvantaged students and was as knowledgeable about the research of the times as a teacher could be.  All the advocacy and theory would therefore predict that I and my students would experience great success.  However, amidst the successes that I had with individual students and with different topics it was not an overall success.  There was one stumbling block that I never was able to overcome.  Whenever I asked an open-ended question, or any question that required real generalization or abstraction, the students would stare at me.  My eager hyperactive students suddenly became silent and stared blankly at me.  The more I urged them to “think,” the harder they stared and the more puzzled they seemed to be.  Then the silence would become unbearable, and they would avert their gaze.  I then faced the dilemma of: "What do I do now?"  The only available choices appeared to be to either simplify the questions or give obvious hints, which would defeat the goal of bringing higher forms of learning to the students, or be satisfied with the same two or three students answering the more open-ended questions. My peers had the same dilemma. 


I sensed then that the blank stare would always limit both my effectiveness as a teacher and the academic success of my students. As a result, I set off on a quest to understand why they stared when we tried to get them to reach into the world of reflection and abstraction.  The following is what I have learnt in the intervening years based on large-scale research and experience.


My initial instinct was correct.  The blank stare is ground zero of school reform, i.e. the real litmus test of whether any given reform is reducing the gap.  Regardless of the reform flavor at a given moment, if when teachers close their door and ask a complex question most of the disadvantaged students stare, then the reform is not reducing the gap.  The blank stare is education’s equivalent of the miner’s canary.  It is an indicator of whether things are okay in the trenches.


Unfortunately, the reforms of the past decade have had little impact on the stare.  Today when I visit “reform” schools teachers are still either asking primarily simple questions or only a few students are answering the complex questions with the rest staring.  Most of these are very good teachers who are as frustrated now as I was then.  I watch my well trained and enthusiastic student teachers get so frustrated that they virtually stop asking complex questions after several weeks in the classroom.  Despite all the new theories and techniques, things are not well in the trenches, and the problem at ground zero remains the same.  Indeed, gaps re-widened in the 90’s despite major reform efforts.


In order to deal substantively with the “stare” two misconceptions have to be put to rest.  The first is the belief that disadvantaged students are not capable of abstract thinking, and it is not fair to expect that.  In the 70’s they were even categorized as “concrete” thinkers. In the 80’s the self-concept movement preached asking simple questions so that students could gain self-concept by getting correct answers.  Nonsense!  Disadvantaged students are as capable of abstract thought as anyone.


The second misconception is that the dumbing down of questions is primarily a result of teachers not being sufficiently trained or motivated, and that this can be solved with advocacy and yet more staff development.  Nonsense!  I and my peers were well trained and motivated—and we still could not produce the desired reflectiveness in our students.


The core of the problem is that these wonderful students are not prepared to answer reflective questions.  Staff development to train teachers to ask reflective questions is of little value if students are not prepared to respond.  The lack of student responsiveness is not because of ability.  Rather, it results from the gap in disadvantaged students’ access to the types of cultural interactions that do prepare an individual to engage in reflective and abstract thought.  The key needed interactions are discussions with adults about ideas, a process that traditionally took place around the greatest educational institution of all—the dinner table. 


Unfortunately, disadvantaged students generally come to school without having had the opportunity to talk with adults about ideas.   In addition, such a lack is not racial but economic.  As you move down the economic ladder talk in the home diminishes dramatically.  Betty Hart and Todd Risley found in their landmark study, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, that students from low-income households arrive in school with tens of millions fewer language interaction opportunities in the home.  The interactions they do have largely involve listening to literal commands, i.e., "do this" and "do that".  In addition, most of the adult talk is negative in nature, admonishing and criticizing.


The absence of prior conversation with adults about ideas leads to disadvantaged students having so little cultural sense of how to engage in systematic or generalized thought that I refer to them as students who do not understand "understanding."  They have no idea of how to engage in fundamental aspects of understanding and working with ideas that we take for granted and that underlie all learning.  The stare means: "I do not know what you mean when you ask me to think, or what you want me to do.  Please tell me what to do so I can answer your question." Thinking is a cultural way of representing things, just like language.  Every culture does it differently.  Therefore, when a teacher asks a complex question that requires thought it is equivalent to speaking to them in a strange foreign language.  No wonder the students stare blankly. Nor is it surprising that after years of this cultural dissonance the students become resentful and frustrated.   Nor is it surprising that teachers become equally frustrated by their inability to break through the blank stare.  How can teachers even begin to develop a fundamental cultural sense of understanding in their students and still teach? 


Indeed the absence of a sense of understanding and the resultant blank stare is the single biggest problem facing American education.  It limits the achievement potential of disadvantaged students after the earliest grades when the curriculum becomes more integrative and abstract—regardless of how much progress students have made earlier.  In addition, the understanding gap is so great that the problem of the blank stare has been immune from the effects of the myriad reforms of the past 38 years.   


Are the schools helpless to develop a sense of understanding in disadvantaged students and thereby get them to become reflective learners who respond to open-ended questions given the enormity of the conversation gap?  Are we doomed to be tortured forever by the blank stare and its consequences because of environmental issues that are beyond the control of the school? No! 


However, the key to solving the problem of the “blank stare” is to be realistic and recognize that: a) the gap in opportunities to discuss ideas with adults is so huge that it is impossible for any one teacher in the context of regular classroom instruction to overcome this huge deficit—no matter how well trained or motivated, and b) no reform will solve the learning gap unless it addresses the conversation gap directly. The easy gains in gap reduction have been made and a new approach is needed.


One potential way to deal with the conversation deficit is for all teachers in a school to agree to ask the same type of key thinking questions on a day in and day out basis and push for student responses.  Over time, repeated exposure to a similar set of thinking questions across all content should theoretically help to produce the familiarity and confidence that enables increasing numbers of disadvantaged students to start responding.  This is the proverbial “village” approach.


While valuable, the village approach has some problems.  First, it is hard to get all teachers in a school to buy into anything.  Second, while I have helped schools implement the village approach, I have no data to this point on its effectiveness.  I am sure that it would take many years for this approach to have an effect given the huge initial conversation gap.  This is problematic for mobile students.


As a result, while the village approach can help, it is not likely a solution. This is why I developed the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) program 24 years ago to explore the effects of providing an intensive conversation environment for a period of time as a substitute for supplemental drill and test prep. The program generates a very creative and intensive Socratic conversation environment in a specialized setting‑either during or after school.  It combines the use of technology and Socratic teaching techniques, i.e., teaching by asking.  Socratic teaching is made possible by a combination of a sophisticated and creative curriculum designed in accordance with brain theory, and intensive teacher training that develops new reflexes for interacting with students. 


After working with 2600 schools and half a million disadvantaged students all over the U.S., and experimenting with a variety of implementation processes, some key findings emerged from this experience over time. This large-scale research has shown that the right type of engaging and consistent conversation for 40 minutes a day can produce a sense of understanding in 1.5-2 years.  The conversation needs to be provided in groups of 10-12 students by a good teacher trained in Socratic conversation techniques, using a curriculum designed from the ground up to intrigue students and stimulate Socratic conversation.  (It is important that teachers conduct Socratic conversations, i.e., teach by asking, in order to provide students with the opportunity to create their own understandings.)  The critical need is for students to create and articulate ideas, and then articulate rationales, justifications, and strategies, over and over and over, and over again— with virtually no overt direction or hints from teachers.  The best time to provide such an intensive small group conversation experience appears to start around the middle of the third grade.  While you can start as late as the eighth grade, the earlier you start the better.  The blank stares disappear.


As the stares start to disappear both basic and advanced skills accelerate. In comparisons HOTS students have developed three times the gains in reading comprehension tests as additional content/test prep activities.  Our latest research is showing that HOTS is able to produce substantial gains simultaneously on 16 different measures of academic and cognitive (thinking) development, including GPA, metacognition, writing, and novel problem solving, while comparison students who received extra help in content declined. Other research has shown that close to 15% of the HOTS Title I students make honor role in the first year.  There are reports of HOTS Title I students being reclassified as Gifted, and teams of HOTS students beating Gifted students in competitions.  In addition, there is tremendous growth in social confidence and verbalization skills.  In other words, it appears that developing a sense of understanding transfers to a wide variety of substantial gains.


At the same time, developing a sense of understanding does not insure student success.  In the limited follow-up research we have conducted it appears to function as an “enabler.” Those students who develop a sense of understanding and want to succeed perform well academically at the next level of school.   On the other hand, few of the over-remediated comparison students do well later on.  In other words, those students who do not develop a sense of understanding appear to hit a “cognitive wall” that limits their ability to perform academically as they progress through school.   Conversely, the benefits of developing a sense of understanding are so dramatic that it should be part of any legal construct related to equity and opportunity to learn.


It is hard to convey in print how dramatically the student-teacher interaction dynamic is changed once disadvantaged students develop a sense of understanding.  It is also difficult to convince people of the importance of developing a sense of understanding and the specific conditions needed to bring it about because so few have successfully produced or observed such effects.   Much like a biologist who sees certain things for the first time because of having access to a more powerful microscope, I and thousands of HOTS teachers had a more powerful tool to produce, observe, and research the phenomenon of a sense of understanding—and witness its effects on academic and social growth.


That is not to say that HOTS is the only way to provide the needed intensive conversation. The most important contribution of the HOTS research is the principles of the conditions needed to produce a sense of understanding in ways that transfer to improved academic outcomes and social development.  The most important findings were that:  a) It takes 35-40 minutes a day of intensive sophisticated conversation for 1.5 to 2 years to develop a sense of understanding, b) such a self-contained environment is needed before the disadvantaged will be successful in thinking-in-content problem solving curricula, and c) providing such a self-contained environment produces greater test score gains than supplemental drill and test-prep work.  (A more detailed summary of findings can be obtained from this author via e mail.)


Unfortunately, the notion of establishing a separate intervention to provide a small group Socratic learning environment for 1.5-2 years goes against the grain of the deeply held positions of both progressives and traditionalists. While progressives are ardent advocates of thinking development for the disadvantaged, historically they have implemented it in unsystematic and ineffective ways that unintentionally widen gaps.  Progressives generally advocate that disadvantaged students be immediately placed in problem solving content curricula, and that all teaching and learning should be problem solving based.  In particular, my experience is that they react viscerally against finding “b” above and characterize the process of taking disadvantaged students aside to first develop a sense of understanding as a form of tracking, labeling, and/or stigmatizing students.  Such well intentioned criticism confuses means and progressive ends, and ultimately relegates most disadvantaged students to be “starers,” 


In reality, both the teachers and students back in my school in New York City were victims of these good intentions.  The students should not have been placed into thinking-in-content, in that case a discovery approach to learning in math and science, until they had first been put into an intervention to develop their sense of understanding.  Had our students had such a systematic intervention, their eyes would have shined with energy and thoughtfulness when we asked the types of questions that we did.  The students then would have benefited from, and succeeded in, discovery approaches to teaching and learning as well as anyone. 


Traditionalists, on the other hand, keep the focus on just basic skills and accountability.  They believe that the more time spent on basic skills the greater the rise of test scores. However, while skill development is important, if all you do is remedial/test prep work, you not only stunt the intellectual and emotional development of students, you also inhibit test score improvement.  This is why traditionalist periods do generally produce test score gains but these gains plateau quickly and disillusionment sets in.  For example, the results from the Chancellor’s district in New York City showed that massive doses of reading instruction, three hours a day, did raise reading scores.  But, math scores did not go up, and they did not have time to teach science and social studies so those scores will go down.  In other words, there was no transfer.  Nor is it likely that today’s accountability press will eliminate the stare anymore today than it did in the past.


While the advisability of the current accountability pressures is debatable, it is clear that educator’s response to No Child Left Behind is repeating the mistakes of past accountability eras.  HOTS was heretical when it started in the last accountability movement in the early 80’s.  Its lessons are just as counter-intuitive in today’s response to No Child Left Behind. It is frustrating to see administrators once again reflexively responding to accountability pressures by focusing solely on test prep skill development.  That is a mistake that ironically minimizes test score gains and limits the overall educational value of the gains that are made.  Instead of increasing skill development test prep time, schools should: a) improve the quality of skill development activities during regular instruction time, and b) use supplemental time to provide creative approaches to develop a sense of understanding, and thereafter nurture that sense with creative content curricula.  


In other words, the stare and learning gap results largely from professional mistakes we have made for more than a century—regardless of our philosophical predilection.  Alternatively, we can make some key changes as a profession and empower disadvantaged students to tap into their vast intellectual potential.  High poverty schools are filled with bright students who do not understand how to channel their potential.  All they need is sufficient experience in conversing with adults about ideas in a systematic way.  The most powerful technology of all is sophisticated conversation.  This will do more to raise test scores and reduce the gap, with or without accountability pressures, than all the reforms of the past two decades. 


At the same time, the conversation has to be done in a sophisticated, specialized, consistent, and targeted manner.  The HOTS research indicates that there are clear parameters about how much conversation is needed, what type, when it is most effective, how to sequence it, and it documents major traditional and progressive effects.  It also indicates that it is feasible to provide the needed amount of conversation in conjunction with schools’ existing initiatives and resources.  At this point we are hoping to extend research on the benefits of developing a sense of understanding by combining the use of this program with other progressive and traditional approaches in the overall curricular design of schools and district reform plans.


The bottom line is that it is possible, practical, and essential to eliminate the blank stare. Doing so will open up a new era of real progress for disadvantaged students, create exciting opportunities for teachers to succeed with them at more advanced levels, and reduce the learning gap.  Had my students had a transitional process available to them to become “understanders” I would probably still be a New York City public school teacher.  Why would anyone ever leave a rewarding opportunity to teach low-income students with a sense of understanding who, instead of staring, instinctively think, respond, and learn at high levels?




Hart, B. and Risley, T.R.  (1995).  Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children.  Baltimore, MD:  Brookes Publishing Company.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 03, 2004
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11381, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:59:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Stanley Pogrow
    San Francisco State University
    E-mail Author
    Dr. Stanley Pogrow is a professor of Educational Leadership at San Francisco State University. The original draft of this Commentary was written when he was serving as the William Allen visiting professor at Seattle University.
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