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Instructional Guidelines for Teachers of the Disadvantaged

by Deborah Elkiins - 1969

The author offers some concrete, exciting suggestions for teachers willing to look again at the problem of teaching the children of the poor.

Professor Elkins, who is well known for the work she has done with the late Hilda Taba as well as for the work she has done independently, here offers some concrete, exciting suggestions for teachers willing to look again at the problem of teaching the children of the poor. The voice of an experienced and committed educator is audible here. We hope our readers will heed it. If they do, many more disadvantaged young people will begin to learn.

Much has been written about the difficulties faced by children of the disadvantaged in the schools. But the schools have not as yet confronted either the complex causes of these difficulties or their own role in the perpetuation of them. Instead of effecting a confrontation with causes, we have permitted quick and easy "solutions" to be the order of the day: remedial reading, team teaching, and dividing the day into modules. Such solutions are hopefully but erroneously intended to fill the tremendous gaps in learning as well as the gaps in learning power with which the children come to school.

The teaching strategies which the school devises must be founded in an intensive examination of those causes for gaps and not on the behaviors which are merely symptomatic. This we have never seriously undertaken. Inability to read, for example, is a symptom, not a cause. To fill the sixth-grade non-reader's day with drill in skills is to attack the symptom and not the causes. While the school did not cause and cannot cure the extensive social ills with which the child must contend, it can do much to counteract those ills. Certainly the school can do more than it has been doing; certainly the knowledge of what to do and how to do it is greater than that which is being put to use.


Social conditions affect the school and dictate new models and strategies for teaching. A homogeneous group of academically able and highly motivated students has been characteristic of the population in the typical school of the past. Now it includes all the children of all the people and therefore encompasses great heterogeneity. This heterogeneity must be kept constantly in focus because it affects the strategies we must invent. The heterogeneous group includes alienated children. With the speeding up of migration from rural areas to great industrial urban centersNegroes from the rural South, Puerto Ricans from rural island communities, Mexicans and Indians in the Southwestpeople have been catapulted from a simple, personal face-to-face culture into a highly complex, impersonal living pattern almost overnight. The resulting feeling of alienation is clear. Children describe this feeling in such terms as "I like my old place better," "We had enough to eat there," "There were places to swim and go fishing." They miss the personal contents that were a part of the simpler culture; here they are lost, children and adults alike.

Alienation is further accentuated by life in encapsulated communities; the symptoms of alienation are apparent in the hostility to school. The goals of the school are baffling; the content selected for learning is meaningless; and the practices, totally inappropriate. The goals, the content, the practices must be reexamined; for they, too, dictate new strategies. These strategies must be built with full awareness of the alienation and the heterogeneity involved. Uprooted children, those who are cut off from the mainstream of society which has created the school's goals, cannot learn from that society and cannot but be perplexed by these goals.

Alienation puts into motion a vicious cycle.1 For one thing, it affects language facility so necessary for success in schools. Since children who live in segregated communities and who are cut off from larger culture cannot learn from it, they also cannot meet the school's expectations with respect to language facility. So begins the cycle of failure. Add to this the broken homes, and the large families which make it impossible for the remaining responsible adult to give the necessary personal attention needed for optimum growth, and the problem is compounded by deficit in cognitive functioning. The child of necessity is left on his own to explore his world with little interpretation or mediation by adults. It is that interpretation which helps him to develop not only language but also patterns of conceptualization. Adult mediation helps him make order out of his world and build concepts for understanding it. Cognitive functioning includes such processes as naming objects, identifying common elements in concrete objects and events, formulating concepts, and seeing relationships between cause and consequence, processes with which middle-class children grow up as a part of daily life, for their experiences include exploration of their daily environment which is accompanied by the interpretation of adults.

Not only does the disadvantaged child thus fail to learn concepts which are crucial for learning other things, but lack of attention from adults results in failure to develop the ego strength necessary to energize learning. There is no one to praise him for the tasks he does well, and the lack of ego strength creates the motivation and aspiration deficit. The label "lazy" or "apathetic" becomes attached to him and he is drawn deeper into the vortex of failure.


Because of these related language, cognitive and motivational deficits, the problems multiply. Teachers tend to consider the students natively unintelligent, even though the basic causes of the deficits in all of these areas are environmental. It is known that environment plays a tremendous role in the capacity to learn and in the development of intelligence. Piaget and his disciples make it clear that intelligence depends on a wealth of experience with manipulating concrete operations and that the experience must include adult help in interpretation of what is happening. Variety of stimulation is necessary for the development of flexible cognitive functioning as against rigidity of cognitive functioning. Further, variety of stimulation is closely associated with creating motivation: the more the child sees and hears and is helped to interpret, the more he will want to see and hear and interpret. Once he is motivated to do these things, once he wants to do them, he has energy to learn.

But the environment of the disadvantaged is limited. Systematic interpretation is lacking; rigid responses to situations are developed and motivation is restricted. A deficient development of flexible intellectual functioning must result. Children become accustomed to plunging from activity to activity with little organized attention given to any one thing. They survive with a bare minimum of experience with abstractions. When we consider that success in school depends on these very thingsmotivation, attention of an organized nature, ability to abstract, and facility with languagethen the inevitability of failure for children with deficits in these areas is clear.

Nor does the cycle stop here. Deficits in the ingredients for success create a syndrome of behaviors which further retard the child's progress as he moves along in school. Low self-concept causes him to avoid uncomfortable competitive situations. Rather than confront the challenge which holds great possibility of more failure, he withdraws or becomes hostile. It is better to refuse to become involved than to appear "stupid" on yet another occasion; it is more comfortable to meet the challenging situation with hostility than to be on the losing side once more.

Nor are things improving. The problems of the children are multiplying far faster than the possible solutions. In New York City, for example, for the first time, the number of minority children who tend to live in encapsulated communities has passed the fifty percent mark.2 The curriculum and teaching strategies which once suited the academically able minority are totally useless for the new majority of children entering the portals of our schools. Even the so-called experimental curricula with which we have been plaguing them are still founded on the principles appropriate for school populations of the 1920's and not for them. For example, in an effort to "upgrade" learning, one city's sixth-grade experimental curriculum includes knowledge of the work of Heinrich Schliemann, Arthur Evans, J. H. Breasted, Nelson Glueck, or "any other noted archaeologist of the teacher's choice."


As was pointed out above, the source of motivation for learning lies in the adult mediator. An adult has difficulty performing this function unless he can establish positive relationships with children. Who can deny that, all too often, the way teachers regard children has blocked the road to these positive relationships and thus deprived them of this source of motivation? The way teachers respond to what children say and write, even the way they correct or fail to correct a composition, has a crucial effect upon the relationship. An example is the composition of thirteen-year-old Maria who lives in East Harlem and her teacher's reaction to that composition.

"Stop, don't do it! Please stop them. Help." She screamed.

That was the words she pronounce when I was coming from the store. When I was coming up the stairs I saw blood down the stair and I look up I saw three policeman and two detective and I said what's wrong, were does blood come from? The detective said in a deep voice this blood come from the second floor two neighbors had a fight, and we are waiting for the ambulance. My heart stop for one second, and then I ran up the stairs and I said. "That is where I live." When I came up and saw Mr. Lopez with blood all over his shirt and I kneel down and said "Mr. Lopez what happen" and he said "That no good Luis he" he stop and then I said go on, but the policeman interb and said please young girl don't try to make him talk, then a policeman and a fat lady the lady was the nurse and she said take this man immediately! to the ambulance he is bleeding to much. The policeman took him to the ambulance. The other she put some bandage around his shoulders and then she said go to your home and report tomorrow at the hospital. Then the nurse call me over and said do you know the man that I sent in the ambulance? Yes nurse. "Then will you answer some questions." Yes. Will you please companion me to the hospital. Yes nurse.

Mr. Lopez die in the ambulance, I call Mrs. Lopez and gave her the bad news. She started to scream and cry. I came back from the hospital after I answer the question. The first thing that came in my mine was "why" "why" two neighbors fight. "Why" because they maybe don't understand each other or maybe one ask for a advice and the other said why come to me why don't you go to your family.

To be a neighbor is not necessary to be in the neighborhood, it can be country or city or the town anything. For example if you go to a country that you never gone before. All during your travels you would see people staring at your odd clothing, people who would not understand the language you spoke.

Then you would land in a strange country. Everything would be different. You would have to learn a strange language learn a new trade. Then you try to be kindful and helpful with people. The people will adore you truly. "Why" because you been not only a good neighbor but helpful and friendly with them. This is one of the simple ways to be kind with people, by helping them in anything they need your help today and tomorrow they help you. This composition is for the adolescent to give them an ideal to understand other persons. When a boy or girl comes into a classroom for the first time you try to make a conversation with him or her. Show the boy or girl around the school introduct the boy or girl to your friends so she don't feel lonely. In a way you are helping the boy or girl getting around.3

What was the teacher's reaction to Maria's composition? Maria knew only what she wrote at the end of it: "Too long!"

Secondly, teachers fail in their role as educators of disadvantaged children because they "teach" through the use of long verbal explanations. When such explanations are the process through which teaching is done, slum children "tune out."4 They cannot attend to long explanations, for disordered home lives with choppy sequences of events have built in a short attention span. Let it not be denied that teaching is still done largely through verbal explanations; the research indicates this and a walk through the corridor of any school with classes above the third grade reinforces research findings through a simple but repeated count of who happens to be talking in each classroom at the moment the observer passes.5

Furthermore, the conventional type of school work gives habits of inattention a chance to gain a stranglehold. The content is too often meaningless, having little to do with the lives of the children. An excerpt from almost any social studies textbook illustrates this.


Because this is a history of the United States, we are most interested in the Indians of this area. The most civilized Indians in the Americas, however, lived south of what is now the United States. The Aztec and Mayan Indians lived in what is now Mexico, while the Incas lived in what is now Peru. By the time the Europeans discovered America, the Aztecs had conquered the Mayans and borrowed much of the Mayan culture for their own use.

City-dwelling Indians. The Aztec-Mayan culture in Mexico and the Inca culture in Peru were similar in several ways. In each case there was a large city surrounded by land controlled by the tribe. The Aztecs had a calendara system for counting days and years. In some respects the Aztec calendar was more accurate than the European calendar of that time. The Aztecs also had a form of picture writing and a system of numbers.6

To this kind of alien content we add new skills and thus further complicate their learning problems. For example, when a child can't read he is sent to the library to get a book. One of two things tends to happen. He wants so desperately to read what others can do that he secures a book far beyond his ability and refuses to give it up; or, he simply returns to school next day without having ever gone near that library. To strange content and new skills we add meaningless goals: committing facts to memory in order to pass the test. When all of these hurdles are piled on top of the language problem, it becomes impossible for him to function. So he stops. His behavior baffles the teacher who has not been able to analyze the school's role in causing the child's behavior. Frustration on the part of the teacher causes him to attach labels to the child which he regards as causes rather than as symptoms. There is little realization that for him to respond is to meet more failure and he has had enough of that; there is little realization that the school system, including the teacher training institution, has played its role in that failure.

Consistently, educators have avoided a confrontation of the school with its failure to help the child learn. With the passing of years in school, the deficits multiply so that by the time the child reaches grade six, his self-image has been shattered to such an extent that hostility toward school is no longer hidden, and the general hopelessness is all-pervasive. The school has done little to eliminate the deficits with which children came to school, and yet it is in a uniquely favorable position to do something about those deficits. Fragmented solutions like remediation have been tried long enough and have been found wanting, for this is a negative approach to teaching and has proved itself unable to serve a positive function. Now we need curriculum and teaching strategies that have new and fresh vigor, untainted by such retarding factors as coverage of meaningless content.

In this task, the school has a powerful ally. As mentioned before, intellectual growth depends on the child's exploration of his environment and that exploration must include interpretation and variety of ingredients. It happens that the school is in a position to create such an environment, one with the quality necessary for mental growth. This is the clarion call to the schools; this is where we must concentrate our efforts: on the creation of the environment which nourishes the development of intelligence.


If schools are to adopt as one of their major goals the development of intelligence, there must be an acute awareness that acquiring knowledge and mastering skills, though important goals, are simply not enough. By placing the accent on acquiring information, we have deprived our pupils of the more important mental process of converting that information to ideas. By placing the emphasis on passive absorption, we have deprived them of needed mental growth that accompanies questioning, searching and discovering. By concerning ourselves with giving them the generalizations which they are forced to regurgitate on demand, we have deprived them of the power to make those generalizations themselves from the given data. By telling them which facts to study, we have deprived them of the power to select relevant facts and to discard the irrelevant. These ate all thinking processes, and the children are the ones who need to engage in them if the school is to emphasize mental growth as a prime goal.

The school needs to create an environment in which searching, questioning and discovering are not only permitted but encouraged. Otherwise, the severe deficit in ability to abstract causes disaster to the child as he tries to function in school. He finds difficulty seeing relationships and performing other cognitive processes. He needs systematic help in developing the ability to perform such tasks as categorization. Since he has no model for seeing consequence as related to cause, the environment must be conducive to learning this through such means as making hypotheses from given clues. Inability to see relationships and inability to abstract are key deficits and deter his progress in other kinds of learning tasks such as reading comprehension. But he can learn these cognitive skills7 and the task of the school is to devise instructional strategies that will permit and encourage him to do so.


One area which encourages the learning of cognitive skills because it creates the environment which motivates learning is sensitivity training. It has the advantage of being a content area as well as one rich in potential for learning all kinds of skills, new attitudes, and important thinking processes simultaneously. Diagnostic devices used with students who are disadvantaged render undeniable evidence that sensitivity training is a needed and fruitful focus of study. In a number of situations answers to open-ended questions have been used as a diagnostic device. Students talked or wrote about "What makes me mad," "My wishes," "My worries," and revealed much about their feelings of loneliness and alienation, their constant and usually fruitless search for attention and affection, the lack of something as "common" as someone to talk to, the deep wounds caused by name-calling, especially in derogatory terms directed against mothers or racial and ethnic origins.

Sensitivity training must include attitudes toward oneself as well as others; diagnostic devices of more than one variety gave evidence of the need for development of such attitudes. Peers must be placed in situations where offering ego fulfillment in turn gives a feeling of satisfaction; insights into and solutions to interpersonal conflicts constitute important emphases; skills for coping with rebuff and criticism are necessary for ego development. Measures for preventing a sense of failure are of prime importance, and these must be an intrinsic part of the curriculum. All of these factors are included in the idea of sensitivity training.

However, if information gathering is the major objective, then sensitivity training tends to fall by the wayside. Thinking and attitudes are developed from an active process which is in no way the same type of learning experience as is used for acquiring facts. The learning of attitudes requires experiences which make an impact on emotions. These can be planned simultaneously with cognitive experiences as when the school helps students understand motivations of people, helps them gain insights into their own behavior including cause and effect, and concentrates on the development of human relations skills which energize other learnings because of the motivational power inherent in the mastery of those skills and insights. The motivational power is reinforced by the fact that students regard emphasis on "sensitivity content" and on preliminary diagnostic procedures which attend it as a personal concern for them and their welfare on the part of their teacher and the school. This is true only under one condition: that the rapport between teacher and students is a positive one. The teacher thus builds the first steps toward creating a climate for mediation as well as for motivation to learn. When results of the open-ended questions are tallied and given anonymously to the students under a heading such as "What our class thinks about punishments," this is a second step in the mediation process as well as in the motivational. Thus, multiple objectives are planned simultaneously.


Stress on coverage has been found wanting not only with respect to shortchanging students in sensitivity training and the development of thinking processes. Also it prevents the depth study which students need desperately for building significant concepts. This is attained if the student examines a few instances in depth rather then brushing by many instances ever so lightly. From careful analysis of a few instances illustrating an idea, the idea itself is more clearly and distinctly perceived. Enduring knowledge results from concentration on analysis of a small number of examples of an idea because such concentration permits time and energy for significant intellectual and social learnings. A limited number of details suffice to understand a complete idea if the illustrations are contrasting ones and are considered in depth. Contrast is important for perspective; perception becomes more precise, and cognitive functioning is thereby heightened.

The contrasting instances studied are the means to the end. Depth study is focused on the concept and thrusts the student into highly complex thinking processes such as hypothesizing, making inferences and perceiving relationships. For example, students can use information to hypothesize about why in one geographic area the animal served man in one capacity while in another the situation was altogether different. In such a study of the role of animals in the life of man, students need to see sharp effects, such as animals causing man to keep on the move, following the herd; but animals also helped man to settle the land and lead an entirely different kind of life. The concept that the same needthe drive for foodwas met so differently by man because of one of a number of conditions gives an opportunity for studying a variety of contrasting situations. In this case the role of animals was one of the conditions. When students examine specific illustrations of men who follow the herd and relate their findings to the larger idea, they can make inferences about the kind of life that is led by families who follow the herd and contrast these with families who settle the land. Thus, they have opportunities for developing cognitive abilities with which the school must be concerned.

In all cases, learning must be initiated with concrete instances which are closely related to the experiences of the students. If the concept is "Animals affect the history of men," they must first pool ideas of what they already know about the roles animals play and in this way give to each other the beginnings of some perspective through their different experiences. Then they have something to which they can tie what they learnwhen they see movies about the work animals do in helping men raise food in different parts of the world, when they read about scientific experiments performed through the use of animals, when they interview someone from the ASPCA, when they learn about laws regarding the keeping of certain animals as pets in a big city, and when they make systematic observation of the relationship between people they know and the animals they own. From all of these varied activities they gain an understanding of the idea that animals propel certain adjustments in the life of man; they have an opportunity to arrive at the same idea from several different perspectives.

Centering the study on concepts also permits the use of multiple skills including new cognitive skills. But to be effective, these must be natural parts of each learning experience. In other words, they must be needed in order to carry on a particular activity. For example, when students are composing a booklet on Animals in The Life of Man, it must be carried on in such a way that to achieve it requires language artsskills of listening, reading and writing, the use of new models of thinking, and a feeling for the very real contribution of peers.


Plans for teaching strategies must give high priority to provisions for heterogeneity. It is necessary to do away with uniform materials, rigidly set pacing for everyone, and standards that leave little room for individuality. Too often individualization of instruction has been interpreted as individual pacing of coverage of the same material or topic. Individualization means not only more than this but something far different. It means that with respect to any one given topic, different students do different things.8 It means a wide range of activities and materials through which children can learn. One set of books cannot answer the need; reading alone cannot insure equal learning opportunity for everyone. A wide variety of books on different levels and for different interests can be found around given topics and can be read to find answers to common sets of questions. Observation, interview, experimentation offer still largely untapped resources for learning. Heterogeneity demands elimination of some old practices and substitution of as yet inadequately explored, but potentially fruitful ones. For example, tasks which encourage different ways of responding are in order. Questions which demand only one right answer must be eliminated. Rather, questions like, "What do you think causes people to want to own animals?" permit a variety of responses on many levels. Thus, children who are ordinarily cut off from responding in a group learning situation now can become participants.


Participation is a critical factor in providing for motivation so necessary in children's learning. Rewards are often foreign to the experience of many disadvantaged children. Even simple compliments are all but unknown. One eighth-grade boy who was complimented by his teacher for a piece of work which showed genuine effort looked in wonderment at her and softly answered, "Once when I was in the second grade my teacher said, 'Good for you!' " It took six long years for another scrap of praise to be forthcoming. In the light of this, other devices must be used as motivation to supplement this kind of reward. One such device is to offer experiences which have strong emotional impact. Such experiences mobilize attention and energize learning. For example, a story which arouses feelings has the power to command attention and to supply energy for learning. The sheer drama of the sea of grasshoppers attacking the crops and animals and people in Let The Hurricane Roar by Lane is captivating, especially when read by the teacher to the class. The use of the familiar is also motivating; in this case, the children had all had unpleasant if not terrifying experiences with insects. The use of the novel and the unexpected has power to motivate: watching the behavior of live locusts in captivity if only to see how much they can consume; listening to a story recorded on tape and read to a background of music at a time when reading by themselves is resisted; seeing a real movie of themselves as they perform some group-learning activity. These introductory experiences must be close to their own concerns. Discussing what they do which makes parents angry or happy can serve to initiate a study of values we hold, how we learn them, and what effects they have on us and others. Such a discussion serves to catch attention.

Once attention is captured and learning is energized, other devices are needed to continue the energizing of learning. Introductory activities are necessary, but they will not sustain learning over long periods of time. Too often teachers rely on these introductory activities to do more than they are meant to do, to achieve more than their character enables them to achieve. The sustaining devices must be concrete, overt activities which keep curiosity alive and thus overcome the short attention span. Dramatizing, role-playing, and being authors of a "book" are examples of overt activities which have inherent in them motivating power for learning. Another important factor is the experience must allow for immediate success; this means success for everyone, not just a select few. A situation which is competitive and sets one student against the other is untenable in the early stages of overcoming short attention span; it serves merely to disrupt at a time when students need to learn to support each other. The result of overt activity must be tangibly rewarding. For example, a class booklet which they create, which they can see and touch, and which includes a contribution from every member of the class is a tangibly rewarding outcome. Ultimately, however, intrinsic motivation must take over. This lies in the feeling of mastery. Children do want that feeling; they can be intrigued with many intellectual processes such as making hypotheses from given clues and finding out how good a detective they'd make. Eventually the motivation must have its origins in the task itself and in the satisfaction that comes from mastery, from being able to cope with something one was not able to handle previously.


Literature was mentioned earlier. It needs to be discussed again, for it is a powerful resource for creating a learning environment.9 It is a motivating device to focus attention initially, but it also is equally useful for involving students in the study of intellectual problems, and for sustaining learning energy. It provides material that addresses the feelings and from this point on gives energy for learning difficult skills like reading and writing. Through it, knowledge can be gained for it can effectively build concepts like time and space which are difficult to learn. "Tuning up" feelings for differences in time and place is necessary before facts about them take on meaning, just as "tuning up the ear" is necessary for building a "sentence sense" before technical aspects of structure take on any meaning. These are long-term goals and take more than a month or a year. If students read about the roles of animals in The Road to Agra by Sommerfelt, Old Yeller by Gipson, and Skip by Aileen Fisher, they acquire a feeling for time and place because the same topic is dealt with in different times and different places and the contrasts in events due to these differences are sharp. Yet, they gain a feeling for the continuity of time and place in the affairs of men. Therefore, literature introduces new ideas and provides material for analysis, so that new concepts can emerge from analysis. It does these things even while it offers sensitivity training because it extends experience with human behavior beyond what everyday living can offer. Since social isolation of disadvantaged children is critical, since their concern about this is deep, literature offers the school an inexhaustible source of motivation for learning! It offers the school a means of achieving an important part of its task of acculturation, for it helps internalize values and identify with others. It gives perspective about their own problems and feelings as well as a sense of the universality of emotions and their causes and consequences.

All of this does not take place by the mere reading of a story. Activities surrounding the use of literature must be "balanced" for intake and output, as must all activities through which learning is intended to occur. Conventional school work was too concerned with intake of new information. Literature offers opportunities for expressive or output activities. When students dramatize a story, they practice tirelessly, because the play's the thing. Meantime, there is incentive for acquiring reading skills far more efficiently and in only a small portion of the time that it takes to achieve the same thing in a remedial reading session. Role-playing the ending of a story is an output activity which provides food for discussing the logic of events and of human motives. These very discussions held around the role-playing or the literature can be another output activity while achieving the discovery of the central idea of a story which in turn leads children to read with deeper insight and understanding. Output discussions are needed before and after the reading, each discussion serving its own specific purpose.

Other output activities are observation, interviewing, and scientific treatment of findings. Of course, in each of these there is a measure of intake of new information. But this is a secondary goal here. Systematic observation brings order to everyday events in the chaotic environment so often characteristic of the disadvantaged child. It focuses attention on important elements which are overlooked otherwise. Systematic observation produces content which lends itself to scientific treatment involved in tallying information to uncover patterns, comparing and contrasting various factors, formulating hypotheses and then testing them through further observation or other pertinent activities. For example, students observe things families do to teach their children; they compare findings, and draw conclusions. All families do some things which teach, but different members may assume the same roles in different families. Students who return to school with the conclusion that their families don't do anything that educates soon change their minds and appreciate the opportunity to have a new look at their "hypothesis." Observation has still another function: it helps students see the relationship between school and out-of-school life. The latter is brought into the schoolroom systematically as the school itself reaches out to make more meaningful what goes on elsewhere. Observing younger siblings makes them take on an aura of something genuinely interesting; interviewing adults gives to those adults a significance they did not have before, as when children ask about tales that were told to them "when they were young" in order to discover universal emotions even in tales that are handed down from generation to generation, so enduring are they. Emotions, whether expressed by adults or adolescents, take on more meaning and thus become more tolerable. Further, observation brings to stories the meaning of everyday life so that while literature helps interpret life, daily experiences in turn help interpret literature. Finally, observations and interviews can be written up and tallied and used for purposes of comparison as the study progresses, thus putting into focus new and less concrete experiences that are offered.


The above guidelines cannot be put to use without diagnosis of specific needs which dictate how they shall be used. Open-ended questions were mentioned as one diagnostic device. Role-playing, sociograms, sociometric interviews, diaries, systematic observation of children all bear fruit in furnishing details which are needed to decide on concepts, content, learning activities and learning sequences. For example, with one group of students it was discovered that they needed a feeling of self-worth, that they were intensely interested in anything to do with the physical aspects of the human being, that they had few notions of what results teamwork could produce, were unable to listen to each other, were unable to express themselves adequately or to conceptualize about many everyday events around them, and had developed inadequate relationships with people around them. These findings gave helpful direction to the planning. On occasion a paradox was uncovered which dictated certain characteristics of teaching models. For example, disadvantaged children need time for depth study, but their short attention span demands short sequences. This meant that teachers had to do long-term planning for a theme and, within it, a series of short sequences that were vital parts of it and that provided for the study in depth.

The Family of Man was chosen as a long-term theme because it is the kind of topic which is important for understanding of self as well as of the larger society. It permits a study of concepts such as human beings everywhere have the same basic needs and emotions, and all human beings aim for something important to them. It permits a variety of activities that are productive and that are needed to achieve multiple goals such as development of cognitive powers and mastery of skills. It was the kind of topic that lent itself to several shorter sequences, each closely related to the other and each contributing to the larger one. Inherent in it were many concrete topics, intimately related to children's previous experiences. These topics were also inherently true illustrations of the concepts planned for the long-term unit. The central value of each of these topics was significant enough to bear rather thorough exploration.

Human Hands was chosen as the first sequence and proved to be a good one because children were concerned with the physical, because it lent itself to needed experiences, permitted movement from the concrete to the abstract, and helped build concepts outlined for the unit. Not all teachers chose the same initial sequence because the needs of their students were different. Some chose Sound in Our Lives; others preferred Growing Up while a fourth group selected Who's Afraid?

Those who studied Human Hands began by having the children draw an outline of their own hands on a piece of paper. This involved them immediately in an overt, concrete, engaging activity. When later the drawings of all students were posted with stories which accompanied them written right in the outline of the hands themselves, peers were observed time after time trying to measure their own hands against the outline of others. There was quiet talk around that bulletin board for days to follow. Then, with the teacher, they discussed the beauty of human hands and the similarity. Three things were achieved here: the beginnings of the concept of a common humanity, the beginnings of a conversation in which at least one or two children actually responded to each other, and the initiation of new attitudes about their own persons. When they next wrote about "Important Things My Hands Can Do," they offered none of the usual resistance to writing because they now had something to say, because they enjoyed the novelty of entering their story within the outline of their own hands, and they took readily to the notion that even their hands were worthy of note. Typically they mentioned eating and dressing, but there were always implications for the teacher to ponder. Hands pray, they said; and hands give people things.

As they talked about what they wrote, the teacher quickly listed the categories "work" and "play" on the board, so that each child's offering was listed under at least one of these. This was their first experience with categorization, a crucial thinking process. The "simple" act of deciding in which category certain events fell offered an opportunity to introduce the notion that not all events can be rigidly pigeonholed. The tally was completed by a committee to save time and to initiate them into the experience of a few working in the service of the many. The tally was rexographed and distributed to everyone for immediate use next day. This served two functions: early gratification and building the notion that what they do has purpose. The tally of their own experiences was to be used to compare with experiences of people outside their own lives, people in books.

They listened to a chapter from Big Doc's Girl about punishment of a child by an older sibling. The experience was close to them and therefore emotionally involving, but it was not theirs. It was one step removed. Because it was involving and yet not their own, they could gain perspective that would not otherwise be possible. During the discussion which followed the reading, they compared their findings with their own original tally and added items, thus making use of the work they had done the previous day and building upon it. Discussion centered around sharp emotional reactions: Did Sis have the right to spank the children? The issues must be sharp in order to force attention to what peers have to say, to sustain involvement, and to learn to resolve issues verbally rather than with the fists. Discussions were very brief at the outset, and increased in length as children were able to handle longer conversations. Even while this was slowly being achieved, other goals were being attained as teachers became aware of them. Once children became involved, they all wanted to talk, yet they were unable to sustain a conversation. So the teacher used this occasion to begin to build faith that tomorrow will bring new opportunities. She did this by listing names of those who still wanted to talk, gave them time to jot down what they wanted to say so they would not forget, and promised that tomorrow the discussion would be continued. A third goal was being achieved too: slowly the teacher was moving their attention from student-centered issues to less personal ones.

Then they observed for one-half hour what adults or babies or adolescents do with their hands, and they took notes on observations. Note-taking for this purpose needed previous preparation which was achieved through role-playing. Not only did the children learn how to take notes, but the teacher learned a great deal about the soul-saving sense of humor they possessed, the wit and the sarcasm and the very real insights that were revealed through their mimicry.

The results of their observations were shared in class next day. They found that adults shook their index fingers at others, while teenagers did not; mothers cuddled babies but fathers did not. This time, when categories were selected for tallying, the students supplied one or two. Again, they wrote about their observations and did so willingly because their productions were to constitute a rexographed book of which they would be the authors, and because they discovered that the teacher gave ready help. The paragraphs were corrected, rewritten over and over again to be rexographed and bound the very next day. Once more, gratification must be within a very short time.

The next day they insisted on hearing every single person's creation, even though the teacher was ready to settle for five or six. The earlier tally became the summary sheet, thus putting their own previous work to good use again. Now came their first genuine acquaintance with a table of contents. After all, a book needs a table of contents. Here, the set of textbooks came in handy for the first time; children examined the format of the table of contents and set up their own. Seeing their names there, seeing others turn to the page to find a particular story, they enriched their self-images. Adults at home added to the good feeling, as in wonderment they regarded the accomplishments of the child. Not in all homes did this happen, however. Some children did not share life with such adults. These could experience the feeling of a boosted ego when the class decided that one copy of their book should be placed in their church so that others could have something to read and could see what they had to say.

Findings needed further interpretation in order that more perspective be gained. "What is the relationship between emotions and what hands do?" The teacher read a chapter from Caddie Woodlawn about the punishment meted out to her. Students had to infer the function of hands, their first experience in formally and consciously making inferences. This activity involved going from the concrete to the abstract. Inferential thinking could be introduced because students identified with the characters. Hands showed anger and pleaded forgiveness. They cried out in loneliness as when Ruth drew the picture of her mother on the wall of her room.

A variety of "Help Wanted" ads which the teacher rexographed was examined to see the jobs that needed hands most, from clerk typist to floorwalker. At first they rejected all but the obvious ones, but closer examination through discussion pushed forward the inference-making. They attempted rank-order of jobs using the criterion of importance of hands, and concluded that it was possible to rank them only if quantity alone and not type of use were considered. It is this kind of high level conclusion which offers significant evidence that children can learn to make abstractions even when they begin with a deficiency in this ability.

Pictures offered another aid to moving them outside of their own environment. They discussed a soldier in Vietnam holding a baby in one arm and a gun in another, and talked of what he was doing, and what we were doing there, good and bad. Magazines were distributed to find pictures of good things and bad which we were doing in other parts of the world. Children worked together in pairs for moral support on a new task requiring that they defend the category in which they placed their picture. The defense again gave very important evidence of the school's ability to teach children to make generalizations, and of the children's ability to learn this important thinking process. They concluded that few things we did with other people were all good or all bad. This discussion also demonstrated their ability to make the transition from what people do to their motivations for doing these things. The ability to perform these thinking processes can be developed if the curriculum provides step by step procedures through which this learning can take place. Not all students made these strides at this moment. Many more experiences, and many varied experiences, all consciously planned, would be needed before this could happen. The abstractions which pictures encouraged were on a relatively low level, but they were abstractions nevertheless.

From low-level abstractions using pictures, students moved to an examination of news items of "human interest" and made inferences about the roles of hands. The consequences of floods, forest fires and crime to millions of people could be inferred from such materials for they were on a level at which children could operate. Some students could even extract from these materials the notion that people must help each other build a new life when disaster strikes.

They examined what happened in history, moving still farther away in time and space but building on what had been learned previously. What did people do to make these historic events occur? How do these acts affect us now? Social studies textbooks were not used; rather biographies told about people and what they did. Each student selected his own biography and read it to discover answers to the three questions. During the discussions which followed they compared these three ideas as they occurred in different times and places. This procedure helped them "tune up" their sense of time and place as well as develop concepts about particular human activities. They also read fiction, with school time allotted for reading until they became emotionally involved in their book and then "reported" by conversing informally about what people were doing, how hands helped, and how the acts affected other people or how they showed emotions. Many children finished "skinny" books in two days and begged for more. Most important of all, the kinds of conclusions children drew from their independent reading showed the results of the previous step-by-step learning experiences through which students gained power to see relationships, draw inferences, make generalizations and abstractions.

The following outline of the learning sequence described above will serve to pinpoint a number of critical guideposts: the importance of planning activities, each of which builds on the learnings provided by the previous ones; the way in which multiple objectives are achieved simultaneously; the variety of activities that must be used around one large idea in order to achieve depth study, provide for heterogeneity, and permit balance of input and output. It takes all of these things, and more, to help children feel free to learn, to help them achieve over and over again until they gain the emotional energy to keep on learning.




Draw outline of hands

Discuss similarities and beauty of hands

Write "Important Things My Hands Can Do"

Categorize students' contributions

Rexograph copy of tally for all

Discuss observations about final tally

Listen to story: chapter from Big Doc's Girl


Overt, concrete activity

Offers motivation through involvement

Recognizes student concern about the physical

Beginnings of concept of universality

Builds self-image

Beginnings of conversation; listening to each other

Development of skills

Builds self-image

Opportunity for diagnosis of values by teacher

Development of thinking processes: discrimination, finding common elements

Pooling ideas and gaining perspective

Introduces notion of small group in the service of the large (Committee completes tally begun by class)

Seeing "immediate" results of work achieved

Making early use of work previously done

Development of thinking process: making generalizations

Emotional involvement

Beginnings of concept development through concrete instance

Movement from student-centered issue to less personal aspect

Seeing relationships between cause and consequence

Sensitivity training: understanding human behavior

Discuss issue of punishment

Observe adult, child, or adolescent

Take notes on observation

Share observations

Select categories and tally

Write observationsto be rexographed as booklet

Read peer stories in booklet

Discuss and use tally above as summary sheet in booklet

Making table of contents for booklet

Read chapter from Caddie Woodlaivn

Compare with Big Doc's Girl

Discuss relationship between emotions and what hands do

Involvement in concept development through issue of close concern evoking sharp emotional reaction

Rudiments of conversation; listening to others' opinions

Examination of values in story and expressed by peers

Open-ended issue to permit all levels of response

Develop notion of order within a chaotic environment

Introduce new quality of interest in people around them rather than mere emotional reaction

Relate school to out-of-school life to enrich meaning of both

Skill development

Sensitivity training

Engage in learning process of questioning, searching, discovering

Offers new perspective as findings are pooled

Opportunity for concept development and drawing of generalizations

Students themselves select at least one or two categories: thinking processes of deciding common elements and making discriminations

Participation by all; involvement of all

Building self-concept through pride in achievement and taking a task seriously

Mastery; skill development

Early gratification

Give meaning to student effort since product is useful and enjoyable

Self-image development through appreciation of peer effort and contributions

Skill building

Previous work serves new function

Giving meaning to school work

Re-examination of conclusions previously made

Use of textbooks available to seek model for table of contents

Gaining information

Skill development

Self-image: seeing own name and work listed in table of contents

Discovering sequence of events and rationale for sequence

Thinking processes of comparing and contrasting

Skill development

Introduction of inferential thinking at a higher level made possible through identification with situation and characters

Moving from concrete to abstract

Examine "Help Wanted" ads for occupations in which hands are important

Rank order jobs advertised

Select pictures of work of hands

Defend selection

Select news items

Read historical events through biography

Discuss findings; Compare

Read self-selected fiction; Discuss

Offers concrete "handle" for making inferences

Opportunity to evaluate, discriminate, compare, and contrast

Movement to the more impersonal

Thinking processes of evaluation, making differentiations, drawing conclusions, generalizing

Thinking process of evaluation, making inferences, finding common elements

Moving from concrete to abstract

Moving outside own environment

Working in pairs to give energy for new task

Moving from concrete to abstract, from what people do to motivation for doing

Assuming responsibility for decisions made

Thinking processes of making inferences, relating cause and consequence, generalizing

Developing attitudes and values in sensitivity training: roles of people in helping each other during periods of disaster such as floods, war, crime

Gaining information

Skill in seeking and finding answers to specific questions

Compare, contrast same ideas in different times and places

Providing for heterogeneity

Making use of new concepts gained

Sharing and pooling ideas to gain perspective

Skill development

Providing for emotional involvement to sustain interest in mastery

Examining values and attitudes: sensitivity training

Listening to each other

Searching and discovering through reading

The type of strategy described here has no semblance of what is usually regarded as "compensatory education." What is called for now is a complete overhauling of the curriculum so that the school can perform its function of increasing the ability to learn.



1 Robert J. Havighurst and Lindley J. Stiles, "National Policy for Alienated Youth," in A. Harry Passow, Miriam Goldberg, and Abraham J. Tannenbaum, Eds. Education of the Disadvantaged. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1967.

2 Fred M. Hechinger, "Negro and Puerto Rican Pupils in Majority Here for First Time," The New York Times, March 15,1967.

3 Leonard Kornberg, Ed. Bridges to Slum Ghetto Children, The Bridge Project, Publication No. 3. New York: Queens College, Department of Education, November, 1962.

4 Helen F. Storen The First Semester: Beginning Teachers in Urban School. New York: Project TRUE, Hunter College, 1965.

5 Arno Bellack, et al. The Language of the Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press, 1963.

6 R. W. Patrick, J. K. Bettersworth, and R. W. Steen. This Country of Ours. Austin, Texas: The Steck Company, 1965.

7 Hilda Taba and Deborah Elkins. Teaching Strategies for the Culturally Disadvantaged. Chicago: Rand McNally and Company, 1966.

8 Deborah Elkins. Reading Improvement in the Junior High School. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1963.

9 D. Elkins, "Teaching and Learning Strategies for Educationally Disadvantaged Children and Youth," in A. Harry Passow, Ed. Curriculum and Teaching in Urban Depressed Areas. New York: Teachers College Press, 1968.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 70 Number 7, 1969, p. 593-616
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1849, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 2:40:47 AM

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