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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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The Social Psychology of Education: Adults Matter

— Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine carried a long and important article by Paul Tough entitled “What it takes to make a student” (26 November 2006, free registration required for access). Although the main focus of the article was early childhood and secondary education, I think that a number of the research studies reported in the article bear on undergraduate education as well, and on the importance of the kind of strong social environment that a residential college can provide.

Tough described what the American media is calling “the achievement gap”—the difference in standardized test scores between students from poor families and students from wealthy families. What causes this achievement gap? Extensive research now suggests that it is caused by differences in parent-child interaction in the home. Tough writes:

There had, in fact, been evidence for a long time that poor children fell behind rich and middle-class children early, and stayed behind. But researchers had been unable to isolate the reasons for the divergence. Did rich parents have better genes? Did they value education more? Was it that rich parents bought more books and educational toys for their children? Was it because they were more likely to stay married than poor parents? Or was it that rich children ate more nutritious food? Moved less often? Watched less TV? Got more sleep? Without being able to identify the important factors and eliminate the irrelevant ones, there was no way even to begin to find a strategy to shrink the gap.

Researchers began peering deep into American homes, studying up close the interactions between parents and children. The first scholars to emerge with a specific culprit in hand were Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, who in 1995 published the results of an intensive research project on language acquisition. Ten years earlier, they recruited 42 families with newborn children in Kansas City, and for the following three years they visited each family once a month, recording absolutely everything that occurred between the child and the parent or parents. The researchers then transcribed each encounter and analyzed each child’s language development and each parent’s communication style. They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children’s I.Q.’s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.

When Hart and Risley then addressed the question of just what caused those variations, the answer they arrived at was startling. By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child’s home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child’s vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class. In the professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 “utterances”—anything from a one-word command to a full soliloquy—to their children each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour.

In simple terms: the more adults talk with children, the smarter the children get, and the less adults talk with children, the dumber the children get.

Other recently-publicized research has shown that substantial brain development continues well into a person’s early twenties, and doesn’t stop during the teen years as previously thought. I’d be very surprised if the kinds of differential effects described here with young children couldn’t also be found among college-age populations, living (on the one hand) in impoverished campus environments and (on the other) in rich and stable residential colleges.

In his important book Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, Richard Light described a conference he attended at which “a senior dean from a distinguished university”

announced proudly that he and his colleagues admit good students and then make a special effort to “get out of their way.” “Students learn mostly from one another,” he argued. “We shouldn’t muck up that process.”

I was dismayed. Soon my own daughters would begin thinking about where to go to college. What I had just heard was the exact opposite of what I hoped would await them. I had come to the meeting hoping to learn how other colleges and universities were working to help their undergraduates succeed. I expected to hear how campus leaders were trying to improve teaching and advising and the overall quality of student life. I wanted to know how each institution was helping students to do their jobs better. Instead, I was hearing a senior official from a major university describe an astonishing strategy: find good students and then neglect them.

The self-serving get-out-of-the-way strategy may appeal to university officers looking to absolve themselves of responsibility, but it does little to improve education. Our true role as educators at all levels should be just the opposite: to get in the way at every turn—by talking, questioning, challenging, and demonstrating—and to thereby make our students strong and independent actors who can improve themselves and the world around them.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016