Different Keys to Learning

By Bruer, John T. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 9, 1993 | Go to article overview

Different Keys to Learning


Bruer, John T., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The problem with American education is not one of falling standards. It is one of rising societal expectations. Society expects all school graduates to have the knowledge and high-level reasoning skills now required for college entry or post-secondary employment skill levels that 30 or 40 years ago were generally expected only in students bound for elite colleges. No system of public education has, or has ever been expected, to educate all children to such a level. Our schools have been particularly deficient in imparting these skills to urban youths.

Are we serious about addressing this problem? If we are, then we need new teaching methods and learning environments that fully exploit what we know about how children develop and learn. Current research on learning and teaching is fundamental to meeting the needs of urban children and fundamental to any school reform worthy of the name. Education research suggests that all children can learn and that many of the academic problems of urban children of low socio-economic status can be overcome with appropriate instruction.

Children from low-socio-economic households are known to be at risk in learning elementary arithmetic. A National Science Foundation study found that minority children lag in math achievement starting in the primary grades, and fall ever further behind as they progress through school. The study had no explanation for this alarming pattern. Research on how children learn numbers and counting yields an explanation and a remedy. Low-socio-economic-status children - children of recent Portuguese immigrants in Toronto, inner-city students in Worcester, Mass., and Hispanic and inner-city children in the San Francisco Bay area - often lack a specific, simple number skill that inhibits early math learning.

Almost all high-socio-economic first-graders have no difficulty in deciding which of two numbers is larger, but only 60 percent of low-socio-economic children can do so. The inability to compare numbers for size makes it difficult for these children to understand and to construct efficient mental strategies for adding and subtracting numbers, the core operations of elementary arithmetic. Because many first-grade math curricula assume that children can compare numbers and therefore do not teach it explicitly, these low-socio-economic children start school mathematically disadvantaged and never recover.

Simple math readiness programs that have children play counting and comparing number games can remedy this specific deficiency in as little as 20 hours of instruction. Low-socio-economic students who have this instruction learn first-grade arithmetic and achieve at levels comparable to their high-socio-economic peers. All children can succeed at early math, but we have to know specifically what to teach them. …

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