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Poverty, Culture & Education

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Multiple link alert! – But the post makes sense without following them…….

It all started with some tweets about whether or not “talking more to your baby” will actually boost their intelligence – prompted by this Guardian article.

Dorothy Bishop wrote an interesting post from her researcher’s perspective.

And I wrote the following reply which doesn’t so much disagree with Bishop as worry how people might be tempted to use what she wrote.

Dorothy Bishop’s blog post is a good reminder to me to allow science to make me question my gut feelings. (ie I love the idea of learning styles, but… :grin: )

It’s also fair to say that “talk more to your children” is a simplistic answer to a problem that may have various causes.

I also completely agree that some language ability or lack thereof may be down to genes. However, though I don’t think D Bishop is intending to feed this attitude, I’m afraid people will take this research as support for their own “gut feelings” about poor children and education.

I say confidently – from years and years of observing the British class system from a foreigner’s perspective – there is an ingrained belief that poor children are not as bright as wealthier children. I’ve even heard it said out loud: “We all know that poor children are stupid.” Yes – that was said by a middle aged teacher in my hearing in the late 80s. I don’t believe that attitude has disappeared, though it may have gone underground.

Teaching poorer parents (that’s educationally poorer, regardless of income or genetic makeup) how to speak to their babies and pre-schoolers is not about doing our best to mitigate an inborn lack of ability; it’s simply giving skills to people who lack those skills and want their children to have a better chance of succeeding in a very flawed education system. From day one, the system favours children who arrive at school already able to describe their internal and external life experiences. By giving all children this opportunity, we have a much better chance of seeing which ones have real language deficits rather than deficits of experience. (The SEN v ABT differentiation)

So – read the science and let it make you ask questions of yourself – but don’t dare let anyone use it to back up their “gut feeling” about why people are living in poverty and not succeeding in education. Equally – don’t let anyone assume that every child who is unable to do something at four is somehow “disabled”.

Finally, I know anecdotal evidence is spurious but I’ve always been fascinated by my own family history in this matter. My father & several of his siblings were very bright with measured high IQs which I assume had some genetic component. However, he came from a long line of unskilled workers, impoverished crofters and illiterate shepherds. The genius in the family wasn’t discovered until the family moved to Canada and into an education system that didn’t make any class based assumptions about the children’s ability.

I was then pointed (via Dorothy tweeting again – love that medium!) – to a proper academic response by Susan Rvachew to the same post.

In it, she says:

Public policy makes a difference and public policies are determined by the attitudes and choices of a nation’s people. Leffel and Suskind stress that an important part of their intervention is teaching parents that “intelligence is malleable and therefore can be increased with effort”. The public information campaign that emphasizes the Hart and Risley findings does not reflect ignorance by language researchers about the complexity of the problem. It reflects our knowledge that the public and the policy makers they elect are very often convinced that the poor are not worth the effort.

And that’s it, really. A country’s policies reflect the prejudices of its people and nowhere is that clearer than in the way the British education system operates.

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