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Metacognition -- Teaching at-risk students "thinking-about-thinking" skills


An article by Tracy Chou on the uncomfortable state of being Asian reminded me to think about the causes, and perhaps a cure, not the cure but a cure for racial differences in educational success. Chou's article, or so it seemed to me, hinted that Asians, while obviously people of color, are not perceived the  same way as other minority groups that have lower success rates in public schools.

Interesting point on clumping
Interesting to me at least, is this: If educational demographers were to clump in the Asians as "people of color," then a lot of demographic assumptions might not hold. Unfortunately, with new "clumping" the racism that perpetuates student failure would not have changed at all. That is to say, bias, prejudice and bigotry would not have changed, only our ways of clumping them would have changed. : Oppressed people would still be oppressed, subjugated people would still be subjugated etc. 

"Slavery" is an attitude
As a former educator, I believe that many of our inequities, both in the field of education and in the work force are results of slavery, that is, a slaves-versus-masters mentality that messes with the collective minds of various peoples, even the minds of descendants of slaves, and descendants of  those who were subjugated. 

Part of the problem is that many people never stop to think about the causes behind their thinking. Or if they do, for cultural reasons they may only consider possibilities that are encouraged by their sub-culture. For example, assumption of cultural superiority meets assumption of futility. (It was drilled into, not just minds of slaves, but into the minds of a slave sub-culture, that certain races must "know their place" and keep it.

Role playing
While slavery has long since been illegal, we see people playing their roles even today. 
Role one: A culture of escaped (or now, liberated) slaves has expectations of being thwarted, punished and kept "in their place" by a white culture that sees them as inferior and that is able to flaunt the laws that are meant to protect them from abuse of power. (Note the differences in the likelihood of (usually White) police abuse of Blacks stopped by police, compared to Whites stopped by police.

Beliefs about the possible
When people believe it is possible to succeed, they often will. When they believe it is not possible, they will not. Add the culture of abuse-of-power  in which many minorities are raised, and it simply makes more sense to fight back in subtle ways than to join the system and define success in more mainstream ways. 

Example one: Job possibilities
There are always exceptions, but in general, people raised in towns with few job opportunities and little hope of "escaping" may find it hard to imagine themselves in a role of  mainstream success.

Example two: Education
Again, there are exceptions, but in general, impoverished and subjugated people may hear contradictory messages. On the one hand, parents, teachers and others may be telling them "you need to get and education," job training etc. etc. or you will be sorry. But at the same time they may be getting the contradictory message that "you are just too dumb," or that you are "not college material" and so-on. This message can come in many subtle ways and can override more positive messages.

My story
For example, I always used to think of myself as inferior, unworthy and incapable. Why? Well for one thing, I missed my first year of school. And entire year! That was because I was raised out in the woods and there was no bus service to the kindergarten. On my first day of school, first grade, my parents brought me to class and we arrived a minute or two late so all the seats were taken. I sat in the back row. 

I think the teacher's name was Mary Grinder or something like that. She was a small woman seated at a large desk at the head of class, right next to the American flag. My mom left and I sat there in fear and trembling. 

I had never seen so many kids in one place. Having been raised out in a vacation community, "Paradise Park," I was brought up with only my sisters. I seldom saw other children except when they came to the park for a week or two vacation. So I sat in the back of Mrs. Grinder's classroom, looking at the backs of the heads of all these other students, until the teacher said, "Okay, let's all stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance." (That was, I think, 1950, before the phrase "under God" was added.) 

I didn't know what allegiance was, let alone the pledge of allegiance. Everyone stood and began chanting the pledge, which to me sounded like mumbo jumbo. I stood back there, embarrassed and confused. But that was not the end. The teacher said, "Now children, since we are all standing, let's count to one hundred, all together." And the kids started counting. 

As for me, my mother must have gotten a notice that I needed to be able to count to nine, because a week or so before class started, she started teaching me to count from one to nine. The numbers had no meaning to me before that. I probably knew small numbers like two or three, things that we might have talked about as kids, you know, my three marbles, your four dolls. But I was introduced to one through nine only days before my first day of school, a year late compared with the other kids. 

"Now, children, let's see who knows the ABC's." What the hell is that? 

And so my first day of school began. I soon "learned" that I was not smart. My report cards reflected that as well, and during my first parent conference in the second grate, I stood holding to the folds of my mother's dress. I remember distinctly that we had stepped outside. Perhaps the "conference" was over, and my second grade teacher, whose name I forget, told my mother, "Well, he's slow, you know." And I hid my face in my mother's dress.

The power of reading
I soon found myself avoiding anything that involved mental competition. I did not like puzzles, word games, debates or arguments, nor did I like school, studies or math. The only thing that saved my bacon was that I liked stories. About the time of third grade I remember my mom coming home from the library with armloads of children's books, and reading. We also had a neighbor, Mrs. Likens (I am not certain of the spelling.), who owned a book store, and for some reason I never knew (Perhaps she felt sorry for us kids, as we were poor at the time.), but every Christmas she would drop off a box of books as "presents" for the Lockwood kids. 

I learned to read one day when a teacher came around to my desk as the class was reading "Dick and Jane," and she put a bookmark under the line they were reading on, and pointed to each word as the rest of the class read aloud. From that day on I knew how to read. Before that, I had no idea how to read.

About that time, my mom began to read to us, a lot.  We loved The Wizard of Oz and Winnie the Pooh and so many other children's books. When I was about ten or twelve years of age,  I started reading my great grandfather's Zane Grey novels. By this time I was hooked on reading. Because there was no compulsion, no rewards or punishments (other than the reward of pleasurable reading itself), I read books that were beyond my supposed readability level. When I came to words I did not understand, I vocalized them as best I could, attempted to guess the meaning,  and just moved on to the next sentence. I read many Western paperback books without knowing what an "arroyo" was or a "gulch" but I enjoyed the books. I was hooked on reading, but I never really believed that I was equal to other kids. I was convinced that I was dumb.

Unconscious hazards
Sometimes families can unconsciously pass along negative or contradictory messages that form a framework for how we see ourselves and our world. I distinctly remember my great grandfather saying loudly within my hearing (concerning a kids down the street), that Jimmy got high marks in school and that he would have scholarships to go to college. He also opined that people of our income bracket could never go to college without scholarships. To put this in context, this was before John Kennedy and the era of income-based grants.The intended messages probably was, "You should study harder," but the message that I got was this: "You will never be able to go to college." From a young age, I "knew" that I would never go to college. 

(This proved to be an incorrect assumption, however, as I later earned a Master's degree in Education with an emphasis in English. But how that came to pass is another story for some other time.)

I have said all this to say this: Our concept of who we are, and of what is possible and what is not possible, is passed on to us in many subtle ways as individuals interact with us, but now, lets imagine another layer added on.

Cultural expectations
If family and school contacts mold our thinking about ourselves as individuals, imagine the power of a culture to pass on conscious and unconscious beliefs about who and what we are, and about what is or is not possible for us as individuals or as groups.

If this cultural imprinting, in part, explains, the racially explosive attitudes that result in cop-versus Black communities, it probably also explains why some student succeed while other students of similar or superior intelligence fail. Literally, we are what we think, but importantly, we are also what our cultures and sub-cultures think.

The implications for  educators

 We may need to teach our kids positive meta-cognition: How to think about what we think, and how to think about it in ways that will break the cycles of violence and poverty.

It might help some students to examine their own beliefs and attitudes, and to consider alternative explanation to the ones supplied by cultures and sub-cultures. While harmful or self-defeating thoughts and attitudes are based in realities, the realities themselves are subject to review. We, and our students, need to ask ourselves not only, "What do I think," but also "Why do I think I think that way?" 

Then go we must go one step further to change or supplement our world-views and self-concepts to effect newer, better realities.

A "slow" student
In my case, I believed I was dumb because I  was behind in school from the first year on. I sat next to the window and stared outside while the lessons were being taught, but I was quiet and well behaved so I got away with it. And I believed I was inferior, partly  because a teacher said I was "slow," and because, in reality, I was incompetent compared to my peers. Overcoming those realities and replacing them with new realities is no easy task. Our feelings jump up to contradict what our mind tells us: That there are other explanations for the facts. Our mind might have one explanation (You were a year late in starting school.) but our feelings tell us "You are just plain inferior." 

In my experience, meta-cognition, or thinking about thinking, may not be able to eradicate our negative and self-defeating thoughts, but it can help.

#metacognition #thinkingaboutthinking #curriculum #publicschools #minorities #atriskstudents


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