MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just a few minutes ago we were talking about the growing number of Hispanic kids in the U.S. Census estimates say that a quarter of American kids under five are Latino. We were talking about how best to support these kids in school. Now we want to broaden the conversation about learning styles in general. Specifically, we want to examine the claim made by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright last week that black kids and white kids have very different learning styles.
Pedro Noguera, professor in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University, is still with us. And we are joined by Janice Hale, professor of Early Childhood Education at Wayne State University. Thank you so much for being here.
Dr. JANICE HALE (Professor of Early Childhood Education, Wayne State University): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: First of all, today is National Teacher Appreciation Day, so we want to thank you both and raise a glass to all the teachers out there. And we want to raise a question. Is it true that students of different backgrounds, races, have different learning styles? This is a recent speech by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright to the NAACP in Detroit last week. Let's listen.
Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ): African and African-American children have a different way of learning. They are right brain, subject oriented in their learning styles. Right brain - that means creative and intuitive. Subject orient means they learn not from an object but from a subject. They learn from a person.
MARTIN: Dr. Hale, you are one of the authorities cited by Reverend Wright. Did he capture your thoughts accurately?
Dr. HALE: Yes. And the question your listeners have to think about is culture. You know, it's never - if you ever think about Madison Avenue, and if they create an advertisement and they come to the conclusion that African-Americans will buy Church's Fried Chicken if Kirk Franklin is singing the song, or they'll buy the tennis shoes if Michael Jordan wears them, that doesn't create a furor. That's just good marketing, good practices. And what you have to think is that Madison Avenue is trying to get a message across. And they have discovered that you can get that message across more effectively if you use a culturally-salient vehicle.
All I'm saying is that teachers are trying to get a message across. And the same way that an advertiser reaches urban youth with a song, with a personality or a celebrity, teachers can get their message across using a culturally-salient vehicle. And I don't understand why it's controversial in education to think that if we nurture and support African children - American children's culture, we can communicate with them better and that they'll learn better, but it's not controversial when we talk about Madison Avenue.
MARTIN: Well, I'd like to offer a thought about why it's controversial but first I want to hear from Pedro Noguera on this. What do you think about this? You've thought a lot about this question also.
Dr. NOGUERA: Oh yeah. And I spend a lot of time working with schools on these issues. I don't think that you can make broad generalizations based on race and correlate that to learning styles. We see something similar happening now with gender. We say boys learn this way, girls learn that way. What we know is that there are wide - there's a great deal of diversity within groups. Not all black children learn the same way, not all white children learn the same way. There are a lot of individual differences.
We also know that most children learn better when there's active learning. Many children benefit from exposure to music as part of the learning. It was common in this country years ago for most kindergarten teachers to have a piano in their classroom and to know how to play the piano. And so incorporating music into your lessons is by no means a new idea, it's been around for probably 50, 60 years.
So I would hesitate to ever say that there are these essential differences based on race and learning. But where I agree with Janice Hale-Benson is that we do need to understand the culture of children and how to make the curriculum relevant to their lives and their experience, so that they will be more motivated to learn. So that, I think, is a different point than what Reverend Wright was making.
MARTIN: And Dr. Hale I think...
Dr. HALE: Can I speak?
MARTIN: Sure, Dr. Hale - but I think the reason that, I think, some people took umbrage or were distressed by Reverend Wright's remarks is that you're talking about the way people's brains work. And when you talk about the way people's brains work, this is something that white racists have been trying to prove for quite some time, that black people's brains are fundamentally different from white people's brains. So do you think that that's what you are saying? Do you think that's what Reverend Wright was saying?
Dr. HALE: I mean, this is the point. Of course it's ridiculous to say that - and he wasn't saying that black people's brains look different, physiologically, or anything like that. I mean, he's really talking about culture. Anytime you're talking about learning, you're talking about the brain. You can't talk about learning and disengage the conversation from the brain. But this is the point that I think is important.
As long as there is this idea that we don't want to talk about race in terms of the education, we are missing an important piece in trying to close the achievement gap with African-American children. There are empirical studies that say that there are differences. I mean, just, for example, look at vocabulary. I mean, there are studies that document that when African-American children come to school they have about half the vocabulary of white children. This is cultural. And children learn to read more efficiently when they know more words.
So that if we understand that that data's there then when African-American children come into pre-school and they come into kindergarten, teachers will understand that an important part of kindergarten and pre-school is exposing children to words. And if they're not getting these words coming in, then we have to close that gap.
MARTIN: Is this...?
Dr. HALE: It's very important empirical data that I review in my book, "Black Children," that documents there are differences.
MARTIN: Do you think this is race or class? I'd like to ask each of you this.
Dr. NOGUERA: I think it's really about class, and it's about the education of parents. Middle-class, African-American children who come from parents who are college educated and who have the time to spend with them, come to school with the same kind of vocabulary, knowing the same kind of words as middle-class, white children.
Dr. HALE: No, they don't.
Dr. NOGUERA: I don't think you can attribute that to culture or the brain. It's about exposure and it's about whether or not children have access to high-quality pre-schools. And I think this really goes back to what I said before about the opportunity to learn. When children are in environments, particularly schools, where they're not being exposed to a rich curriculum - and one of the things that concerns me is that narrow focus on test preparation has taken that enriched curriculum away from many of our children - then what you see is that they're not developing the vocabulary or the level of expression that they should in schools. I would not attribute this to culture because, again, there's a lot of diversity within cultures, amongst African-Americans and amongst Latinos in this country.
MARTIN: I'd like to hear Dr. Hale on this. Dr. Hale, you disagree.
Dr. HALE: I disagree with that. There was a book that was published by the National Black Child Development Institute that contains a number of articles related to vocabulary and reading among African-American children. And they point out that even when you control for social class and educational level, that gap with black and white children still exists with vocabulary.
MARTIN: Why do you think that is, Dr. Hale? Particularly because African-Americans, as is commonly cited, have an oral culture where word play, verbal skill is highly prized.
Dr. HALE: The hypothesis - the reason that these researchers give is the historical disadvantage African-American families have suffered for two or three generations. That the kind of education African-American parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had in the '20s, '30s, and '40s and '50s provided them with a more limited vocabulary. Also, African-American children are disproportionately taught by African-American teachers, and many of them have that historic disadvantage.
So, even when they control for socio-economics, the gap is smaller but it still exists. And as long as we hold onto conventional wisdom we are not looking at data that documents these differences. The purpose of it is not to defame anyone. It's to get a realistic profile on how these children come into school, and for teachers to understand what needs to be done to close that gap.
MARTIN: It's fascinating. So you're saying some of these educational deficits are not made up in one generation. Why do you think it's so unsettling when we talk about different learning styles or racial differences in education? Dr. Noguera?
Dr. NOGUERA: I really have a problem with this because I do think it starts to feed into the idea that somehow black children or Latino children are inferior. I mean, you can't argue that we have different learning styles and not then have that lead to the conclusion that they are, therefore, less capable, less able. And I reject that notion completely. I have spent too much time in schools where I see children, including very poor children, who are exposed to enriched literacy environments, good teaching, and they can perform as well as any child. So I reject the idea that it's about culture, and I certainly reject the ideas about genetics or some essential difference in our children.
MARTIN: Dr. Hale, final thought?
Dr. HALE: OK, what you're objecting is the way that this information can be used, and I agree with you on that. What I'm talking about is you don't ignore information that can also be used in a helpful way. And this is what I mean. There in my book "Black Children," I document the fact that there are physiological differences in terms of kinesthetic orientation among African-American children. In other words, there are studies that show that African-American children move through Piaget's developmental stages at an accelerated rate compared to white children.
There are studies that show that African-American boys have more difficulty inhibiting movement in classrooms, that they are more active. Well, it's my contention, the fact that teachers are not taught this, then we find black boys referred to the principal's office more than anyone else, we see them getting disciplinary procedures in the classroom because they can't sit still all day long. And in urban classrooms these boys are having to sit in their seats all day long.
Teachers are voting to do away with recess because they think eliminating recess is going to give them more instructional time. But they don't see that the way that black children develop, the way their development unfolds, is distinctive and different. And they should accommodate it in the learning process.
MARTIN: This is clearly a very rich discussion, and obviously you've both given a great deal of thought to it. I think that we should leave it here for now, and I think we'll find a way to continue this conversation in the future. I thank you both, Janice Hale is a Professor at Wayne State University and founding director of the Institute for the Study of the African-American child. She joined us by phone from Detroit. Pedro Noguera is professor at New York University's Steinhardt School. He joined us from New York. And I thank you both, and we will have links to both of your books on our Web site. Thank you again.
Dr. HALE: Thanks for having me.
Dr. NOGUERA: Thanks Michel.
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