Children are the ones who benefit from schooling and also the ones who suffer most when schools fail. Ironically, though, we know little about children’s role in education. My current research tries to open this “black box” in schooling. What I have found is that some students are better able than others to create their own advantages in the classroom, and that these differences have real consequences for inequalities in children’s learning and achievement.
From 2008 to 2010, I observed a group of middle-class and working-class, white students in one suburban, public elementary school. I followed these students from third to fifth grade, and interviewed the students, their parents, and their teachers. Through this research, I find that there are important social class differences in the skills and strategies that students learn at home and bring with them to school.
One of the most critical of these differences is apparent in their requests for help from teachers. While teachers expect students to ask questions when they are confused or struggling, they often assume that all students come to school knowing when and how to ask for help.
In reality, kids from different backgrounds learn at home very different lessons about interacting with teachers and other authorities. For example, middle-class parents - who usually have four-year college degrees and professional jobs - tend to urge their children to feel comfortable asking for help from teachers and even coach them on the language and strategies to use in making those requests. Working-class parents - who typically have at most a high-school diploma and tend to work in blue-collar or service jobs - want their children to do well in school, but put less emphasis on cultivating their children’s “self-advocacy” skills.
As a result, middle-class and working-class kids come to school with different help-seeking skills and strategies. They also tend to develop different styles of interacting with teachers and asking for help in the classroom. While working-class kids are often reluctant to ask for help, middle-class kids readily approach teachers with requests, asking questions like “What does this mean?” and “How do you do that?” and even “Can you check this for me before I turn it in?”
Middle-class children also tend to be more persistent and more proactive in making these kinds of requests. While working-class students generally wait for teachers to notice that they are struggling, middle-class students instead tend to call out or go up to the teacher, even interrupting with requests.
Teachers don’t mean to privilege some students over others, but they’re often inadvertently more responsive to middle-class children’s help-seeking styles and strategies. Middle-class children, then, tend not only to ask for more help, but also to get more of the help they need to complete work quickly and correctly, and to seem more on-task and engaged in learning.
This is not to say that all middle-class students are equally assertive in asking for help. But, while some middle-class children are shyer in this regard, I find that overall they still tend to ask for help more often, and more assertively than do their working-class peers.
Some might wonder, though, whether working-class students asked for less help because they were the minority in this particular school setting. In my research, I found no evidence that working-class kids were ostracized or teased because of their social class backgrounds. Instead, there were some instances in which working-class students learned from middle-class peers how to get the help they needed in the classroom.
What that seems to mean, then, is that social class differences in children’s help-seeking would likely be even more pronounced in more homogeneous school settings - those where the vast majority of students have similar family backgrounds.
Why does help-seeking matter?
I suspect that these differences in help-seeking matter both in the short-term, by maintaining advantages and disadvantages throughout the students’ elementary educations, and in the long-term, as middle-class students will likely be the high school students who aren’t afraid to ask for guidance on decisions about course-taking and college going, the college students who reach out to social networks for help in finding a job, and the employees who confidently request raises and better benefits.
Historically, help-seeking was often associated with weakness and over-dependence. Today, with growing emphasis on social networks and cooperation, help-seeking is increasingly seen as a key component of “proactive learning” and a way of “using your resources.”
In this changing world, middle-class children seem to have a double advantage. They benefit from both the opportunities and resources that they get from parents and schools, and also those they secure for themselves in school and society.
Jessica McCrory Calarco, a PhD Candidate in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of “‘I Need Help!’ Social Class and Children’s Help-Seeking in Elementary School,” which recently appeared in the American Sociological Review. She is also preparing a book manuscript based on this research.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.