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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
such as frequent use of similes and metaphors. The adults were asked about and value metaphorical thinking and narrative exposition initiated by a storytelling question: one participant indicated a willingness to tell a story using the question form, “Did you see Maggie’s dog yesterday?” The appropriate answer to such a query is not “yes” or “no,” but another question, “No, what happened to Maggie’s dog yesterday?” that sets the stage for the initiator’s narrative. Both adults and older preschool children were totally familiar with these questioning rituals and played them enthusiastically.
These examples emphasize the systematic differences between the form and function of questioning behaviors in the working-class black and middleclass white communities that were studied. Neither approach is “deficient,” but the match between the activities that predominate in classrooms at the early grades is much greater with middle-class homes than with workingclass ones in that community. As the middle-class teachers practiced their familiar questioning routines with their pupils, it is not surprising that the middle-class pupils, who shared the teacher’s background, successfully fulfilled the answerer role, while the working-class African-American children were often perplexed (Heath, 1981, 1983). Moreover, teachers were sometimes bewildered by what they regarded as the lack of responsible answering behavior on the part of their black pupils. They commented (Heath, 1981:108):
They don’t seem to be able to answer even the simplest questions.
I would almost think some of them have a hearing problem; it is as though they don’t hear me ask a question. I get blank stares to my question. When I am making statements or telling stories which interest them, they always seem to hear me.
The simplest questions are the ones they can’t answer in the classroom; yet on the playground, they can explain a rule for a ballgame, etc. They can’t be as dumb as they seem in my class.
I sometimes feel that when I look at them and ask a question I’m staring at a wall I can’t break through.
However, as the teachers learned about the types of metaphoric and narrative question sequences with which the children are familiar, they were able to gradually introduce the unfamiliar known-answer routines. This is an excellent example of the “two-way path, from school to the community and from the community to school” (Heath, 1981:125) that is needed if the transition to formal schooling is to be made less traumatic for ethnically diverse groups. Not only can interventions be devised to help minority-culture parents prepare children for school, but the schools themselves can be sensitive to the problems of cultural mismatches. The answer is not to concentrate exclusively on changing children or changing schools, but to encourage adaptive flexibility in both directions.