Opportunity & Access

Frank Flynn: Supporting Equality in Education

Raising teachers’ awareness about students' help-seeking dynamics could be an important first step in supporting equality in elementary school education.

April 30, 2012

How can a certain kind of behavior actually contribute to inequalities? Specifically, do children’s social-class backgrounds affect when and how they seek help in the classroom, thereby teasing out children’s own role in educational stratification? We consider how teachers may use such information to correct these dynamics, and thus contribute to more equal access for all children at school.

In a recent study, Jessica McCrory Calarco, a sociology doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, shows that middle-class children request more help from teachers and use different strategies than their working-class peers. Rather than wait for assistance, they call out or approach teachers directly, even interrupting to make requests. In doing so, they receive more help from teachers, spend less time waiting, and are better able to complete assignments.

Using data from a longitudinal, ethnographic study of one suburban, public elementary school, McCrory Calarco compared middle-class and working-class (white) students’ classroom behaviors and teachers’ responses to them. She focused specifically on students’ help-seeking, using field notes and counts of interactions to examine whether, when, and how children ask for assistance from teachers. 

She discovered that in the absence of explicit classroom rules about when and how to seek help, students drew on behaviors they had absorbed from their class backgrounds to deal with problems. Middle-class children asked not only for more help but for a wider range of help, regularly requesting assistance, clarification, information, and checking of work. Working-class students tended to be more patient and less proactive, raising their hands or waiting for the teacher to offer help rather than calling out or approaching the teacher.

Because middle-class help-seeking propensities and strategies commanded a stronger and faster response from teachers, she argues, they became a form of “cultural capital” that yielded them social and educational “profits.” Such behaviors not only allowed middle-class children to have their needs met more fully and immediately, but they also granted such students access to the resources and support of teachers and other institutional agents who could help them advance in the educational system and, ultimately, the broader world. They were seen as more motivated, and were rewarded accordingly, even though it was clear that working class students also wanted guidance and wanted to succeed.

While working-class children occasionally sought help and had acquired some middle-class strategies, they lacked fluency and ease in using them. They often simply avoided seeking help in situations where their middle-class peers readily did so, including those in which they were having problems with class materials, difficulties with in-class assignments, and uncertainty about directions or activities.

McCrory Calarco emphasizes that middle-class help-seeking styles were more effective not because they were inherently better, or because teachers were biased against working-class students, but because they served as a practical adaptation to the resource constraints in contemporary elementary classrooms. Limited time and numerous demands on teachers’ attention prompted teachers to be more responsive to assertive and proactive help-seeking efforts.

While working-class students expressed concern about making teachers upset with their requests, middle-class children expressed little hesitance about help-seeking, expecting teachers to be responsive to them. They also recognized that classroom conditions made it difficult for teachers to be aware of their needs and described how they would carefully monitor the teacher and make strategic efforts to get the teacher’s immediate attention (such as waiting until the teacher turned toward them to raise their hand or call out). These findings indicate that children actively drew on their class-based dispositions to guide their classroom interactions.

McCrory Calarco suggests that teachers and other school officials could potentially alleviate some of the consequences of class differences in students’ help-seeking. Teachers could more explicitly state their expectations regarding appropriate times and strategies for asking for help, make themselves more accessible to students, and actively encourage all students (particularly those from working-class backgrounds) to feel comfortable approaching them with these types of requests.

Raising teachers’ awareness about these help-seeking dynamics could be an important first step in supporting equality in elementary school education.

Research selected by Professor Frank Flynn, Professor of Organizational Behavior and The Hank McKinnell-Pfizer Inc. Director of the Center for Leadership Development and Research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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