Why Teach Urban Students Differently?

Initial Publication Date: May 4, 2009

A Distinct Urban Context

Students must construct their own meaning from lessons by connecting new information and concepts to what they already believe or have experienced (AAAS, 1990). Integration of real-world situations that are meaningful to students, or their community, contextualizes instruction within the prior experiences of students. Thus contextualized instruction provides a conceptual scaffold on which students can hang new ideas (Rivet and Krajcik, 2008).

The pre-existing conceptual framework of urban students may differ considerably from their non-urban peers. For example, Shepardson et al. (2007) noted that urban students across all grade levels conceptualize the environment differently from their peers who live in suburban and rural settings. Students in urban schools are more likely to perceive the environment as a "place impacted or modified by humans," view built landscapes as environments, or perceive the environment as "a polluted place." Accordingly, Shepardson et al. (2007) suggest that environmental curricula must emphasize the local environment that builds upon the setting in which students are most familiar. Urban students require an urban context to most effectively integrate new knowledge.

A disconnect between urban students and natural environments was noted by d'Alessio (2008) in a recent survey of his Bay Area classrooms; 8% of his students had never been to the ocean despite it being less than 15 miles from the school. Personally, I have encountered a similar environmental disconnect when I challenged a class of pre-service teachers to devise a study that the class might conduct at the beach.Two of the approximately 20 students in the class reported that they had never been to a beach despite the beaches of Coney Island being only 10 subway stops from the college. d'Allesio (2008) further documented that >50% of his students consider their room/house to be their favorite place to spend time. For urban students such as these, typical geological discussions focused on natural settings would likely lack resonance and connection.

Urban Outcrop Gates Exhibit in Central Park Urban Cemetary

The Need to Connect "In-School" and "Out-of-School" Experiences

The disconnect that exists between how urban students perceive school-based activities and practical day-to-day activities that occur in their homes and communities is a fundamental impediment to learning. For working class or impoverished families that are unfamiliar with American education norms, schools are commonly perceived as being "in communities, but not of the communities" (Bouillion and Gomez, 2001, p. 878). Thus, identifying topics that truly resonate with students in culturally and linguistically diverse urban settings is a challenge, especially if instructors do not understand the priorities, perspectives, and cultural lenses of their students. In order to teach effectively in an urban classroom, instructors must identify and understand the social and cultural resources of their students (Tobin et al., 2001), and even ground science instruction in the cultural experiences of the students (Hammond, 2001).

Educational researchers who focus on urban, minority, and poor students commonly refer to the "funds of knowledge" that students bring to the classroom. Funds of knowledge are the skills and knowledge that have been historically and culturally developed to enable an individual or household to function within a given culture (e.g., Moll et al., 1992). It is knowledge that is useful and transferable in daily life, and it guides students' actions as they attempt to achieve their goals in their "out-of-school" life (Basu and Barton, 2007). For example, the child of a Latino carpenter might be adept at practical quantitative skills such as measurement and conversion, and may be responsible for translation of complex documents (e.g., medical and legal documents) for family members.

Such cultural lenses shape students' perception of new knowledge and skills; if a lesson is perceived by a student as empowering them to shape their life, community, and world, they are more likely to accept the information and welcome related information and skills (Bouillion and Gomez, 2001). For example, Vierling et al. (2005) documented improvement in science learning for American Indian students when the context was "tethered to cultural context." If curricula fail to integrate students' funds of knowledge, then students are likely to perceive the experience as "fake," that is, unrelated to their lives or futures (Fusco, 2001). In their study of urban minority youth, Basu and Barton (2007) noted that students considered science useful when it could be applied to everyday priorities, made their lives easier, increased control of their lives, solved personal or social problems, or validated their pop-culture activities such as sport. Furthermore, they concluded that minority youth developed sustained interest in science when it connected to their vision of their future, supported the sort of social interactions that students valued, and was in-line with their perception of the purpose of science.