Marginalized Students and Alternative Learning

This paper explores some of the issues pertaining to current K-12 teaching and assessment procedures and alternative learning strategies that could perhaps be deployed in support of holistic learning methodologies. The importance of the learning environment and increasing prevalence of qualitative performance assessments as opposed to quantitative “high-stakes” performance measures are discussed in the context of prevailing strategies and mores within the educational environment.



Alternative learning strategies designed to foster an excitement and desire-to-learn among students of all ethnic and economic populations are few and far between. Given the state of state standards and assessment procedures, warning signs regarding the progress of educational reform within the United States are rampant (Anderson et al. 2003; Cofresi and Gorman 2004). The No Child Left Behind Act (2002) has been established as an unfunded mandate, lacking the necessary financial support from both state and national coffers to implement any other than its draconian measures (Rose 2004). High stakes assessment techniques have been found to reinforce prevailing patterns of cultural bias toward ethnically and economically marginalized populations (Flores and Clark 2003), resulting in the continuation of miseducational patterns that have been readily apparent for decades.

Given the assessment issues that plague these populations (Plitt 2004; Rose 2004), it will become necessary for educators and administrators to address these issues in an exceedingly vigorous manner. Many school districts and teachers are currently engaged in the search for alternative teaching methods designed to serve the needs of diverse, multicultural populations. The reality of multiple assessments has been addressed in the literature, although not yet practiced among teachers and educational practitioners to any great extent. Some strategies call for student involvement in the assessment procedure (McGrath 2003), while others emphasis the preparation of In-service teachers for skill development and procedural knowledge-building (Chandler, Freiberg and Stinson 2002). Learner-centered instruction employ’s Howard Gardner’s (1983) theory of multiple intelligences (MI) to disparate learning arenas, in the attempt to address the learning capabilities of all students in the relevant areas of academic concern (Haley 2004). She delineates the eight intelligences thusly: “bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal/social, intrapersonal/introspective, logical/mathematical, musical/rhythmic, naturalist, verbal/linguistic, and visual/spatial.” As with multiple assessments and many other alternative learning methods, the emphasis upon student-based learning as well as teacher training is equally important.

The emphasis of current educational methods upon teacher-centered curriculum is virtually unchallenged by institutional mores (Brown 2003). However, the inability of this paradigm to successfully instruct all cohorts of students is becoming increasingly apparent to educators across the spectrum. Brown states that, “The premise – one teaching and learning approach fits all – is not working for a growing number of student populations (49, 2003)”. The empirically-based paradigm of standardized testing has proven to leave many children, as well as educators, behind (Rose 2004; Vogler 2004; Flores and Clark 2003). Increased competition among faculty and staff for “merit-based” pay increases as a result of high testing scores has led to a crisis of morality, pitting teachers and students against administrators and bureaucrats concerned with “the bottom line”. Madeja (2004) describes it thusly:

“Of even more concern is the fact that schools are becoming desperate, and their personnel are using a variety of ways to improve student performance on the tests, some of which are unethical and dishonest. School systems and individual teachers and administrators have been caught cheating by supplying information about the tests to students. Schools are controlling attendance on days that the test is administered: Students who will not perform well are discouraged from attending or diverted to other activities in the school, rather than taking the test and performing poorly (4, 2003)”.

It is readily apparent that the current system of high-staked testing and corporate assessment tools is inadequate for the task. The resultant emphasis and concentration upon outcomes is obscuring the actual purpose of education, which is student learning.


Theory and Pedagogy

Critical theory has played a large role modern educational reform. With historical ties to capitalism and philosophical discourses regarding imperialism and Marxist concerns, critical social theory is posed to offer a theoretical framework within which alternative strategies can be deployed in the remediation of endemic issues of and economic and political nature (Rocheleau 2003). It offers a rational construct within which to view the social justice-oriented ideals of inclusion and human rights as well as an embarkation point for further theorizing, as is evidenced by the continuing evolution of the paradigm. In relation to education, Rocheleau states that, “Critical theory, then, can show how capitalism and technocratic thinking converge to prevent ethical debate about technology, resulting in financially productive technologies instead of those that foster reflectively held values (156, 2003)”. This description encompasses the current debate regarding the efficacy of the computer-generated and bureaucratic/corporate designed tests that comprise a significant proportion of the assessment tools currently in use across the country.

The relationship of anti-colonial theory and educational disparities is not readily apparent. This quote by Sefa Dei and Asgharzadeh (2001), discuss the idea of oppression in the context of peripheral countries subject to decolonization and imperial imposition:

“Oppression, in all its forms and shapes, is a dehumanizing condition that must be eliminated, and class-based oppression is no different than any other oppressive condition. The problem, however, surfaces when certain class-based analyses seek to subordinate other categories such as race, gender, and sexuality to material conditions (315, 2001)”.

The universal nature of class struggles that typify the anti-colonial discourse can be adapted to material conditions with the countries of the western world, the United States in particular, which reflect, in microcosm, macrocosmic patterns of interrelational dominance on the part of subjugator to subjugated. Natural economic conditions (Laissez Fair capitalism), rather than being the primary determinant of marginality, is instead a secondary factor, when ethnicity or race are contextually situated, regardless of the rhetorical emphasis. The following quote from Arnetha Ball’s article about empowering pedagogies (2001) advances the argument in a more relevant direction:

“Because community-based organizations have a track record of providing different types of structured and unstructured learning experiences that are successful with students who have failed to succeed within traditional classrooms, their value and resource potential warrant close attention and further consideration as educationally and culturally responsive learning environments for multicultural populations (1008, 2000).

Situated most often within depressed economic communities, these organizations foster alternative learning strategies that work, given the learning strictures and the undocumented-but-demonstrable MI capabilities of the affected populations. These colonized populations, encapsulated with a cultural and economic bubble in the dispersed inner-city realms of urban agglomerations across the country, remain subject to “Ivory Tower” academic dispensations and corporate charity designed to provide window dressing to the inherently unstable structural problems that necessitate the existence of an underclass with the capitalist/free market economic structure.


Learning environment

Learning environments are an important consideration when implementing alternative teaching methods. At the K-12 level in particular, the atmosphere within which classroom instruction is imparted plays a large role in the learning ability of children, as well as the effective ability of instructors to communicate their lesson plans (Wallace, Venville and Chou, 2001). The perception of instructors regarding the efficacy of a particular learning environment might be different from that of a student, although both share the same learning space at the same time. Walker (2004) defines learning environments as, “…the psychosocial environment”. This perspective incorporates intangible aspects of the learning process, including psychological undercurrents that determine the general ambience of a classroom.

The methods of determining student perception of learning environments vary. Questionnaires are one form of research tools that has seen increased usage in recent years (Walker, 2004; Wallace, Grady and Chou 2001). In the gathering of socialization data, qualitative methods are more useful than are quantitative methods (Esterberg, 2002). Individual interviews, designed to cull interpersonal data of a subjective nature, far outweigh the ability of objectified and quantified cohort studies that reveal broader patterns, but obscure nuanced realities. Symbolic interactionism, as defined by Herbert Blumer (1969), is concerned with the processes through which the individual navigates through society and assigns meaning to events and things, in relation to societal interaction. The research tools employed by researches of various disciplines incorporate aspects of exploratory inquiry, designed to counter the inability of logical positivistic empirical methodologies to adequately frame the discussion about social life in meaningful terms. The social interaction between instructors, researchers and students fall well within the auspices of this form of qualitative study. The particular form of this type of study is ethnographic in nature, concerned with perception, and the burgeoning impressions of students regarding their day-to-day interaction with their instructors, within a classroom or instructional environment (Garfinkel, 1967).

The nature of perception being subjective is a long-standing truism within all scientific fields, hence the necessity of exacting procedures and repeatable methodologies which allow other researchers to conduct the same research and perhaps to reinforce the findings of the original research. Qualitative research focusing upon the learning environment is inherently unable to make broad generalizations about student populations, for this very reason. Wallace, Venville and Chou’s (2001) determination that even within the classroom, different students have differing perspectives and reasoning abilities reinforces the subjective nature of qualitative research. Aldridge and Frazier’s (1997) study of science classes in secondary schools in China and Australia also came to similar conclusions regarding perceptive differences. In this study, the researchers interpretations of student responses were culturally determined, and, in some cases, insufficiently informed to adequately explain the patterns in the data. Both The Wallace et al. (2001) and the Aldridge and Frazier (1997) studies utilized quantitative and qualitative methods, with the questionnaires forming the quantitative underpinning that was then either supported or refuted by the individual interviews. A measured approach consisting of objective and subjective methodologies seems to provide a strong basis for conclusive research.


Qualitative vs. Quantitative approaches

Qualitative research demands a different set of skills on the part of the Researcher than does quantitative research. Qualitative researchers focus upon the particular and the individuate phenomenon rather than the aggregate and collective phenomena that typify quantitative research projects. In the realm of assessment, qualitative measures are historically subordinate to quantitative measures, and yet the trend toward a gradual acceptance of qualitative measures of assessment is apparent in current research (Bulterman-Bos et. Al). Due to the failure of high-stakes assessment techniques to adequately measure student achievement (Savage 2003), the necessity of alternative measures is paramount. Standards-based assessments represent the epitome of quantitative efforts and remain important in the overall assessment of academic progress (Briars and Resnick 2000). The authors utilized qualitative measures to research teacher commitment to informal assessment procedures that stand in stark contrast to formal assessment measures. By doing so, employing an interview-based methodology, they were able to ascertain the different methods by which disparate teachers assessed diverse classrooms, and the degree to which these teachers subscribed to the traditional and formalized understanding of informal assessment procedures. As an example of qualitative researched used in order to gain insight into a particularly difficult realm for objective study, Observation in Teaching: Toward a Practice of Objectivity served to shed light upon observational processes that teachers share in common, above and beyond the auspices of traditional classroom assessment methodologies.

The question of objectivity vs. subjectivity is one that arises constantly when discussing issues of research and the effectiveness of qualitative methodologies as compared to quantitative methodologies. The deployment of assessment tools that take into account issues of subjectivity that plague all research continues to occur and evolve in the context of multidisciplinary needs. Fouberg’s (2000) article on concept learning is an exemplary article on alternative assessment tools. It explores the usage of journals in the assessment of student understanding and critical thinking skills. Through the lens of a geographic framework, the author explores a “writing for learning” technique that the author utilized in support of a theory of concept learning and the synthesis of information. Current events, reflective essays, and other tools were employed to in the assessment of student learning over the duration of the class period, exemplifying a hybridized qualitative methodology that employed simple statistics as corroborative contextualization. By utilizing a hybrid methodology, the researcher commits to a broader view as techniques merge and combine in order to reveal macro-level patterns of assessment while also shedding light upon individualized achievement in a manner that reflects student learning within the context of multiple intelligences and alternative assessment procedures.

Quantitative and Qualitative assessment measurements both have their place. Both methodological and theoretical stances are important; they reveal different – but complimentary – answers to the same questions. The fact that quantitative research is more concerned with general patterns, and that qualitative research reveals the particular, the interpretive, is validation of the scientific process of dichotomization and a revelation of difference, of subjectivity and objectivity, corresponding to the differing concentrations and interests of scientific researchers across the spectrum. Both are necessary. Both are valid forms of study, and should be respected as such by all who are truly interested in the most complete analysis possible within the context of our incomplete and evolving understanding of the greater scientific endeavor. In the realm of assessment in particular, qualitative measures reveal more nuanced aspects of student learning than do quantitative measures, and allow teachers and researchers to tailor their practices and methodologies accordingly.

Dialectical learning is a mainstay of alternative teaching methods, incorporating innovative strategies that decentralize learning responsibility, empowering both the teacher and the student alike (Westerhof-Shultz and Weisner 2004). The authors state: “A dialogical view of knowledge and reasoning allows teachers and students to regard each other as co-contributors to a larger educational project that, to the degree it receives the input of everyone in the classroom, is intellectually richer and more relevant (48, 2004)”. Critical pedagogy, and the emphasis upon learner-based strategies, falls well within the parameters of dialectical learning as exemplified by community-based classrooms (Ball 2000). Learner-centered approaches also fit well within this context, as Brown (2003) demonstrates in her review of these innovative approaches, to include reflective inquiry and thinking-centered learning. Portfolios designed to express artistic and literary achievement are the focus of Madeja’s (2004) concern about the effects of standardized testing upon the arts.

With the retreat from equality in education in full swing the nation’s rejection of Brown v. The Board of Education (1954) and the subsequent resegregation and widespread adoption of voucher systems for school districts across the land (Eaton 2004), the prospects for alternative education are more necessary now than they ever have been before. Increasing proportions of marginalized and diverse student bodies will necessitate measured strategies designed to reach students ‘where they are’, according to Rose (2004). The rising chorus of voices ranging from teachers, parents and students, will eventually force bureaucrats and administrators to recognize the destructive nature of high-stakes testing procedures and the continued educational marginalization of the children of economically and ethnically marginalized populations (Flores and Clark 2003).


Reference List

Aldridge, Jill. M., and Barry J. Fraser. 1997. Examining science classroom environments in a cross-national study. In Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1997. Perth, Western Australia: Curtin University of Technology.

Anderson, Bernice Taylor, Costello L. Brown, and Julio Lopez-Ferrao. 2003. The Review of Policy Research 20(4): 617-27.

Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chandler, William, Melissa Freiberg and Anne D’Antonio Stinson. 2002. Alternate teaching/alternate learning: Preparing in-service teachers for alternative education settings. American Secondary Education 30(2): 33-48.

Cofresi, Norma I., and Angela A. Gorman. 2004. Testing and assessment issues with Spanish-English bilingual Latinos. Journal of Counseling and Development 82(1)(Winter):99-106

Eaton, Susan E. 2004. Brown’s faint revival. The Virginia Quarterly Review 80(1)(Winter): 16-27.

Esterberg, Kristin G. 2002. Qualitative Methods in Social Research. Lowell: University of Massachusetts.

Flores, Belinda Bustos, and Ellen Riojas Clark. 2003. Texas voices speak out about high-stakes testing: Preservice teachers, teachers, and students. Current Issues in Education [on-line], 6(3). Available:

Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Haley, Marjorie Hall. 2004. Learner-centered instruction and the theory of multiple intelligences with second language learners. Teachers College Record 106(1): 163-80.

McGrath, Diane. 2003. Rubrics, portfolios, and tests, oh my! Learning and Leading with Technology 30 (8): 42-5.

Plitt, Bill. 2004. Teacher dilemmas in a time of standards and testing. Phi Delta Kappan 85(10)(June): 745-8.

Rocheleau, Jordy. 2003. The politics of critical theory: Discursive proceduralism and its discontents. Social Theory and Practice 29(1): 137-57.

Sefa Dei, George J. and Alireza Asgharzadeh. 2001. The power of social theory: The anti-colonial discursive framework. Journal of Educational Thought 35(3): 297-323.

Vogler, Kenneth E. 2004. College dreams: High-stakes testing reality. The Journal of College Admission 184(Summer):5-11.

Walker, Scott L. 2004. Learning environment research: A review of the literature (Learning Environments Monograph No. 3). San Marcos, TX: Texas State University–San Marcos, Geography Department.

Wallace, John, Grady Venville, and Ching-Yang Chou. 2002. “Cooperate is when you don’t fight”: Students’ understanding of their classroom learning environment. Learning Environments Research 5(2): 133-153.


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