The Culture of School
"Schools are more than institutions where teachers impart skills and lessons; they are places where teachers transmit cultural knowledge," says sociologist Prudence L. Carter. "Education is as much about being inculcated with the ways of the 'culture of power' as it is about learning to read, count, and think critically" (2005, p. 47). Our schools naturally teach the European American values of individualism and independence, self-direction, initiative, and competitiveness (among others), using European American methods of communication and learning.
But as we have seen, these values and methods are not universal. Other cultures in the world—including several with deep roots in the United States—bring up their children according to different beliefs and values. And when the children of these cultures enter the European American education system, teachers, children, and families all face new challenges.
The hardest part is that we don't really know how out of touch we are. Locked in our own cultures, we can see only the most obvious differences, such as those in dress, speech, and food. But everything in school reflects the assumptions and values of the dominant culture, whether we're aware of it or not. Here are some examples:
- Individual learning style. The European American culture expects students to work independently and compete for rewards (Trumbull et al., 2001). Talking with fellow students is discouraged (Shade, Kelly, and Oberg, 1997). Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, bring up their children to help one another learn (Delpit, 1995; Hale, 2001) and to "fit in, not stand out" (Trumbull et al., 2001, p. 5).
- Passive-receptive posture. Interaction in the classroom follows the mainstream model: Students listen quietly while the teacher talks, and when they're called on, they respond one at a time by asking or answering questions. To show they're paying attention, they are supposed to sit still and maintain eye contact (Gay, 2000; Kochman, 1985). But in many interdependent cultures, direct eye contact is considered rude, and children may be reluctant to speak in public—instead, they are expected not to share their views but to watch and listen, because adults are regarded as the source of knowledge (Trumbull et al., 2001). Other cultures have different problems with these mainstream expectations. For example, African American children learn primarily through intense social interaction, which is a collaborative process. In their culture, a speaker is a performer who's making a statement, and while she's speaking, listeners join in and respond with gestures, movement, and words. No one needs permission to enter the conversation, and the discourse is fluid, creative, and emotional (Gay, 2000; Kochman, 1985). In fact, African American families encourage children to assert themselves and display their energy, exuberance, and enthusiasm (Gay, 2000).
- Dispassionate approach. In the European American culture, teachers and students strive to be rational and objective. They believe that emotion interferes with open-minded inquiry and accuracy and communicates a dangerous loss of control. Students of color, on the other hand, are used to showing their feelings and depend on close emotional relationships in order to learn. They prefer the teacher to express genuine emotion, even anger, and if she doesn't, they believe she doesn't care about them (Delpit, 1995).
- Deductive style of inquiry. European Americans take a deductive approach to problem solving. They emphasize detail and arrange facts in a linear, logical order, then move from the specific to the general, building a whole from the sum of its parts. Collectivist cultures solve problems in a different way: They use inductive means, focusing first on the big picture and moving from the general to the specific. Because the group acts as an anchor or catalyst during this process, its members try to stay connected (Gay, 2000).
- Decontextualized learning. In European American schools, teachers focus on abstract ideas and concepts, isolating problems and attributes (such as the shell, white, and yolk of an egg) and seeking technical solutions through the use of books, computers, and other materials. They emphasize words and facts (Delpit, 1995) and expect students to explain their work. But in collectivist cultures, it is the context—the relationship between speaker and listeners, the situation, history, tone of voice, and body language—that matters most. The context is continually shifting, and to understand meaning, children learn to focus on the whole situation, not isolated pieces of it, and connect what's happening to their own experience by telling stories, playing with words, and drawing complex analogies (Heath, 1983).
- "Known-answer" questions. In the mainstream classroom, teachers instruct by asking questions-to which they already know the answer ("What are the properties of an egg?"). European American students show their intelligence by supplying the correct answer. But African American students find such questions puzzling. In their culture, adults ask questions to challenge them or to find out new information, and children demonstrate their wit and intellect by responding spontaneously and creatively (Heath, 1983; Meier, 1998).
- Implicit commands. A European American teacher uses indirection to tell students what to do ("Talia, would you like to read the first paragraph out loud?"). Children of the dominant middle-class culture understand that this request is actually a command. But children from working-class homes, Black and White, are accustomed to direct, explicit commands ("Talia, read the first paragraph") and may not realize that the teacher isn't asking them a question or offering them a true choice and that there are consequences if they don't comply (Del pit, 1995).
- Topic-centered narratives. In the mainstream culture, people tell stories based on one event or topic, arrange the facts and ideas in linear order, and explain the relationship between the ideas and the facts. Sticking to the point is vital (Gay, 2000). In the Latino, African American, and Native American cultures, people tell episodic, anecdotal stories that shift scenes and address more than one issue at a time. Narratives unfold in overlapping loops, not in a straight line; and the relationship between ideas and facts isn't made explicit—it must be inferred (Gay, 2000).
- Standard English. Using Standard English signals intelligence in the European American classroom (Carter, 2005), and the dominant culture assumes that its own way is the only correct way to speak and write English. However, linguists have established that there is an equally legitimate English with full-fledged status as a language: African American Vernacular English, also known as Black English or Ebonics (from "ebony" and "phonics"), which is the everyday spoken language of a great many African Americans and is known and used selectively by a great many others (Willis, 1998). Rooted in the Bantu languages of West Africa and the African oral tradition, Black English often sounds like Standard English, but it has different syntax, grammar, meanings, usage, and so on (Smitherman, 1998)—for example, a plural doesn't require an "s" at the end of a word (Meier, 1998). For young African Americans, speaking Black English promotes cultural solidarity, authenticity, and legitimacy (Carter, 2005). But as Delpit (1995) points out, it also puts them at risk in school. Mainstream teachers often view students who speak Ebonics as wrong or ignorant, lower expectations for them, and fail to provide appropriately engaging and challenging instruction (Carter, 2005). In addition, a teacher's suggestion that something is wrong with the student and her family takes a psychological toll and creates resistance to mainstream learning and teachers (Delpit, 2002).
- Standardized testing, tracking, and ability grouping. Standardized tests—such as those required by No Child Left Behind—demand a wide range of individualistic skills. The questions are decontextualized, written in Standard English, and based on experiences that are familiar to mainstream children (Hilliard, 2002). Schools and teachers often use the results to create tracks or "ability" groups that reward successful students with higher-level teaching. But interdependent cultures don't necessarily value or teach these skills, and once students are relegated to lower-track classes or groups, they have almost no opportunity to catch up.
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