How Culture Shapes Learning
A great deal of research has been conducted on the different styles of learning, communication, and participation of minority students (Gay, 1991; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Losey, 1995; Stone, 1991). For example, studies have been conducted with African Americans (Boykin, 1982; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Shade, 1986), Native Hawaiians (Au, 1980; Boggs, Watson-Gegeo, & McMillen, 1985), Mexican Americans (Heath, 1986; Losey, 1995; Ramirez & Castaneda, 1974), the larger Hispanic community (Grossman, 1984), and Native Americans (Greenbaum, 1985; Phillips, 1972). These studies indicate that there are differences in the way children of different cultural groups communicate, learn, and interact. Our goal as teachers should be to create a “cultural congruence” between our classroom and the homes of our students (Au & Kawakami, 1994).
Before proceeding, one important caution is in order. Although researchers can describe a norm—a typical way of thinking or behaving among the members of a cultural group—these are generalizations. For some individuals within the group, they will not be accurate. Kurtz-Costes and Pungello (2000) stressed this point when providing recommendations for teachers working with immigrant students: “Successful educators recognize that each child deserves to be treated as an individual with his or her own unique gifts” (p. 122). Let me provide an example from an observation I made while supervising two university students who were participating in a second-grade bilingual (Spanish–English) classroom. All the children were Hispanic. Research has shown that Hispanic students have a preference for social learning, for working in groups (Losey, 1995). The children in this classroom decided to stay indoors during recess since the temperature had climbed to 100. All the children were drawing pictures of the fire station they visited earlier in the week. The children were free to work where they wished. Of the 28 children, 20 worked in small groups, chatting happily as they drew. This was consistent with the research. Eight children, however, did not follow the norm, choosing to work individually. My afternoon in that classroom provided a good example of how a cultural norm will not define the behavior of every member of a cultural group.
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