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How Culture Shapes Learning

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

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.

It would be impossible in a book of this size to summarize all the conclusions reached on each cultural group, but here are some examples of these cultural differences:

  • How children understand the history we attempt to teach them will be influenced greatly by their cultural identity. In fact, after reviewing the research on social identity and the teaching and learning of history, Epstein and Shiller (2005) concluded that what children will learn from their textbooks and their teachers will be limited when there is a conflict with what they learned at home. Specific studies have shown differences in what African American and European American children “see” in the same photograph and differences in the way Northern Irish and American children explain the events in the past.
  • European American teachers and parents will expect students to ask questions and express personal opinions. However, many Korean American children will be hesitant to demonstrate these classroom behaviors. In traditional Korean culture, student behavior of this sort is considered rude; it shows disrespect for the teacher. In Korea, children refrain from asking questions because it indicates that the teacher did a poor job. It is not appropriate for a child to express an opinion to an adult (California Department of Education, 1992).
  • Native Hawaiians have a strong tradition of group storytelling called “talk-story.” It is no wonder, then, that many of these students thrive in activities that require cooperation and a lot of talking. Many native Hawaiian students become frustrated with activities that ask for silence and that are completed individually (Au, 1993).
  • Some teachers claim that their African American students give no answer, give single-word answers, or give short, flippant answers to questions asked in front of the whole class. The same students on the playground talk in an animated manner and speak at great length when explaining things and describing events. Shade and New (1993) note this is because “in the traditional African American community, children are not usually expected to be information givers and are infrequently asked direct questions” (p. 320). Communication among African Americans is passionate and less formal than among European Americans. Teachers should expect their African American students to differ from European American children in each of the following aspects of language use: (a) turn taking (when people speak, European Americans follow a more rigid structure during a conversation), (b) tone (European Americans speak in less audible tones), (c) gestures (most European Americans use few gestures), and (d) pace (European American speech is slower). Research shows that African American students do better in school when (a) teachers plan participatory learning experiences where students move around, like dramatic role play; (b) students have many opportunities to talk with classmates in informal, conversational settings; (c) students have a chance to think out loud and work in small groups; and (d) teachers present material auditorily through music, rhymes, and chants (Hollins, Smiler, & Spencer, 1994; Ladson-Billings, 1995).
  • Prior to coming to school, Native American children learn by observation and direct experience. This stands in stark contrast to European American children, whose caretakers spent a great dealing of time talking to and with children. Native American children have learned not to respond quickly to questions because such a response is disrespectful. This hesitance to respond is often misinterpreted by teachers from other cultural groups (Gilliland, 1992; Stokes, 1997).
  • In the aftermath of the horrific events of September 11, 2001, Arab American and Muslim American children frequently are stereotyped and find themselves on the receiving end of considerable anger (Alvi, 2001; Seikaly, 2001). Like all students, Arab American and Muslim American children should feel safe and secure in our classrooms. Many American teachers know little accurate information about these two groups and most American students either know little about the Middle East or have inaccurate views influenced only by stereotypes and distortions (Jaffee, 2004) . For example, how many of us are aware that some Arab Americans are Christians (typically of the Maronite, Melkite, Chaldean, and Coptic denominations)? At the same time, not all Muslim Americans are Arab Americans; in the United States, there are Muslims from many ethnic groups. The nation with the most Muslim citizens is not an Arab nation, it is Indonesia.
  • Teachers should understand the unique challenges faced by Muslim girls in American schools (Elnour & Bahir-Ali, 2003). First of all, many teachers have a stereotypical image of Muslim girls, especially in regard to clothing. In fact, how Muslim girls dress will depend on their families’ interpretation of Islam. Some may wear jeans and blouses, typical of many American teenagers, while others will wear clothing that covers their entire bodies except for the faces and hands. The authors point out that many Muslim families do not allow their daughters to participate in extracurricular activies (but then again, many do). Conservative Muslim girls follow norms of behavior that severely restrict their actions with boys and men. Some Muslim girls will avert their gaze so as not to look directly into the eyes of their male teachers, and some Muslim girls will avoid situations which involve direct interaction with males, such as being the only girl in an otherwise all-boy group working together on a project.

Good teachers respect the diversity of their students. We should use the resources of our local community to learn about the cultural identities of our students. We should understand the level of English proficiency of our English learners. We should get to know our students as individuals, and have a good sense of each student’s interests and abilities. The methodology for today’s classroom must reflect the diversity of our students, must be multidimensional, and must include a wide variety of instructional resources and strategies. This book describes that culturally responsive methodology.

One way to “celebrate” the cultural diversity of our students is to use their experiences as a basis for social studies teaching.

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