Students first learn about their culture at home. Lessons about families and roles in the primary grades help students to draw on their home experiences. We know that the very young are often aware of ethnic differences. Students can be empowered by studying the groups and institutions closest to them, including family and school. Studies of concepts such as kinship, education, health, leadership, and community help young children to understand the more general concept of culture.

Children at very young ages can begin to analyze the facets of culture that they have learned from their families. Later, after the age of 10 to 12, when peer groups become more important, students can begin to analyze the differences between the values that their parents taught them and the new values that are encouraged and advocated by society and their peer groups.

Beginning in about fourth grade, children can study themselves in the context of their cultural patterns. They can begin to see that they have learned to be who they are. They can study the process of learning and the traits and languages taught at home. It is very important for children to see that they are active participants in the process of acquiring their culture. For example, an African American girl should understand that in her home she is a product of the African American culture. Yet the same child deserves to know that she is also being taught to be a part of the macroculture in school. Some conflict about this is unavoidable, but in a culturally democratic classroom, it can be discussed and analyzed and may become the source of new insight and strategies for survival. If unexamined, cultural conflict creates anxiety that, once internalized, may harden into dysfunctional responses such as a chronic expectation of failure.

For example, U.S.-born children of Mexican descent (Chicanos or Mexican Americans), U.S.-born Puerto Rican children, and African American children frequently do not perform well in English or in reading (Gándara, 1995; Garcia, 2001; Zou & Trueba, 1998). Bilingual education has served immigrant students well but has done little to resolve the cultural conflicts of English-speaking Chicano, Puerto Rican, Hawaiian, African American, and Filipino students. Drill and practice alone will not change the pattern of school failure. Difficulty in mastering English and acquiring reading skills is frequently related to students’ conflicts caused by existing in two cultures—one dominant and one subordinate. Some students attempt to overcome this conflict by abandoning their home culture and totally adopting the macroculture. This cultural abandonment strategy has proven to be disastrous for many. It leads to low reading and math scores, withdrawal, passivity, a high rate of school failure, and the tendency to leave school before graduation. Rather than accepting failure, students can study those aspects of their culture that determine their language acquisition patterns and try to understand how those patterns conflict with the job of mastering American English (Trueba, 1989).

Cultural conflict and identity conflict are important subjects of study in the multicultural classroom. For European American students, their cultural values and history are deeply interwoven into the curriculum. Students from other cultures need to be aware that they have learned many cultural patterns from their family and others from their formal education. Students also need to see themselves not only as products of the decisions of others but also as competent individuals who are in charge of the direction of their lives (Reyes, Scribner, & Scribner, 1999). When students learn that they can analyze and overcome educational problems, their self-confidence and self-control increase. By studying the school culture and students’ roles, teachers can encourage students to be responsible for and in control of their future (Oakes Rogers & Lipton, 2006).

Schools can offer students the unique opportunity to study themselves and their classmates in the safe context of the classroom. Problems that emerge in the classroom, such as weaknesses in reading and math, can be treated as obstacles for the students to overcome. When students experience failure, the study of cultural conflict may help them to analyze the difficulties and to select ways to overcome educational problems. They will be able to overcome some obstacles by individual effort, such as by acquiring new learning skills; other problems may require group work. The experience of being part of a team that successfully completes a project can help students develop the courage and confidence to overcome educational and psychological barriers.

Cultural Conflicts

One type of cultural conflict that frequently arises in classrooms concerns language. Conflict over bilingual education versus English-only language instruction and a 1997 California Ebonics episode reveal the intense cultural and worldview battles over language (Perry & Delpit, 1997). Primary teachers and English teachers have taught formal or Standard English as their primary task almost since the founding of public schools. They are teaching the “standard” communication system of the middle-class members of the dominant culture, and this produces conflicts with other cultures and social classes.

Languages are usually learned at home (not in school), and they are based on culture. Heath (1986) has effectively argued that “all language learning is cultural learning” (p. 145). As children learn a second language, they encounter cultural conflict and require assistance with this conflict. Teaching a second language also introduces teachers to learning a second culture.

Languages also carry cultural assumptions within their expressions. For example, languages influence the manner in which we greet or criticize one another. Languages and cultures differ on how dialogue is initiated (Do elders speak first?) and how it is completed. They also vary considerably in the manner in which they deal with silence and nonverbal expression. Languages permeate and influence most of our social relationships. They both reveal and mark status and education levels. Language and language use within a community and within a school reveal a great deal about power and authority relationships.