November 15, 2007 at 3:32 pm (education, essays)

next up…

How important are cultural differences in the classroom? Does a student’s home culture affect their educational experience? And what the ramifications of cultural differences for Adult Education?

There is much evidence that disparate cultures have significantly different teaching and learning styles. The Kamehameha Early Education Program (in Tharp, section 3) which studied a range of monocultural classrooms showed dramatically varying styles, from the calm, considered teaching style of a Navajo classroom, with an emphasis on the individual and lots of wait-time at both ends of a response, to the loud and bubbly Hawaiian class, whose teaching style is very fast paced and cooperative, and where the wait-time is negative! While these different classroom rhythms suit the students of the specific culture, a student from a different culture could have a lot of trouble coping with an incompatible, or unfamiliar classroom style. Children growing up are, naturally, learning constantly, and they learn both to communicate and learn in the dominant style of the people around them. By the time they get to school they have had years of learning in the style of their home culture, and can have problems adapting to a significantly different approach.

“Culture can be analyzed for its variable influence on individuals, taking into account the historical processes of culture of origin, but considering them as they are filtered by events and forces in individual life history, learning experiences, and current conditions” (Tharp, section 1). Culture is indeed a factor we can analyse, and, as seen in the aforementioned study, such analysis has returned startlingly informative results in certain limited circumstances. Unfortunately, the risk is always that many people want to overgeneralise such analyses. Just by knowing what culture someone belongs to does not mean you can determine how they would best be educated. It also then follows, that a teacher from the same cultural group as the students is not necessarily more effective than one from a different cultural group. It must be noted that the latter teacher is usually considered to be educated enough in cultural differences to avoid four attitudes, which are expressions of racism: bigotry, colour-blindness, paternalism and excessive compliance (Greene, in Tharp, section 2). The assumption that teachers are so culturally literate is very generous, but the question of achieving this is an entirely different area of study.

As a teacher, belonging to the same culture as one’s students does, of course, bring some advantages, but there are also some disadvantages as well. According to Tharp, the advantages are mostly restricted to creating rapport and avoiding unfortunate gaffes, rather than anything more important. This may be correct where everyone involved shares the same goals or expectations from the education, but it can be counteracted by the new perspectives an outsider may bring. Teachers are important as role models and examples for everyone. Having a teacher of one’s own culture can strengthen positive identification with that culture, but teachers of other cultures can promote cultural understanding too. Insisting on same-culture teachers means abandoning the move towards multicultural classrooms. Not only is it dangerous to assume any classroom is homogenous, even if it is not obviously multicultural, but generally matching teachers to classes risks cultural segregation, unequal opportunity for teachers and a lack of options for students, especially students who don’t fit perfectly into any designated group. Even in supposedly monocultural classrooms, there are often students who do not fit into the cultural norm.

There are three different broad opinions on how culture influences effective pedagogy. The culturally specific compatibility hypothesis suggests that each discrete culture requires a discrete approach. The two-type compatibility hypothesis sees only two groups to be treated differently from each other: all minority cultures are grouped together with one approach, different to that of the majority. The universalistic compatibility hypothesis does not consider cultural differences relevant to pedagogical decisions (Tharp, section 3). While this typology has something to say, none of the groups cover all the issues. To divide all cultures would be to box students into narrow categories that are not necessarily appropriate for them. To refuse any divisions is to ignore differences that do exist. Although two type sounds like a middle ground, and could be a good compromise, reality is more complex than that. Some minorities are more conventionally “successful” (according to the school system’s values) than others. Wu’s Chinese American school students (in Tharp, section 3), generally achieved higher test scores than even the majority-culture students. This doesn’t work in the two-type approach which supposes the school system designed for the majority culture should serve them better than any other group. However, it also supposes the current systems in America serve the majority culture well, which they don’t, for many reasons.

Discussions of cultural differences in the classroom are, like many educational issues, often only discussed in the context of children’s schooling, however, culture also needs to be considered in the field of adult education, which adds a few extra issues to the picture. The building of trust and rapport is crucial in adult education. An issue more specific to adults is that they come to education with all the problems, fears and affective barriers inherited from their times at school, and these need to be accommodated, understood and worked with. Often changing these attitudes is a major part of the education, and cultural issues can play a significant role in this.


Tharp, R. G. (1994) “Systemic Reform: Perspectives on Personalizing Education”


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