The Importance of Culture in the Classroom – It’s Not What You Might Think

We hear a great deal today about the need for cultural sensitivity in the classroom.  This is sometimes referred to as “cultural intelligence”.  With respect to schools, this consists of the belief that schools and teachers must work hard to ensure that children’s home culture is represented in the classroom.

This can take many forms.  Teachers should have some idea about the beliefs, practices and values of children’s home cultures. Teachers should make an effort to make children – as members of different cultural groups — feel welcome and included in the school. This may include having an understanding of roles and relationships that are present in the student’s family; understanding cultural beliefs (e.g., shared expectations of the ways children contribute to the family); understanding the value that families place on education; honoring cultural traditions of the home (e.g., holidays); including aspects of the student’s home culture in the classroom (e.g., posters; culinary practices), and so forth.

Including the student’s culture in the classroom can assume more dramatic roles as well.  It also may involve more structural accommodations, such as teaching part of the curriculum in the child’s native language, ensuring that messages sent to parents are represented in the family’s native language, and so forth.  There is, of course, considerable controversy about the merits of multilingual and dual language instruction in the classroom.

Respect for Culture and Identity

The question of the role of culture in the classroom is informed by concerns for social and cultural identity that have become prevalent in recent decades in Western society.  Seeking to right the wrongs of long-established patterns of discrimination against marginalized groups, educators, policy makers, and social institutions have sought ways to honor cultural diversity and respect the beliefs and practices of different identity groups.

This practice stands in contrast to beliefs in the value of cultural assimilation that prevailed during 18th and early 19th centuries. In general, during this time, immigrant groups were expected to assimilate to something called “American culture”. Many immigrants would voluntarily seek to introduce their children to new cultural practices to support their social advancement in the United States.

Since the 1960’s, these sensibilities been reversed. Many ask, “In a democratic society, why should it be assumed that immigrants should assimilate to the dominant cultural group?  What does it mean to be an American? Doesn’t each individual and cultural group have the right to pursue their own version of happiness – without conforming to the moral prerogatives of the dominant group?” Such questions brought forward the goal of multiculturalism, with its promise to respect the diversity of individuals and cultures that make up and contribute to the American experiment.

Culture in the Classroom

I want to make a distinction between, on the one hand, being sensitive to home cultures, and, on the other hand, accommodating to those cultures.  Sensitivity to culture involves seeking to understand home cultures and working to forge relations among home cultures to develop some form of cultural unity.  Accommodating to home cultures occurs when educators believe that education must build upon home cultures – that educational practices must adjust to the student.  From this view, students learn best when schooling builds upon their cultures of origin rather than when they are required to accommodate to an alternative or dominant culture.

The desire to accommodate to a student’s home culture has noble intentions.  It is born of a desire to empower minority learners; to respect and honor their social and cultural identities; to work toward a society of tolerance, inclusion, and mutual respect. However, the social practice of accommodation is based upon a series of false premises – namely the ideas that cultures and cultural identities are closed, homogeneous and self-contained entities. They are not.

Cultures and identities are open systems of beliefs, values, and practices. They are not closed systems that are cut off from other cultures or from the identities of other people.   Cultures and identities change and develop as they encounter other cultures and people with different identities.  We are not entities unto ourselves; we develop through relationships.

It’s the Relationship, Stupid!

I believe that many current educational practices – at least those intended to support historically marginalized groups — tend to err on the side of accommodation rather than sensitivity.   At its extreme, the practice of accommodation must fail because it robs the student — in the name of cultural diversity – from what is useful, helpful, and important in the dominant culture in which the student will ultimately live and work.

Students who do not acquire the skills and knowledge of the broader cultures in which they live will be at a disadvantage in their lives.   To make this assertion is not, of course, to suggest that we should not value or honor a student’s home culture.  The United States is a land of immigrants.  The United States is largely a nation of immigrants; it is the combined history of immigrants that have made the nation what it is.  Thus, it is necessary to embrace the cultures of the students and families who make up the United States.

However, this requires sensitivity – not accommodation — to home cultures.  If I am going to teach someone, I must be sensitive to who the person is becoming – what they believe, value and love.  I must have some sense of what they know and are able to do.  Without such sensitivity, I cannot form the type of relationship that is necessary in order to make contact with the learner.  However, regardless of my own identity and culture, I also have something to teach that student.  As such, to learn, the student must accommodate to me – to what I have to teach. Without the presumption that that I have something to teach – without the presumption of some asymmetry in the relationship between teacher and student – genuine learning is not possible.

To be sensitive (rather than to accommodate) to a student’s culture is to embrace an intercultural rather than identarian or assimilationist conception of American culture.  An intercultural view asks, “What can we learn from one another in the process of teaching and learning?”  An intercultural view is an open one – as someone who identifies with a given culture, I am always open to the possibility that there may be another way. I am open to improving my cultural practices as I relate to you, as I hope that you will be open to modifying your cultural practices, as you see appropriate, from your interactions with me.   I neither ask you to accommodate to me nor do I expect to accommodate to you.  We may, however, be able to create something new by accommodating to each other.

Cultures of Teaching and Learning

There are many ways to teach and learn.  All, I suggest, are based on a variation of the same principle.  Learning — like all development –occurs through relationships.  Is the student’s home culture important?  Yes.  Is the teacher’s home culture important? Yes.  Is the culture of the school important? Yes.  But what is most important is the relationship between the student and the teacher.  What is most important is what goes on between the student and the teacher.  Optimal learning occurs in relationships in which teachers (educators, parents, supervisors, or what have you) are simultaneously sensitive and demanding.

Through sensitive engagement, the teacher builds a bridge between the teacher and student.  That bridge provides the emotional foundation of all learning.  Like any bridge, the bridge between teacher and student must be strong enough to withstand stress.  That is, the emotional bridge between student and teacher must be strong enough to support the high demands that teachers must place on students if students are to learn.

Without some degree of stress – without moving students beyond their comfort zones – there can be no learning.  This is not to say that students must be asked to suffer unmanageable stress.  The function of a strong teacher-student relationship is to provide the emotional support that students need to manage, adapt to, and thrive in the presence of the teacher’s demands.  High standards and engagement are the stuff of which student competence is made.

None of this can happen if we adopt an attitude of accommodation toward our students.  To develop, a student must accommodate to that which is being taught.  A sensitive teacher who has high standards will raise the level of a student’s knowledge and skill higher than that which a student can sustain while working alone.  This is the key to learning and development.

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