Culture is a factor inherent in our schools and in the academic outcomes of learners. Cultural mismatch negatively impacts academic success. Dominant, dominated, and immigrant cultures are discussed in this paper as well as the challenges that educators face in helping students to gain equitable access to relevant instruction and academic success across cultures. Culturally responsive teaching provides a vehicle for teachers to implement positive instructional practices through the examination of their own cultural frames of reference, and the cultural norms and values of their students and families.
Keywords Cultural variable; Cultural competency; Cultural frame of reference; Cultural mismatch; Culturally responsive teaching; Dominant culture; Dominated cultures; Immigrant cultures; Monocultural
In the U.S. public education system, culture matters. Many policy makers, school leaders and educators assume that what counts as necessary knowledge, how it is taught and how it is learned is based uniquely on principles of good teaching and that the identification of this knowledge as well as the manner in which is taught and learned, is not connected to any given culture (Gay, 1994). However, culture influences every aspect of the teaching and learning process (Ahearn et al., 2002; Gay, 1994). When educators say they want to treat children as human beings regardless of cultural variables such as race, creed, ethnicity, linguistic background, gender or economic status, they fail to realize that the humanity of each person is inseparable from culture (Gay, 1994).
There are many variables that influence the successful transmittal and acquisition of standards-based knowledge and skills in public education. In the past, it was acceptable for public schools to simply deliver instruction and expect students to adapt to the environment and gain whatever education they could from the system (Ahearn et al., 2002). With the expectations placed on schools through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) schools are required to close the academic achievement gap between students with high academic performance and those with low academic performance. NCLB (as cited in Stickney, 2003) specifically addresses the educational achievement needs of different groups of children and requires that children in these groups demonstrate adequate yearly progress in meeting state-specific learning standards. The subgroups monitored by federal law include children from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds, children with disabilities, economic disadvantage, or limited English proficiency. Often, children included in one or more of these groups are from non-dominant cultures in the United States (Stickney, 2003).
Students come from a variety of cultural frames of reference. Villagas (as cited in Hollins and Oliver, 1999) states that mainstream children have an advantage in classrooms typically based in mainstream or dominant culture as these students find the culture of the classroom an extension of their home and community. However, for many students of diverse backgrounds, the home and classroom cultures are in opposition. Hollins (as cited Hollins and Oliver, 1999) calls this cultural mismatch. The theory of cultural mismatch holds that academic achievement is affected by the relationships between school culture and home culture. Cummins and Entwistle (as cited in Saifer et al. 2005) found that by the age of 8, children's enthusiasm for learning and their belief in their ability to learn could be undermined due to the mismatch of school and home cultural values and communication patterns.
Now, instead of simply expecting diverse students to change to fit the school, it is understood that institutions and teachers must themselves adapt to the students in providing the opportunity for academic success (Ahearn et al., 2002). Saifer, Edwards, Ellis., Ko, and Stuczynski (2005) cite Bensmann, Bowman and Stott, Cummins, Delpit, Entwistle and Ladson-Billings in that many studies have found a link between low academic performance and the misalignment of the cultural norms of the educational institutions and the cultural norms of students' families and communities.
In an effort to make sure that educators have the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively teach students of historically underserved diverse cultures, many states are training their teachers in cultural competency (Klump and McNeir, 2005). Diller and Moule (as cited in Klump and McNeir, 2005) define cultural competency as the mastery of complex awarenesses, knowledge, and skills that are required to effectively teach across cultures.
The role of culture as a major component in teaching and learning (Trumbull & Pacheco, 2005). How well these individual and community cultural attributes are identified, mediated, and capitalized upon affects learner outcomes (Ahearn et al, 2002). In examining the cultural variable in education, this paper will address what culture is as well as the broad general cultural frames of reference from which participants approach the educational process. Next, the concept of culturally responsive teaching is introduced as a facilitative approach to improving instruction and promoting academic achievement opportunities for an increasingly diverse student population (Klump & McNeir, 2005).
An exact definition of culture is problematic in that the actual definition of culture is still debated among scholars and many definitions exist (Ahearn et al., 2002). Saifer et al. (2005) provide one of the more comprehensive definitions:
Culture can be defined as a way of life, especially as it relates to the socially transmitted habits, customs, traditions, and beliefs that characterize a particular group of people at a particular time. It includes the behaviors, actions, practices, attitudes, values, communication styles, language, etiquette, spirituality, concepts of health and healing, beliefs, and institutions of a racial, ethnic, religious, or social group. Culture is the lens through which we look at the world. It is the context within which we operate and make sense of the world and its influences on how we process learning, solve problems, and teach (p. 6).
Payne, (as cited in Klump & McNeir, 2005) states that in addition to the association of culture to race or ethnicity, scholars have found noticeable cultural differences among and within groups of people based on their socio-economic status. Culture is influenced by social class, religion, the region in which people live, the generation of the individual, the extent of urbanization, and gender (Banks et al., 2001). These cultural differences also affect learning and teaching.
Ahearn et al. (2002) explain culture as the context from which people behave and understand the world around them. Most people are often unaware of their own culture until they encounter another culture. When differences are noticed, people usually focus on the other culture instead of critically examining their own culturally-based conceptions of reality (Ahearn et al. 2002). Because culture has such a pervasive influence on the perceptions and behaviors that an individual considers as normal, it is hard to learn about one's own culture as if from the outside looking in. For this reason, it is much harder to learn about one's own culture in comparison to learning about the culture of another person (Trumbull, Rothstein-Fisch & Greenfield, 2000).
Cultures change as societies adapt to new situations. In addition, within a given culture, there are variations of beliefs, behaviors, and values among individuals (Ahearn et al., 2002) While patterns may exist based on cultural variables, care must be taken not to stereotype members of a culture or people who share a common cultural variable. There are general patterns but there are also individual differences (Ahearn et al., 2002).
Cultural Frames of Reference
Each educator and learner brings a unique cultural frame of reference to the teaching and learning process. Members of different cultures within the United States have different attitudes towards the institution of school that are dependent on the cultural variables of group history and current power status (Spring, 2006). These cultural frames of reference are also known as cultural perspectives. They influence the way a person interprets information from the outside world based on the norms, values, and experiences of a given group of people (Spring, 2006).
Monocultural vs. Bicultural Perspectives
Spring (2006) also explains that in a multicultural society, cultural frames of reference are influenced by the cultures in which people live. When people are socialized according to the norms of one culture, they filter information from that one viewpoint, and are thus monocultural. In contrast, when one learns to function in two cultures of a multicultural society, he or she is bicultural. Spring (2006) notes that behavior depends on the cultural milieu in which a person is functioning at the time. Furthermore, a person's monocultural or bicultural status influences how they interpret the actions of others. Most Americans identify themselves with one or more cultural groups within the overall American identity (Spring, 2006).
Spring (2006) makes a distinction between the general culture of the United States, the dominant culture, dominated cultures, and immigrant cultures. Many of the educational problems faced by dominated and immigrant cultures are a result of the incongruence of their cultures and that of the public school (Spring, 2006). The general culture of a country is defined as what the majority of individuals in that country consider to be its characteristics. Defining American culture is very difficult (Spring, 2006) as it is dynamic. In addition, Spring (2006) asserts that American culture is affected by three issues: the left-over anger and ill will that exists between cultural groups within the United States, the adjustment of new groups of immigrants into American culture and the desire...
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