Culture and Education

Last week I talked about the terms we use to define and categorize cultures, and I want to take it the next step this week and apply those concepts to a real world environment. I’m going with one I’m pretty familiar with: education. In looking at education as a sytem, for the first time we’re moving past evaluating our personal behavior and we’re evaluating a larger structure with the eyes of cultural understanding.

There is a lot of talk these days about systemic injustices (systemic racism, systemic sexism, etc.), and I don’t think the concept is very well understood. With or without understanding, though, it produces a strong emotional reaction. Emotion is good–it fuels action–but it’s always best if our emotion is coupled with (and based on) solid knowledge.

So what is systemic injustice? At the risk of oversimplification, I’ll define systemic injustice as unfair practices promoted and codified by a social or political system of power.

Does education fit that definition? It easily satisfies the requirements of being a system. Education in America is a codified structure, with laws surrounding how it’s carried out and a hierarchy of power controlling it.

The question of whether the system is unjust requires a more lengthy answer.

The answer could be found in statistics, looking at the racial and cultural breakdown of students who succeed and students who fail in our education system. I personally find those numbers very compelling. But I think we can also take a different approach to the question and use our cultural understanding to see the problem in a very personal way.

As I start to dig into educational practices, I understand that it makes a lot of people nervous. We’re comfortable with our systems. We’ve benefitted from our systems. We know they aren’t perfect, but they’re better than any other system we’ve heard of, so it feels disloyal and ungrateful to tear them down.

I get it. I do. I was educated in public schools in four different states. I got an incredible education. I memorized Shakespeare and dissected frogs and mastered a musical instrument and learned a second language, all without my parents having to pay money they didn’t have. I’m immensely thankful for it. It enabled me to get scholarships that paid for a college education, which enabled me to readily get a job teaching in another public school. Twenty years later, I have three children also being educated in public schools. They are getting a great education. I have benefitted and am benefitting from our public school systems in every way.

But here’s the thing: those systems were built for people like me. Of course I benefit from them. I am a perfect cultural fit.

We need to understand that the education system in the U.S. is the specific product of white American middle-class culture (with influences of white upper class culture because the middle-class yearns to imitate and eventually become them). Even beyond that, the education system in the U.S. is founded more generally on principles passed down from other “cold-climate” cultures in Western Europe.

People of western European descent who had money made this system and they still run this system. It is designed for them, and it absolutely automatically follows that they benefit from it the most.

That’s not an accusation, not something to feel guilty about; it’s just a fact that we need to deal with. Let’s dig into what it means using the cultural terms that we learned last week. I want to talk about school in the language of relationship vs. task orientation, group vs. individual identity, high context vs. low context communication, monochronic vs. polychronic view of time, and internal vs. external locus of control.

Relationship vs. Task Orientation

Think about the structure of a school day. In elementary school, we spend a lot of time teaching procedures and rules, training students to sit still in chairs, to walk quietly in hallways, to make quick transitions from one task to the next. There are good reasons for all of this; it truly helps things go more smoothly. But the fact remains that the emphasis is on getting down to the business of learning as quickly and as efficiently as possible. The emphasis is on not being distracted from the important task of learning by talking to others. Many elementary school teachers are very personally warm and caring and do take time with their students, but their job requires them to produce measurable results: test scores, reading levels, etc. Regardless of the personal practice of teachers, the system values tasks.

This becomes even more pronounced in secondary school, where kids are expected to drop into a class and dive into that subject, then switch to another class in an efficient five-minute transition and start immediately on the next subject. Success is again measured by test scores, and most tests are in an impersonal, standardized, written format. Often information is imparted in a unidirectional way: the teacher lectures, the students read a text book, math concepts are explained on a chalkboard. Questions are for when students don’t understand the material, not a part of the original learning process. Even when we teach the languages of intensely relationship-oriented cultures, we do so in a task-oriented way: memorize a list of vocabulary and a set of grammar rules and take written tests. Again, individual teachers are sometimes exceptions to this rule, but our curriculum is inherently focused on tasks.

Our schools are designed for a task-oriented culture. So what does that mean for students who are from relationship-oriented cultures? They long for more personal connection, they struggle with abrupt business-like transitions, and they aren’t able to show their true capabilities in impersonal and rigidly-structured testing environments. It can be very hard for them to retain information imparted in a task-like manner, where perhaps they would find it more memorable and relevant if more interpersonal interaction were involved.

Group vs. Individual Identity

Success in our school systems is measured by personal achievement. A good student performs well on tests, achieves certain letter grades, and in time begins to compete with other students for certain honors. Work is mostly done individually, and even when group projects are assigned, individual contributions are still measured and grades are often assigned individually. There is no mechanism for rewarding students who contribute to the learning of their companions, and our value on privacy keeps students from even knowing the degree of success of other students or of the class as a whole.

All of our efforts to motivate students involve this individualistic way of looking at the world. We encouraged students to dream big, to pursue their dream, and tell them school is the way to achieve their personal goals. We hold up examples of people who attained personal success: admission to certain universities, high paying jobs, awards, fame. We tell students that they need to work hard and take responsibility for their own education. This is how they’ll succeed and be happy in life. Our cultural value of individualism is the foundation for our educational decisions.

What does this mean for students from group identity cultures? The things they value aren’t even on the table, and many of their contributions get overlooked. They may have trouble setting individual goals for their future, and so they appear aimless and are treated like underachievers. No one is talking about the things that are motivating to them.

High context vs. Low Context Communication

In low-context cultures like our own, everyone is expected to explicitly state their own needs. Communication in American classrooms is very direct. The teacher gives instructions and passes on information, and students who don’t understand are expected to ask questions. If a student is struggling, the expectation is that she will speak up and request help. How else is the teacher supposed to know? He can’t read minds, after all.

But what does that mean for students from high-context cultures? In their native culture, it’s considered rude to point out that someone’s communication hasn’t been clear. In order not to shame your teacher, you’ll give nonverbal indications that you didn’t understand, and they will automatically notice these and provide further instruction. Students from high context cultures will not naturally raise their hand to ask questions or ask for help. Then when they fall behind in class, teachers often become frustrated that they student didn’t speak up, usually attributing this to laziness or lack of caring about their work.

Monochronic vs. Polychronic

Let’s think about the curriculum we use in our schools. Subjects are divided from one another and we study one at a time. We have a time during the day for reading, one for writing, one for math, one for science, one for history, etc. We tackle one task at a time, and then we move on to the next. We design the year to move through the items in each subject sequentially. A topic is taught thoroughly, then tested, then a new topic is introduced.

It may seem like this is the only logical way to handle it, but that assumption betrays our monochronic way of viewing time. Subjects could be covered together, reading and history, science and writing, all weaving in and out of the same lesson. History could be studied by topic rather than chronology, and a history lesson could be interrupted for a foray into the science or literature of the age discussed. Evaluations could be made in the middle of a lesson rather than the end.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with our monochronic way of doing school, but it is tied to our culture. What does that mean for kids from polychronic cultures? They may find it hard to stay focused just on the task at hand, and may be reprimanded for being “off-task.” They may struggle to see the relevance of history or math when it’s studied in isolation from other subjects and not set in the bigger context of their lives. In many cases their distractibility or lack of feeling engaged leads to disruptive behaviors, which get them in trouble or even removed from the learning environment. Obviously, their performance suffers accordingly.

Internal vs. External Locus of Control

Again consider how we evaluate our students. Each is given a series of tests, and his performance on the test describes his success in the system. If students are consistently failing these tests, the first assumption is that they haven’t studied hard enough. More work is given, more pressure is exerted, more time is expected to be spent. Why is that our assumption? Because our underlying belief is that the student has within himself the power to succeed or to fail. Culturally, we have an internal locus of control.

Consider that even the stated purpose of education–to better your life–seems odd to someone with an external locus of control. They have a hard time seeing how their efforts studying books in a quiet classroom is going to have any effect on their real life. Life will happen to them, and no amount of studying is going to change the outcome. They are not motivated to take control of their future by studying hard because their culture and life experience has taught them that the world doesn’t work that way. People with an external locus of control are seeking to enjoy the present rather than enrich the future because, in their minds, the present is all that is guaranteed. Though school still may be a tool for their future success, the students aren’t going to see it that way. Unless school feels like it adds something to their present life, it’s just a place someone makes them go every day. Think about how school is designed. Very little of it is designed to be rewarding now. It’s all about storing up knowledge and achievements that can help you in the future.

You see the point I’m making? Our education system is unfair, whether or not anyone working in it intends for it to be unfair. I’m confident that almost all of them want nothing more than to educate everyone equally. But because of our cultural leanings, we’re helping some people more than others, we’re offering more success to those like us and less to those who are different. Setting all intention aside, that adds up to injustice.

Our schools are full of kids from other cultures, and like ferns struggling to grow in a desert, their environment isn’t hospitable to them. Some will adapt and survive, but none will thrive the way a desert cactus will, or the way they would if they just had access to more water. And since education is the access key to other systems of power, their lack of thriving in that environment has ripple effects throughout the rest of society.

I want to be clear: my goal here is not to criticize the way we do education. Criticism doesn’t create change.

I’m just here to say, one white lady to a bunch of others, that we should admit that school in America is a white lady world. White ladies have a lot of good qualities. One of the best is that most of us desperately want to help others. But I think maybe we sometimes get so stuck in our white lady ways, that we don’t do a good job of providing the help that we intend.

I find it troubling to be a part of a system that helps me and my kids prosper while holding others back. I want to do my part to help others find success and happiness by their own cultural definitions. I believe I’m not alone in that.

I know and work with a great number of teachers, most of whom pour their hearts into caring for each student holistically. Some are already culturally aware and act accordingly. For them, none of what I’m saying is news, and to them, I say that I can see you working to meet your students’ needs and I can see that you are hampered by systems that don’t take those needs into account.

For those who are just learning about cultural awareness, I see that you want to do better and that you are overwhelmed by how much is being asked of you. I see that even what you want to do can’t always be done in a system designed to stretch you beyond human capacity. Teaching may be a calling, but at the end of the day, it’s also a job, and the system determines the job requirements. Once those are fulfilled, there often isn’t much time and energy left over for enacting change on an individual level.

I see you, and I’m committed to helping others see you, too.

May we all join you in changing what needs changed.

3 thoughts on “Culture and Education

  1. dolphinwrite says:

    You make some very good points. Regarding the education system today, there are too many cooks in the kitchen, and most of those haven’t the slightest idea of how to teach. You seem like you would make a good teacher. The difficulty in today’s society is we are not facing generations who’ve been confused by a system they grew up in. They didn’t get a quality education. They didn’t grow up respecting adults, thanks to the media. They’ve been taught their feelings are everything: they’re not. As a teacher, I’ve always cared about my students. I listen when one wants to talk with me about some difficulty they are experiencing, and sometimes solutions are found. But I also taught the students that everyone has problems, that dwelling on them when work is to be done often is a distraction. It’s important our young people learn how to set difficulties aside, focus on the work, and look for the positives, moving forward. This is how many people enduring many challenges, and there will always be challenges and difficulties, rise above the problems of society. Faith.
    As a teacher, I’m always ensuring the students know their basics, learn how to critically think and support beliefs, calmly, write and speak well, and learn about the world we live in as compared to historical societies. Can they “see” without a film of media bias. Can they understand with understanding of their own? So, we venture through math, language, social studies, science, physical education and keep things simple. Simple usually does the trick. You’re having problems with friends and bullying. Okay, let’s take a good look at it. What is being said or done? How are you reacting? What part is each side playing? What would you like for a result and how can we get there? Simple. We complicate things by over thinking and over analyzing.
    Interesting article. Loved some of the points.

    • debdunlevy says:

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m sure you’re a wonderful teacher. The personal care of a great teacher is a gift. My goal is for us all to recognize that some problems are bigger than just the personal responsibility of a student or a teacher. Culture clash is real and systems don’t respond quickly to those kinds of needs. It’s going to take us all being thoughtful together to help those who are being left behind. Thanks for doing your part already.

      • dolphinwrite says:

        The problems created always have solutions, if people will only wake up and take a good look around. As a teacher, from the beginning, I knew what the problems were, but I thought I could bring some sanity back. In classes, we worked on some useful lessons, encouraging students to realize for themselves. But it’s a daunting task to wake everyone up, and has only gotten more difficult and politicians dig in to “culturate” our young the way “they” want it. Thanks to people like yourself, who see the issue, encouraging others to raise the bar and truly think what education is supposed to be, each good teacher bringing their gifts.

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