Culture Clash

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Ms. White, a teacher in an isolated rural community, is teaching her 1st graders how to tell time. She points to a clock, telling her students that "It's 10 o'clock because the big hand is on the 12 and the little hand is on the 10."

"What time is it?" she asks the students. Many of the white children raise their hands, eager to answer. The black students sit silently. A few give her a puzzled look.

Ms. White concludes that many of her black students do not know the answer, and she silently makes a note to herself to revisit the concept with them later.

But researchers who study the role that culture plays in learning say that Ms. White may have the wrong take on what is going on with her students. What is really happening, they say, is that two distinct cultures are bumping up against one another, forming an invisible wall that stands in the way of learning and communication.

Like their teacher, the white children in this community grew up in families where adults routinely quizzed children the way their teacher does. "What color is this?" a parent might say, pointing to a red ball.

In the African-American children's families, such questions were posed only when someone genuinely needed to know the answer. "What is she asking us for?" some of the black children might have wondered. "She just told us it was 10 o'clock."

Cultural roadblocks such as this one are becoming increasingly common in schools across the country. It is estimated that by the turn of the century, up to 40 percent of the children in the nation's classrooms will be nonwhite. Yet, the nation's teaching force is overwhelmingly white and becoming more so. African-American, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American teachers now make up just 10 percent of the teaching force, according to one estimate.

These kinds of demographics have lent a new urgency to studies on the role of culture in the classroom. At times controversial, the research has been carried out since the late 1960s by sociolinguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and, more recently, by education scholars as well. Their work paints complex portraits of the subtle interplay between a school's ways of knowing, talking, thinking, and behaving and those of students from a wide variety of non-mainstream, ethnic backgrounds.

However complicated the findings are, one point is clear: Culture is a phenomenon that goes both ways.

"We take the position that school was never a culturally neutral enterprise," says A. Wade Boykin, the co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk at Johns Hopkins and Howard universities. From at least the start of the 20th century, one job of schools was to help assimilate the large numbers of immigrants flocking to the nation's shores. And, to a lesser degree, they are still striving to do just that.

But the nation's predominantly white educators have been slow to recognize that their own backgrounds--and the culture of the school--have a bearing on learning. And, rather than think of minority students as having a culture that is valid and distinct from theirs, they sometimes think of the youngsters as deficient. Even now, studies on minority students are lumped in the field's literature under such headings as "culturally deprived" or "culturally disadvantaged."

"It has been our previously homogeneous cultural condition that prevented us from understanding that we were not perceiving culture because it was invisible to us," says Roland G. Tharp, the director of the federally funded Center on Meeting the Educational Needs of Diverse Student Populations, based at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "It's like fish don't know there's water."

Once teachers realize they are part of the cultural equation in their classrooms, these researchers say, they must find ways to recognize the culture of their students, to acknowledge it in their teaching, and to make clear to students from different backgrounds the previously unstated expectations that the mainstream culture--and the school--has for them.

Although the above account of Ms. White's class is fictional, the tendencies it describes in the students and teachers are not. They come from a study by Shirley Brice Heath, an anthropologist and sociolinguist who spent several years in the 1970s living in two unnamed poor communities in a rural mountain area near Southern mill towns. The largely white community she called Roadville, the predominantly black community, Trackton.

In addition to noticing that there were differences in the way the two communities used questions, Heath also found that they had distinct ways of telling stories, rearing children, and using toys and reading material. And the children of Trackton and Roadville reflected their communities in the way they behaved in their classrooms.

Heath's work was chronicled in the 1983 book Ways with Words. But studies with other groups of children have found similar distinctions. More important, they suggest that accommodating these distinctions can make a difference in children's learning.

Kathryn Au, a University of Hawaii researcher, noticed that the stories that Native Hawaiian children told in their classrooms mirrored the "talk stories" told by adults in their communities. In these stories, two people, speaking in rhythmic alternation, relate events together.

In a traditional classroom, children who spoke in that manner would be penalized for talking out of turn. But Au found that successful Native Hawaiian teachers could use the "talk story" patterns to help children better understand what they were reading in school. And non-native teachers could learn to do the same.

"Teachers who want to learn different cultural styles can certainly do that," Au says. "We have a lot of evidence that shows that good teaching is only good teaching with respect to a particular cultural context."

But culture also manifests itself in ways that are less visible than a child's manner of speaking or behaving.

"It's just as important to realize that the cultural value systems in which children grow up also influence their development," Patricia Marks Greenfield, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, said in a presentation made last spring to the Urban Education National Network. Like the Native Hawaiians Au has studied, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans all have strong traditions emphasizing collectivist values, according to Greenfield.

And sometimes, those values clash with the traditional emphasis in schools on individual learning and competition. For example, Greenfield says, when groups of white teachers and Hispanic parents are asked to respond to hypothetical child-rearing scenarios, they answer in markedly different ways.

In one such scenario, taken from a pilot experiment Greenfield and her colleagues conducted, participants were told: "Erica tells her mother that she got the highest grade in the class on her math test. She says she is really proud of herself for doing so well, and for doing the best in the class. She says she guesses she is really smart."

Asked how Erica's mother should respond, a white, middle-class teacher said the mother should agree emphatically that, yes, Erica certainly is smart and her grade shows that she can achieve anything she puts her mind to. In contrast, a Hispanic immigrant mother answered, "She should congratulate her but tell her not to praise herself too much ... she should not think so much of herself."

Overall, Greenfield says, 80 percent of the teachers responded to the scenarios they were given in ways that could be considered individualistic. Hispanic immigrant mothers gave answers deemed collectivistic 90 percent of the time.

Some experts also believe history plays a role in a child's cultural development. John U. Ogbu, a well-known anthropologist from the University of California at Berkeley, believes that minority cultural groups can be classified in two ways--voluntary and involuntary immigrants. The voluntary immigrants, such as the Irish, the Italians, and other European immigrants of the early 20th century and Punjabi Indians of today, came to the United States looking for political freedom or better economic circumstances. They were happy to occupy the lowest rungs on the occupational ladder and considered their menial positions better than the jobs they had left behind.

Involuntary minorities, on the other hand, are people who came to be part of the United States "permanently against their will through slavery, conquest, colonization, or forced labor," according to Ogbu. In this category, he places African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Native Hawaiians.

This second group is more likely to actively oppose the conventions of the dominant middle-class culture--even if adopting them would mean raising one's position on the social ladder. In one high school in the District of Columbia, for example, Ogbu and his colleague, Signithia Fordham, found that African-American students avoided 17 different behaviors and attitudes that they considered "white." These ranged from speaking standard English to being on time. They also resented their high-achieving peers, accusing them of "acting white."

But Ogbu's theory has its detractors. For example, Howard's Boykin says that what those black students may really resent is not good grades. Rather, they may be criticizing behaviors displayed by the high-achieving students that reflect a more competitively oriented value system over one that places the welfare of the group above the individual.

To succeed in school and in the job market, African-Americans--and other minority groups as well--sometimes have to learn to mediate between their home and school cultures. And research suggests that educators can help them bridge those gaps by pointing out clearly what the rest of society expects from them, while at the same time affirming their own culture.

Ms. White, for example, might have simply explained to the children that, even though she obviously knew what time it was, she wanted to see if they knew, too. And she might have asked the same question in different ways or put the question in another context, say, a problem to be solved. It would not mean giving different lessons to her black students than she gives to their white classmates.

"All children should learn to work in a variety of cultural contexts," Boykin says.

In her book Other People's Children, Lisa D. Delpit of Georgia State University describes how one Native Alaskan teacher helps her students learn to switch from standard English to "village English," the dialect they use at home. The teacher draws two columns on the blackboard, one for "Our Heritage Language" and one for "Formal English," and then writes equivalent statements in each column. The class spends a lot of time on the "heritage" section, exploring all the phrases' nuances.

"That's the way we say things. Doesn't it feel good? Isn't it the absolute best way of getting that idea across?" the teacher asks. Then, she informs her students, who live in a remote part of the state, that there are people who judge others by the way they talk or write.

"Unlike us, they have a hard time hearing what people say if they don't talk exactly like them. ... We're going to learn two ways to say things," she adds. "Then, when we go to get jobs, we'll be able to talk like those people who only know and can only really listen to one way. Maybe after we get the jobs we can help them to learn how it feels to have another language, like ours, that feels so good."

Brenda Townsend, an assistant professor of education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, takes a similar approach with African-American students. She recalls in particular one group of boys attending a predominantly white school who were always getting suspended for getting in trouble on the bus. She taught them how to talk with one another in a way that didn't look to white teachers like arguing.

"They were like, 'Wow, nobody ever told us that,'" she says. After those lessons, the suspensions ended.

The problem with studies that focus on one ethnic group or another, however, is that they can lead to stereotyping. "We need to be very careful when we speak about cultural groups," says Walter Secada, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Yes, there is a core there. But to talk to anyone who belongs to any group and expect certain things about them would be a mistake."

It is a danger that proponents of cross-cultural studies readily recognize. "When you read a lot of stuff written even 10 years ago, it's sort of like a recipe," says Sandra H. Fradd, a University of Miami researcher who is studying cross-cultural learning in science with her colleague, Okhee Lee. "It was like, 'If you're working with Hispanics, this is what you should be doing.'"

"But there's a difference between a stereotype and a pattern," she says. "We're trying to say these are predictable ways these students perform."

"I think you do more harm by ignorance," adds Greenfield of UCLA. "We need to respect differences and try to understand them but that doesn't mean that we have to make assumptions."

The other drawback to this line of research, however, is a practical one. Teachers cannot possibly learn the traditions and discourse patterns of every cultural group they will one day encounter in their classrooms. Moreover, characteristics and beliefs that are common among Mexican-Americans may be different from those of Puerto Ricans or Cuban immigrants, even though all three groups speak the same language.

"There's always heterogeneity, the more closely you look," says Ken Zeichner, a professor of teacher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "What we emphasize is to teach teachers how to learn about their students."

Some school districts, Zeichner notes, even pay their teachers to spend the week before school starts visiting with the families of their students.

Other researchers, such as Luis Moll at the University of Arizona, also suggest that teachers make use of the hidden resources they find in the families they meet. A Mexican-American mother may come in and talk about candy-making; a father might discuss mining or construction work.

But Sharon Nelson-Barber, a researcher who has studied Native American students and teachers, suggests that teachers also exercise caution with these kinds of approaches.

"In one of the communities where I lived, you never would visit someone if you were not part of that person's world," says Nelson-Barber, a senior research associate for WestEd, formerly the Far West Laboratory. "What you could do is drive up very close to the house and stop. If people were interested, they would come out and talk to you. How would anyone know this?"

She says she has studied teachers who work on Native-American reservations but live some distance away. They keep in touch with their students' worlds by keeping a post office box on the reservation, shopping at the local trading post, and taking part in other community activities.

The University of California's Tharp proposes a slightly different tack. He and his colleagues have sifted through thousands of what they call "monocultural" studies--in other words, research that focuses on a single ethnic or racial group.

"In my view, there's been a very big shift in the past 10 years from the specific compatibility of schools and specific cultures to how to more generally respond--in what ways do schools need to act to be more responsive?" Tharp says. "Because, as it turns out, all kids need to be comfortable with the classroom culture."

Virtually all the studies, Tharp says, point to the need for schools to place learning in the context of the values and experiences of the students they serve. In the Native American communities with which Nelson-Barber works, that might mean teaching science, for example, through discussions of local fishing practices and tide patterns.

"We're not talking fantasy land," Tharp says, "many schools have been able to do this and it increases the involvement and achievement of communities to do so. You can't run a school like it's a spaceship from another planet that just landed in town."

He says the research also shows that schools need to put a higher priority on explicitly teaching, all day long, whatever the language of instruction is--be it standard English, another language, or the specific vocabulary of the subject matter being taught.

"Every subject matter has its own language, its own rules for how you make sentences," he says.

Tharp also suggests that engaging students in joint, productive activity, such as putting out a newspaper, will allow them to work in the discourse patterns and cultural styles that feel most comfortable for them.

"It's not the same thing as cooperative learning," he says. "Everybody may not organize joint activities in the same way."

He says studies also suggest that dialogue between teachers and students has to take place more often than has been the case in the past.

The bottom line, researchers agree, is that cultural considerations need to play a bigger role in the classroom and in teacher education programs than they do now. It is a viewpoint that is not universally accepted in the education field. Critics assert that some teaching methodologies are so powerful they can overcome the mismatch between a student's culture and that of the school.

But cultural researchers note that, whether it's recognized or not, culture is the lens through which everyone sees the world.

"This is not a sideshow," Tharp says. "This is the big tent."


Roland G. Tharp, the director of the Center on Meeting the Educational Needs of Diverse Student Populations, a federally funded research center at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has pored over thousands of studies on cross-cultural learning. All of the studies, he says, point to four basic ways educators can enhance learning for students of diverse cultural groups.

  • Education has to be put in the context of the experiences and values of the students' communities.
  • Schools need to be relentless and explicit in teaching students the language of instruction--be it standard English, another language, or the specific vocabulary and rules that are unique to the subject matter being taught.
  • Students need to be engaged in joint productive activities, such as putting out a newspaper, that allow them to work in ways that are culturally familiar.
  • Teachers need to engage in more purposeful, two-way conversations with students.


Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press.

Greenfield, P.M., & Cocking, R.R. (1996). Cross-cultural roots of minority child development. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University.

Hollins, E., King, J., & Wayman, W. (Eds.). (1994). Teaching diverse populations. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York.

Moll, L. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132-41.

Tharp, R., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life; Teaching, learning and schooling in social contest. New York: Cambridge University.

Vol. 15, Issue 29

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