How Cultural Differences Can Make School Tougher for Students

A person’s culture and upbringing have a profound effect on how he or she sees the world and processes information.

Richard Nisbett discussed this in The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why. Nisbett worked with psychologists in Japan and China and determined that the many students from those countries tended to view the world holistically. This was so different from how American students view the world, as made up of parts or distinct classes of objects that could each be defined by a set of rules.

This kind of information can help explain the differences in school performance among racial and ethnic groups. Let’s look at three theories that take a look at why students from other parts of the world might have a difficult time in an American school.

  1. Cultural deficit theory. According to this theory, some students do poorly in school because the linguistic, social, and cultural nature of the home environment does not prepare them for the work they will be required to do in school.

As an example, some students are not read to at home as frequently as other children are, and this has a negative influence on their vocabulary development. Vocabulary development may also be stifled by the amount and nature of verbal interaction in the home. As a result, some children arrive at school lacking the expected level of vocabulary development. The cultural deficit theory proposes that deficiencies in the home environment result in shortcomings in skills, knowledge, and behaviors that contribute to poor school performance.

  1. Expectation theory. The truth is this: teachers often expect less from students of certain racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. When teachers expect students to perform poorly, they approach teaching in ways that align with their low levels of expectations. Interestingly, students tend to perform at the low levels expected of them by teachers.

This theory was tested in 1968 by Rosenthal and Jacobson in their Pygmalion Effect study. A group of teachers were told that their students were due for an intellectual growth spurt during the school year. Even though the students were average in terms of academic performance, the teachers interacted with them based on this expectation. All students in the experimental group improved both academically and socially by the end of the year. Based on the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy, students who experience high expectations seek to reach the level of expected behaviors. Correspondingly, students who experience low expectations act to meet the level of behavior expected of them (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

  1. Cultural difference theory. Based on the idea that students who are raised in different cultural settings may approach education and learn in different ways, the cultural difference theory stresses that it is important for teachers to be aware of the difference between the school atmosphere and the home environment. People from different cultural traditions may have an approach to education that differs from the mainstream approach used in American schools. For instance, in the Polynesian concept of learning, younger children are generally taught by older children rather than by adult.

This is a very different approach to learning, and one that teachers may need to consider in an American school that is attended by Polynesian students. A good reason for seeking out and acknowledging cultural differences among students is related to Piaget’s notions that learning involves transfer of information from prior knowledge and experiences. To facilitate this transfer process, it is important to acknowledge the students’ background and to validate and incorporate their previous knowledge into the process of acquiring new information.

All students begin school with a framework of skills and information based in their home cultures. This may include a rudimentary understanding of the alphabet, numbers, computer functions, some basic knowledge of a second language, or the ability to spell and write their names. It also includes a set of habits, etiquette, and social expectations derived from the home.

If students can’t relate new information to their own experiences, or connect the new material to a familiar concept, they may perceive the new information as frustrating or difficult or may dismiss it completely, believing it to be in conflict with their already tenuous understanding of the world. Teachers have the responsibility to seek out cultural building blocks students already possess, to help build a framework for understanding. Some educational pedagogy refers to this process as “scaffolding.” Recognize a student’s cultural differences, so that you can give them a positive basis for effective learning and a “safe” classroom environment.

I hope this article has been helpful for you. Best of luck in finding the teaching style that resonates the most with all of your students.

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