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What role does culture play in shaping children’s school experiences?

One way to think of culture is as a context in which we learn and develop. We share, live, perform, and experience culture through our participation in daily activities, customs, and routines with social others. Culture helps us make sense of our social worlds and shapes our actions, thoughts, and feelings. For example, culture plays a role in the way we experience emotions, construct our self-concepts, and learn and problem-solve.

With increasing migration and the movement of people in the twenty-first century, many children in the US and worldwide are attending school in formal settings where cultural norms and practices at home may conflict with those children encounter at school. This experience places children in the position of having to navigate two different social worlds—home and school. One broad question we can explore is: “what role does culture play in shaping children’s school experiences and academic success?” Let’s visit three specific areas: parental beliefs and socialization practices, teacher perceptions, and school curricula and children’s learning.

Parental beliefs and socialization practices

Parental expectations, beliefs, and attitudes about education shape children’s academic experiences. Many parents in diverse cultural communities view education as a path to future success. For example, as a group many Asian and Asian American children attain academic success. What role does culture play in these outcomes? Chang notes that as a group, Chinese and Taiwanese parents place a high value on education. Kim and Park  note the same is true for Korean parents. Parenting approaches in these communities highlight training and disciplining children, parent self-sacrifice, and devotion to children. Parents believe perseverance and hard work is the key to success and socialization practices reinforce these values and traits. These cultural practices help children internalize the values their parents place upon education and behaving according to social norms. Children acquire these values and are loyal, appreciative, and dedicated to their parents for their support and encouragement. In part, they attain academic success to honor their parents and the broader social groups to which they belong.

Teacher perceptions

Teachers play an important role in children’s academic success too. What practices work best to motivate children to do well at school? The answer depends upon numerous factors. For example, many teachers will be entrusted with educating children who may not share their cultural heritage. How might this cultural mismatch shape children’s school experiences and potential for academic success?

Most American school practices reflect dominant, mainstream American values, norms, and behavioral scripts. For most European American children who value independence and uniqueness, teacher praise and rewards can be highly motivating. However, for children who come from families that value humility and modesty, receiving praise in front of classmates might be an uncomfortable interaction.

Student engagement norms are another example. Many American teachers using a mainstream cultural lens, connect active student engagement with student attentiveness. Yamamoto and Linoted that for many Asian and Asian American students, knowing when to be quiet is a desirable skill which caregivers socialize their children to acquire. Teachers using mainstream, American cultural values and norms may perceive quiet students as disengaged and inattentive. These perceptions impact children’s motivation to learn and academic success.

School curricula and children’s learning

Dominant, mainstream American values tend to permeate curricular and teaching practices. Many American schools promote individual learning and problem-solving approaches rather than group or collaborative problem-solving strategies. The focus upon individualized learning connects to the cultural ideology of individualism and the independent self. These approaches promote the self as separate and unique from social others. Many European American children participate in cultural practices and routines that reinforce this worldview and values.

However, many Latinx and indigenous children participate in cultural practices and activities at home that value group and collaborative problem solving. These practices connect to the cultural ideology of collectivism and the interdependent self. At home children participate in practices and routines that emphasize the importance of the group, especially family. Thus, there is a disconnect between the approaches at home with the practices and routines the child encounters at school. Consequently, many of these children often have difficulty reaching their maximum potential in classrooms that promote individual problem-solving skills. Why does this happen and does this necessarily have be the outcome?

For many children from cultural heritages that promote collectivist values and an interdependent cultural model of the self, the cultural practices in which the child participates at home may conflict with those the child encounters at school. Often, teachers are unaware of these sources of conflict. However, this conflict between home and school does not need to impede students’ success or invalidate the child’s cultural heritage. One solution is for schools to meet students halfway and bridge the gap between the two contexts.

Two fine examples are The Bridging Cultures Project designed to assist immigrant and indigenous children in the US and the Kamehameha Early Education Program (KEEP) designed to assist native Hawaiian children. Both programs highlight how helping teachers become more aware, respectful, accepting, and inclusive of all their students’ cultural values and goals shapes children’s motivation and academic success at school.

Final thoughts

Numerous cultural forces connect to children’s school experiences and academic achievement. These include parental beliefs, socialization practices, and cultural worldviews. Cultural values, practices, and ways of learning at home both shape and connect to children’s formal school experiences. Educational initiatives such as The Bridging Cultures Project  and KEEP highlight the importance of cultural compatibility and connectedness in fostering children’s active engagement in school. Acknowledging and incorporating cultural knowledge, patterns, and ways of learning at home when they disconnect with those at school is one important way to ensure all children’s academic success.

Featured image: School children in India, by Richard Veit

Recent Comments

  1. Iftekhar Sayeed

    “In part, they [Asian students] attain academic success to honor their parents and the broader social groups to which they belong.”

    As an English teacher in Bangladesh, I know this to be very, very true. Laudable as this may seem, there is a dark side to such collectivism.

    Since our current government came to power, schools have been turned into indoctrination centres around the personality cult of the current prime minister and her late father: a dynasty, in short.

    Our collectivist psychology (Bangladesh scores low on the Hofstede individualism index) has been, therefore, given a fillip, thereby encouraging young people to turn away from present-day problems to focus on the dynasty’s past achievements.

    Sometimes de-schooling is a good idea.

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