Culture and Education

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Individualistic vs Collectivist Cultures in Schools

As a female American teacher reports to an immigrant Latino father that his daughter is doing well in class – speaking out, expressing herself, taking an active role – he looks down at his lap and does not respond. Thinking that perhaps he has not understood, the teacher again praises his daughter's ability to speak out in class and explains that it is very important for children to participate orally. Looking even more uncomfortable, the father changes the subject. The teacher gets the impression that this parent is not interested in his daughter's school success, and she feels frustrated. Toward the end of the conference, the father asks with concern, "How is she doing? She talking too much?" The teacher is confused. This parent does care whether his daughter is doing well, but why doesn't he understand what she has been telling him? What is blocking communication here are differences in culture; tacit yet deep-seated beliefs about what matters in life and how people should behave. The teacher is reporting behavior she assumes any parent would be glad to hear about. But it may be behavior the father doesn't condone: he has taught his daughter not to "show off" or stand out from the group. Exchanges like this, not just between adults but also between teachers and students, occur in classrooms every day, as teachers face greater cultural diversity than at any time since the turn of the century. In the past two decades, U.S. schools have absorbed waves of students from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the Philippines. It's not only immigrant students whose cultural values may differ from those underlying most classroom practice. U.S.-born students from a variety of backgrounds – Native American, African-American students, Latino students whose families have lived here for generations – may also feel alienated by common classroom practices. Teachers in these diverse school settings quickly discover the need for...
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