What's Culture Got To Do With It?

When I worked in an International school in Central Asia, we would often talk about the dynamic of families, like mine, raising and educating their children out of their passport country. As part of an International community, there was an underlying understanding that our students would need support with the transitions in their lives and that as children of one nationality, growing up in another they would themselves grow up to be a mixture of cultures, rather than the one of their parents. We were very intentional about having conversations around this with our students and proactive in providing support.

In the 1950’s, Ruth Hill Useem classified this group as "Third Culture Kids". She coined this phrase to identify children who “spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland.” Globalisation over the last half century, whereby families now travel to live and work all over the world, has made this a more common reality as well as other numerous reasons for migration.

Returning to Britain to teach in a different kind of ethnically diverse context, I have often wondered why we do not talk about these same dynamics of culture, cross-cultural transition and raising children in a culture that is not your own. Certainly, one thing I noticed about myself as a parent whilst raising children overseas is that symbols and practices that I barely gave recognition to whilst living in Britain took on more importance and acted as a kind of anchor through which to keep my children connected to their passport country and birth nationality. Suddenly, it became very important to invite people round to share pancake day and to explain this minor “festival” to friends of different cultures!

How often do we put ourselves in the shoes of our students parents and the challenges they face in raising children in a completely different context from where they themselves grew up? How frequently do we hear and pay real attention to our students stories of cultural fusion or intercultural identity?

Culture and Learning

A few weeks ago, I attended a webinar on de-colonising the primary school history curriculum. Among the conversations about disrupting the dominant white discourse and providing a fuller, richer historical understanding of the past, Dr Marlon Moncrieffe talked about the “cross-cultural encounters” of the Vikings and asked, seemingly out of the blue:

“What about culture?”.

I have been reflecting on this and I don’t hear us talking about culture very much at all and I am not sure why. I am not sure whether it’s an unspoken given, whether I am just missing out on those conversations or whether they are just not spoken about. Perhaps we fear that in talking about culture we will only create difference or that we will be "othering". Certainly we need to be wary of essentialising or stereotyping each others cultures but if we don't talk about them how can we learn from one another? To ignore culture is to leave aside or even repress whole aspects of who someone is.

Zaretta Hammond asserts: “ We often talk about the problem of the achievement gap in terms of race - racial relations, issues of oppression and equity - while ironically the solution for closing students’ learning gaps in the classroom lie in tapping into their culture.”

Hammond refers to Aliza Maynards illustration of a Culture Tree and identifies that culture operates on 3 different levels:

1. The surface level is “made up of observable and concrete elements of culture such as food, dress, music, festivals”. This level has a low emotional charge.

2. The intermediate level is made up of “the unspoken rules around everyday social interaction and norms such as courtesy, attitudes towards elders, nature of friendships, concepts of time and nonverbal communication. “ It is this level that has a stronger emotional charge.

3. The deep level is made up of assumed knowledge and “unconscious assumptions that govern out worldview”. This is a level where some elements have intense emotional charge.

The thing is, we cannot separate our culture and worldview from our brains and learning. Hammond explains: “ Culture, it turns out, is the way that every brain makes sense of the world. The brain uses cultural information to turn everyday happenings into meaningful events. “ If want to create a learning environment where students brains are relaxed and ready to learn we need also to create space for cultural understanding, awareness and inclusion.

How do we make more space to include and embrace different worldviews?

As teachers, I think there are 3 things we can do to make a deeper cross-cultural connection with our students and to enhance their learning through it.

Firstly, we can develop our own awareness about other cultures and worldviews so that we are not blanketing our classroom with an all pervasive bent towards one dominant one. That does not mean of course that if you are from the dominant culture you abandon it, but that secure in your own identity, you learn about and invite the perspectives of others. This applies as much to our students as it does to how we relate to parents at the door when they collect their children or visit for a consultation. In my opinion, as we meet and talk with parents we need to "move over" to make room for all sorts of perspectives. Furthermore, reading books by authors of different cultures, talking within cross-cultural friendships about experiences elsewhere or visiting other countries will all enable us to develop empathy towards those who are different from us and to broaden our own perspective.

Secondly, one of the things we have begun to talk about where I work is hearing stories. Returning to Moncrieffe: “We are born into stories”. Making space in classrooms to hear stories about children’s life experiences in other contexts, their heritage and traditions creates a reciprocity which disrupts any sense of one cultural story being more important or significant than another. It provides wonderful opportunities for identity development and will shape a sense of belonging. Listening to each other’s stories generates trust, rapport and a greater depth of relationship. It says: “we all belong, we are all in this together and everyone matters.“ When students feel a sense of belonging and can relax in the classroom they can also learn at their best.

Thirdly, we can see pedagogy as David Zyngier does, as: “a window on culture”. Zyngier, an Australian educational researcher, suggests: “The cultural gap between a learners everyday world and the world of school can result in unauthentic and ineffective teaching and learning. The world of pedagogy, on the other hand, should mediate between the everyday world and the world of schools. “

If, as teachers, we can see ourselves in this role as mediators then there is great potential for our classrooms to reflect the cultures within them as well as maintaining some of the contextual values and culture-specific features that are common to both the students and teachers. Zyngiers “cultural gap” here can also be applied not just to ethnicity but also socio-economic factors, that is, class as well as race. Implementing these strategies, it is our task as teachers, I believe, to be a bridge between worlds and in doing so to foster cultural fluency and empathy in our young global citizens. In this way, as Zyngier identifies: "teachers and students learn with and from each other...fashioning identities as well as interpreting and constructing knowledge. "

Further Reflection

What have you found out about other cultures recently? How could you incorporate this into the way you relate to your students?

What articles, books, films, podcasts or websites could you set aside time to access in the coming weeks in order to deepen your understanding about cultures different from your own which are represented in your school?

What practical activities could you plan for a class assembly or for a new term or topic coming up that would enable you to hear more of your students stories? Could you include the wider community?

In what ways do you experience the classroom as “a window on culture”? How could you deepen or enhance this aspect of your classroom ethos?

Further Reading

Zaretta Hammond “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. “ Chapter 2.

Dr M. Moncrieffe “Decolonising the Primary History Curriculum.”

David Zyngier (2017) Culture and Pedagogy (ies) in “The SAGE Handbook of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment” by Wyse, Hayward and Pandya.

Geneva Gay “Culturally Responsive Teaching”.

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