Anthropological theories surrounding education

Have you ever wondered what culture has to do with education? Until recently, I did not think there was much of a connection. As I started teaching students and visiting local inner-city schools, I observed certain cultural aspects in education that I found to be fascinating. I researched this area a bit more and gained a lot of insights, some of which I would like to share through this blog.

When it comes to describing individuals’ behaviors in a school, two anthropological theories have been used – the cultural deficit theory and the cultural difference theory. The cultural deficit theory explains the effect of one’s home culture on education. As reported by Sarah Silverman, an Educational Psychology professor/researcher at Ohio State University, it is the “view that individuals from some cultural groups lack the ability to achieve just because of their cultural background”. For example, a cultural group that speaks a different vernacular of English, say AAVE (African American Vernacular English), would be at a disadvantage when taking a standardized test like the SAT or ACT. This is because components of those tests rely solely on what is considered “normal” and “conventional” vernaculars of English, thus those who don’t speak in these inclinations are severely disadvantaged. The same goes for the school environment, where “proper” vernacular is said to be prioritized. Those cultural groups who don’t speak those vernaculars, because of their cultural background, might not be able to reach the same level of achievement. However, this is only a view, and not generalizable for all individuals from all cultures.

The second theory is the cultural difference theory, which looks at students in context of their cultural upbringing. The theory states that students’ performance and participation depend on the cultural settings they grow up in. For example, an Asian American student at a local San Diego high school might prioritize GPA over all other activities while their American/European counterpart might emphasize both education/GPA and extracurricular activities. This is just based on the culture they have grown up in and could change based on other external factors such as important events occurring or changing cultural dynamics.

A person’s culture could also affect how they approach education in a more operational manner. For instance, “people from different cultural traditions may have an approach to education that differs from the mainstream approach used in American schools” (Lynch, 2016). An example from this article suggests that younger children in Polynesian culture are taught by older children, not adults. This is not a traditional American school approach and thus a different experience for Polynesian children. The age of the teacher is an important cultural variable and could have an impact on student’s learning. This example highlights the cultural difference theory extremely well, in that students’ performance could be influenced by the cultural familiarity of the classroom.

In conclusion, culture is influential in multiple aspects of education, from how the classroom is run to how you learn in the classroom. These cultural attitudes are diverse and distinct and contribute to a diverse school fabric. We’ll get into this a bit more in my next blog but for now it is important to remember that these cultural theories are not binding but fluid to many demographic changes. However, they can provide a good blueprint for how culture and education intermingle.



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