As you think about these questions for yourself and discuss them with people of various cultures, it's likely that the responses will be complex. Thus, it's no surprise that when we ask how culture affects learning, we broach a sensitive area.
We know that culture and learning are connected in important ways. Early life experiences and the values of a person's culture affect both the expectations and the processes of learning. If this relationship is true, could we then assume that students who share cultural characteristics have common learning style patterns? Does culture create a learning style, and how would we know this? These questions are both important and controversial.
They are important because we need all the information we can get to help every learner succeed in school, and because a deep understanding of the learning process should provide a framework for curriculum and instructional decisions. They also are important questions because success for the diverse populations in schools calls for continual reexamination of educators' assumptions, expectations, and biases. And finally, they are important considerations because every decision in education must be examined for its impact on an individual student's learning.
Such questions are controversial because information about a group of people often leads to naive inferences about individual members of that group. Additionally, in the search for explanations of the continued achievement difference between students of color and mainstream white students, there is an understandable sensitivity about causes and effects. It is all too easy to confuse descriptions of differences with explanations for deficits. The questions also are controversial because they force us to confront philosophical issues in the uniformity versus diversity debate. Is equality of instruction synonymous with equity of educational opportunity for all? Is the purpose of schooling to create a “melting pot” or “a salad bowl”?
A highly public example of how sensitive these issues are occurred in 1987 when New York state published a booklet for educators aimed at decreasing the student dropout rate. A small section of the booklet described learning styles typical of minority students and identified certain patterns associated with African American students. These descriptions became the subject of intense scrutiny and animated debate. The descriptions were eventually removed from the booklet, but a review panel concluded that “learning style and behavioral tendency do exist, and [that] students from particular socialization and cultural experiences often possess approaches to knowledge which are highly functional in the indigenous home environment and can be capitalized upon to facilitate performance in academic settings” (New York State Regent's Report ms. in Claxton, 1990, p. 6).
A deep understanding of both culture and learning style is important for all educators, though the subject must be addressed carefully. The relationship of the values of the culture in which a child is currently living, or from which a child has roots, and the learning expectations and experiences in the classroom is directly related to the child's school success academically, socially, and emotionally.
The Nature vs. Nurture Issue
If a classroom teacher is to facilitate successful learning opportunities for all learners, he or she must “know” the learner. This includes knowing about innate personality traits we call “style” and also learned cultural values that affect behavior. The learner, of any age, is a product of nature and nurture. We each are born with predispositions for learning in certain ways. We also are products of external influences, especially within our immediate family, extended community, and culture.
Researchers confirm that learning patterns are a function of both nature and nurture. Myers (1990) asserts: “Type development starts at a very early age. The hypothesis is that type is inborn, an innate predisposition like right- or left-handedness, but the successful development of type can be greatly helped or hindered by environment from the beginning” (p. 176). Many researchers describe the importance of socialization within the family, immediate culture, and wider culture. They agree with Ramirez (1989) that “cultural differences in children's learning styles develop through their early experience” (p. 4). Gardner (1991) echoes this perspective: “[W]e are as much creatures of our culture as we are creatures of our brain” (p. 38).
Sometimes people wonder which is more important: innate personality traits or the influence of culture? This question has no clear answer. The most accurate response is probably “it depends.” Variables such as the congruence of innate traits with cultural influences; the support, or lack of it, within the environment for preferred behaviors and for taking risks; and general life successes will influence how learning style is shaped. When my culture supports my individuality, I grow and develop in healthy ways. When my family encourages my uniqueness, I learn to trust my own innate predisposition. If, however, I do not innately fit the expectations of a “typical girl” or “typical African American,” I become aware of the lack of congruence of my inner self with external expectations, and I have to reconcile those differences. Sometimes that reconciliation gives me more strengths and a wider range of behaviors. At other times, it leads to conflict and uncertainties. Both results confirm the important roles of nature and nurture in shaping a person's approach to life—and to learning.
Every child of every culture, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, age, ability, and talent deserves to have an equal opportunity to be successful in school. Knowing each student's culture is essential for providing successful learning opportunities. Understanding learning differences will help educators facilitate, structure, and validate successful learning for every student.
Reports About Culture and Learning Style
Reports about culture and learning style consistently agree that within a group, variations among individuals are as great as commonalties. Even as we acknowledge that culture affects learning styles, we know that distinct learning style patterns don't fit a specific cultural group. “Researchers have clearly established that there is no single or dual learning style for the members of any cultural, national, racial, or religious group” (Dunn, 1997, pp. 74–75).
This important point is often verbally acknowledged, but ignored in practice. Cox and Ramirez (1981) explain the result:
Recognition and identification of these average differences have had both positive and negative effects in education. The positive effect has been the development of an awareness of the types of learning that our public schools tend to foster . . . . The negative effect[,] . . . arising primarily from common problems associated with looking at mean differences[,] is [that] the great diversity within a culture is ignored and a construct which should be used as a tool for individualization becomes yet another label for categorizing and evaluating. (p. 61)
Many reports contend that African Americans or Hispanic Americans or girls learn in certain common ways. Where is this information coming from? In general, there are three sources of information about learning styles and culture.
Descriptions and Profiles
The first source includes descriptions and profiles of learners of certain cultural groups written by people familiar with these groups to sensitize those outside the culture to children's experiences within the culture. Descriptions of minority students' learning patterns often are contrasted with the “majority” white Anglo students' ways of learning and with expectations in the schools designed by this majority group.
There are a variety of descriptions of typical learning patterns of African Americans (Hale-Benson, 1986; Shade, 1989; Hilliard, 1989); descriptions of Mexican Americans (Ramirez, 1989; Vasquez, 1991; Berry, 1979; Cox & Ramirez, 1981); descriptions of Native Americans (Bert & Bert, 1992; Moore, 1990; Shade, 1989); and descriptions of Asian Americans (Moore, 1990). Gilligan's (1993) work on gender has been used to describe girls' ways of learning.
Reports note that family and personal relationships are important to Mexican Americans, and these learners are comfortable with cognitive generalities and patterns (Cox & Ramirez, Vasquez). These traits explain why Mexican American students often seek a personal relationship with a teacher and are more comfortable with broad concepts rather than distinct facts and specifics. Observations of African American students' learning styles report their comfort with oral experiences, physical activity, and strong personal relationships (Shade, Hilliard). These call for classroom work that includes collaboration, discussion, and active projects. Observational descriptions indicate that Native Americans generally develop acute visual discrimination and skills in the use of imagery, perceive globally, and have reflective thinking patterns (Shade, Moore, Bert & Bert). Thus, schooling should emphasize visual information, provide quiet “think time,” and establish a context for new information. Asian Americans are described as serious, independent, content oriented, and focused (Moore). This description implies that working alone, especially on serious content, is appealing to these learners. Girls are said to value relationships, be verbal, and be social. In the classroom they like working in groups and having opportunities to share (Gilligan).
The same authors report that mainstream white male Americans value independence, analytic thinking, objectivity, and accuracy. These values translate into learning experiences that focus on information, competition, tests, grades, and critical thinking. It is no surprise that these patterns are prevalent in most schools because they were established and are generally administrated by mainstream white males. The further away from this style of education a student is, the more difficulty he or she has adjusting.
Research Study Descriptions
Another way we know about the links between culture and learning style is research study descriptions of specific groups. In this class of inquiry, researchers administer learning/cognitive style assessments to produce a profile of a particular cultural group, to make comparisons with previously studied groups (usually mainstream white Americans), or to validate a particular instrument for cross-cultural application. While a variety of published studies use this approach, it is important to realize that they are based on various assessment instruments that “measure” learning styles in different ways. (Style instruments are discussed in more detail in Chapter 15.)
Many of these instruments are self-report. In other words, the adult or student fills out a response to a series of questions, and the frequency of responses indicates certain preferences for specific approaches to learning. When a person is asked to respond to specific words and questions, the language is interpreted through personal (cultural) experience. Some assessment instruments test a person's strengths, or the ability to do tasks with a certain approach. When strengths are tested and learning style inferred from the results of these instruments, a great deal of variety exists within like-cultural groups.
Thus, the information obtained from formal assessments of learning styles of specific cultural groups has been based on different ways of assessing and describing style. Yet results of different studies are often compared, ignoring or diminishing the relevance of the type of assessment instrument in the report of the findings. The variation in type of assessment instrument used often accounts for the seemingly contradictory information reported about groups of learners.
The third way we know about learning style and culture is through direct discussion. A number of authors have written about the importance of understanding culture to more effectively facilitate the learning of all students. Cognitive style research, Ramirez (1989) believes, could help contribute to multiethnic education as “a framework to look at and be responsive to diversity within and between cultures” (p. 4).
Shade (1989) comments that: “The examination of a perceptual development from a cultural perspective, however, suggests that perceptual development differs within various ethnocultural groups. It is an erroneous assumption in the teaching-learning process to assume children `see' the same event, idea, or object in the same way” (p. 151).
From all three sources of “research” we see that culture and learning style are connected, but it is necessary to caution educators about specific application of this information.
Issues and Questions
When educators apply knowledge of culture and learning style to the classroom they face a number of unresolved areas and differences of opinion. Some educators call for explicit knowledge of specific groups' cultural values so that practitioners will be more sensitive and effective with students of that culture. This information is even mandated in certain states as part of their multicultural goals, although, ironically, learning styles information usually is missing. Other educators argue that these descriptions will result in more stereotyping and ultimately in a differentiated, segregated approach to curriculum.
Cox and Ramirez (1981) observe:
The concept of cognitive or learning styles of minority and other students is one easily over-simplified, misunderstood, or misinterpreted. Unfortunately, it has been used to stereotype minority students or to further label them rather than to identify individual differences that are educationally meaningful. (p. 61)
Ask yourself how much you would want a teacher and a school to know about your own child. Should there be full information in a student's file that is shared with everyone who works with the student? Even when such information exists, some teachers intentionally don't read students' files. They argue that they want to form their own impressions of each learner. Other educators feel that comprehensive background and educational history of each student is invaluable for helping the learner be successful. Why waste time reinventing the wheel? When these same issues are applied to knowledge relating to a specific cultural group, there is also lack of agreement. “The greatest care must be taken to use the concepts as tools for growth and individualization and to avoid their use as labels or stereotypes” (Ramirez, 1989, p. 5).
The relationship of culture and learning style is also addressed in reference to student achievement. Most researchers believe that learning styles are neutral. All learning styles can be successful, but they also could become a stumbling block when overused or applied inappropriately. This concept explains the success or failure of different learning approaches with different tasks, especially as they relate to expectations in schools. There is evidence that students with specific learning style patterns (kinesthetic, field-dependent, sensing, extraversion) underachieve in school. Regardless of their cultural background, students who have these dominant learning style patterns have limited opportunities to use their style strengths in the classroom.
While relating culture, style, and achievement requires much more examination (Guild, McKinney, & Fouts, 1990; Myers, 1974/1980), serious inequity results if schools undervalue behaviors that certain cultures foster. Gardner (1991) advises that cultural practices yield “[c]hildren and adults who are characteristic of their own culture and who may appear dysfunctional in a culture that embraces a divergent or opposing set of assumptions” (p. 53). This appearance of dysfunction affects the student's potential for successful achievement. Some students are caught in a no-win situation, unable to be true to their culture or meet school expectations. Irvine and York (1995) are blunt: “The cultures of students of color or their `way of life' are often incongruous with the expected middle-class cultural values, beliefs, and norms of schools. These cultural differences are major contributions to the school failure of students of color” (p. 489).
Another unresolved issue is how teachers working from their own cultures and teaching styles can successfully reach the diverse populations in most schools today. What training do teachers need for this challenge? Bennett (1986) is not the only one who believes that “to the extent that teachers teach as they have been taught to learn, and to the extent that culture shapes learning style, students who share a teacher's ethnic background will be favored in class” (p. 96). Bennett also warns that ignoring the effects of culture and learning style affects all students:
If classroom expectations are limited by our own cultural orientations, we impede successful learners guided by another cultural orientation. If we only teach according to the ways we ourselves learn best, we are also likely to thwart successful learners who may share our cultural background but whose learning styles deviate from our own. (p. 116)
Some argue that teachers play a special role in representing their own culture. “It is incumbent upon Black professionals to identify the intelligences found especially in Black children and to support the pursuit of their strengths” (Hale-Benson, 1986, p. xiii). However, we all have learned successfully from teachers who differed from us in learning style or culture. Often, these were masterful, caring teachers. Sometimes our own motivation helped us learn in spite of the teacher. Yet teachers of all cultural backgrounds and style will have to work conscientiously to provide equity for students as classrooms increasingly reflect the diversity of our society.
It is also important to be willing to confront the issue of cultural identity and self-esteem. Many large city school systems struggle with the appropriateness of ethnically identified schools such as an African American academy. Bilingual programs continue to debate the priority of instruction in students' first languages. All-girl schools, math classes, and science classes are promoted for their affirmative action approach.
The goal of encouraging positive self-esteem would lead one to argue for like-groups at certain stages of development. An acceptance of learning styles demands an approach that develops skills through strengths. Should the same not be said of cultural identity?
Knowledge of learning styles and of the child's culture helps teachers examine their own instructional practices and become sensitive to providing diverse learning experiences. Intentional instructional diversity will benefit all students. In other words, improved instructional methodologies and practices for certain students will result in improved instruction for all.
A teacher who brings outstanding skills and competencies to his work offers students from all cultures and with varying learning styles greater opportunities for success. The teachers who are successful with students of various cultures want to know all they can about their students so that the learning opportunities and structures they provide are responsive to students' needs. These teachers know that to provide effective instruction, they must accommodate both the cultural values and individual learning styles of their students. Therefore, they are continually interested in learning about their students.
A teacher who cares about and develops methodologies sensitive to the needs of the learners she works with will foster success. Too often, the accommodation of differences is limited to a cultural holiday celebration or a multicultural fair. Even the study of multicultural content often fails to consider the different ways students learn. Thus, serious consideration of culture and learning styles together will offer the opportunity for more depth for culturally sensitive curriculum.
Bennett (1986) emphasizes the value of a learning style perspective:
The concept of learning styles offers a value-neutral approach for understanding individual differences among ethnically different students. . . . The assumption is that everyone can learn, provided teachers respond appropriately to individual and learning needs. (p. 97)
In a review of learning styles research on culturally diverse students, Irvine and York (1995) echo that sentiment: “[A]ll students are capable of learning, provided the learning environment attends to a variety of learning styles” (p. 494).
While the questions of culture and style are not easy to address, they are crucial to contemplate together. Hilliard (1989) says, “Educators need not avoid addressing the question of style for fear they may be guilty of stereotyping students. Empirical observations are not the same as stereotyping, but the observations must be empirical and must be interpreted properly for each student” (p. 69). Andrew Latham in a 1997 discussion of culture and learning style points out the changing demographics of the school population—70 percent nonwhite or Hispanic by 2026—and the immediate need for teachers to be able to teach a wide variety of students, diverse in their cultures and learning styles.
Explicit, ongoing dialogue about both learning styles and culture will provide educators with valuable information to help more students be successful learners. The goal is equity: true equal opportunity for all learners.