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April 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 7

The Learning Leader / The Value of Culture

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One of the most difficult challenges in any school reform proposal is the local context. No matter how compelling the evidence in favor of a strategy, the common rejoinder is, "Perhaps it worked somewhere else, but our kids are different." Certainly local context matters, but when the same instructional techniques appear to be effective in a variety of places, educators should take note.
Successful English language development programs in China and Canada offer important insights for teachers and policymakers. A common theme that emerges from the following examples is the power of high-interest cultural content to motivate language learners.

Engaging Students in China

China has proved to the world that education is the engine for economic development. Until the current recession slowed its economic growth to "only" 8 percent, China had maintained an unbroken 28-year record of accelerated growth—the highest sustained economic growth rate on the planet. And education has been an important part of that success. Since I was a teacher in rural Anhui Province in 1996, the number of universities has increased twelve-fold, and per-student spending has grown dramatically.
There is much more to China's education and economic expansion than meets the eye. Western stereotypes of frantic test preparation and a myopic focus on math and engineering are not consistent with the evidence and my personal observations.
The Ming dynasty is credited by some historians with inventing the standardized test more than half a millennium ago. The legacy of high-stakes testing prevails today, with students beginning exams at an early age and opportunities for high school and higher education governed largely by test success. Despite the strong cultural focus on testing, however, the Chinese curriculum is more diverse than outsiders might expect. Chinese students and teachers understand the power of culture to energize instruction, including English language instruction. Students engage in animated conversations about different cultural traditions—for example, how food, art, and music vary from one region of the country to the next.
When I taught English to teachers and school administrators (and some of their children, ranging in age from 5 years old through college level) in Anhui Province, I discovered that classes in China are typically formal, filled with quiet students granting enormous deference to teachers. Moreover, Chinese students who are learning English often prefer producing a brief but perfect sentence to producing one that is more expressive but that might contain a few errors. The result can be a classroom dominated by the teacher.
However, the silence inherent in this instructional dynamic is quickly broken when the conversation turns from the text of the day to cultural matters. Many of my 84 students would break into lively debates when the subject turned to cuisine, music, or art. Discussions that had been marked by monosyllabic agreement with the teacher suddenly became animated, and most important, students would take risks in expressing their ideas with newly learned English vocabulary. Words like hot, spicy, andexceptional became the object of much interest because of the multitude of connotations in the contexts of food, fashion, art, and even politics.
When I have taught English language learners in the United States and elsewhere, I've learned that it is essential to create a safe way to experiment with language. My own mistakes in their languages help to create a forgiving atmosphere in which students feel free to learn a word, use it in different contexts, make some mistakes, and gradually learn the nuances of a language.

Integrating Culture in Ontario

The recent experiences of Ontario schools reinforce the power of mixing academics with culture. In an important study, Levin (2008) noted that Ontario has achieved formidable success in reaching literacy standards in the past decade, not only by improving curriculum and instruction but also by responding to the cultures of language-minority students. Toulouse (2008) describes how Canadian schools promote the success of the country's Aboriginal students by recognizing the students' culture—for example, by including a broad range of Aboriginal books and resources in the school library; including arts, crafts, and games in the curriculum; and so on. Teachers succeed best with these students when they integrate cultural values such as bravery, wisdom, and humility into lessons and teaching strategies.
Other Canadian schools have found that poetry—which is often among the first casualties of test prep—is a documented best practice not only for teaching literacy but also for helping students develop critical thinking and analytical perspectives (Hughes, 2007). Teachers can use poetry to promote oral language development through choral reading, role-play, and drama. As Hughes writes,Such approaches provide opportunities for students to play with the words of a poem and to experience it lifted from the page. This kind of attention to the language and rhythm of a poem serves to expand oral and written vocabulary. (p. 2)
Far from using the deadly drills that can be the hallmark of test preparation and antithetical to cultural respect, Canadian educators have demonstrated that English literacy and cultural engagement are mutually reinforcing.

Applying Global Lessons

Despite these success stories, integration of culture and the arts into the curriculum of English language learners, and indeed most students, is all too rare. The feeling seems to be, "We don't have time for music, art, and culture—we have to get them ready for the test!" Thus, students are not only unprepared for tests, but also unprepared for academic success—bored, angry, and alienated from a school that rejects their language and culture.
Teaching English is a complex and challenging endeavor, and an explicit focus on culture is not a cure-all. Nevertheless, technical proficiency in an English language program is not sufficient to sustain student interest or create a context for rich language development. Only a holistic approach, including all that schools and students bring to the classroom, can accomplish that.

Hughes, J. (2007). Poetry: A powerful medium for literacy and technology development(What Works? Research into Practice, Monograph 7). Toronto: Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Ontario Ministry of Education.

Levin, B. (2008). How to change 5000 schools: A practical and positive approach for leading change at every level. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Toulouse, P. R. (2008). Integrating aboriginal teaching and values into the classroom. (What Works? Research into Practice, Monograph 11). Toronto: Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Ontario Ministry of Education.

Douglas B. Reeves is the author of more than 100 articles and 40 books on educational leadership and student achievement and has worked with numerous education, business, nonprofit, and government organizations throughout the world.

Reeves is the founder of Creative Leadership Solutions, a non-profit with the mission to improve educational opportunities for students using creative solutions for leadership, policy, teaching, and learning. He was twice named to the Harvard University Distinguished Authors Series, and received the Contribution to the Field Award from the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward) and was named the Brock International Laureate for his contributions to education.

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