Contexts for Understanding: Educational Learning Theories

By Donna Bolima


            As a civilized nation, we like to consider ourselves, at the least, an egalitarian, sophisticated, advanced and educated society.  Nothing, however, has been more metamorphic (and at times elusive) to our nation's youth as the educational system.  Within various climates of change (including various waves of immigration, back lash and civil rights movements) educators experienced numerous priorities over the years as new educational theories pushed their way into the ideological melting pot.  Ultimately, pedagogical watchdogs and transformers have come and gone as each new study on education, brought to light the greatest and latest findings.  Academic researchers seem ever on the move to improve our grasp of the learning process and to sharpen a working definition of the concept of `intelligence.'  In practical terms this means helping all students attain some form of academic and mental acuity.  In theoretical terms, this means exploring the possibilities and answers further.  Consequently, this exploratory historical journey of theory has had many interesting stops along the way. 

 FRAMES OF REFERENCE                                                                         TOP

            In terms of Anthropology and Education the diversities of theory run wide.  There are, however, three main theoretical frames of reference that flavor this field.  They are the Cultural Deficit Theory, Cultural Difference Theory and Cultural Ecological Theory.  Most of these theories were formed in response to certain historical realities or educational dilemmas and hinged on previous studies.


            The Cultural Deficit Theory followed on the heels of the Genetic Deficit Theory, and Darwinian concepts of evolution; a system of thought that had gained wide acceptance and controversy during the early 1900's.  But where Darwin found genetic differentiations of animal species based upon geographical or environmental adaptation, Genetic Deficit Theorists had expanded that idea to include social and cultural systems of people (Davidson, 1992).  This justified the belief that certain groups were intelligently inferior to others, particularly to the group in charge.  Intelligence and scholastic achievement testing "allowed public educators to shuttle immigrants, particularly prone to low intelligence scores on these tests (Cohen 1970), directly into vocational classes" (1992:42).                                       TOP

            In the 1960's Cultural Deficit Theorists such as Hess, Shipman, Engelmann, Bereiter and Deutsch, began to gain more credence over the Genetic Theorists.  Their studies, especially, began to focus on the idea of "nurture" versus "nature" (Erickson, 1987)."  Most cultural deficit studies blamed the child's social, cultural or economic environment as being "depraved and deprived" of the elements necessary to "achieve the behavior rules (role requirements)" needed to academically succeed (Hess & Shipman, 1965).  Engelmann and Bereiter, further emphasized how "cultural deprivation" theories supported the idea that social and emotional deficiencies affected student performance  within the academic system.  Until dealt with, these differences, would make it "impossible for" culturally deprived students "to progress in academic areas" (1966).  Although these same studies did testify that they could modify the behavior of disadvantaged children, they made little progress towards student knowledge acquisition.  As the study states, there were "virtually no inroads against the children's lacks in verbal learning" (1966:41).                                 TOP

            Ultimately, the Cultural Deficit Theorists viewed cultures and environments outside of the mainstream Euro-American, as inferior.  These views catered to highly ethnocentric perspectives.  In one article Martin Deutsch clearly outlined the middle class expectations and values existing in the educational system, while pointing out the deficiencies inherent in other groups such as "American Indian children, mountain children and children from other non-industrial groups" (1961).  The fact that teachers and schools were also failing to teach, was rarely broached and the blame remained conveniently elsewhere. 

            In 1969, Labov boldly challenged the basic tenets of Deficit Cultural Theories.  In his article "The Logic of NonStandard English," Labov charged that improper testing correlations were made.  Further, he charged that researcher bias skewed earlier studies -in particular cultural biases and researcher lack of knowledge of other cultural groups (1969:2).  What followed was the re-examination of assumptions about previously "depraved" groups.  Labov outlined the "linguistic view" that grew out of the premise that "nonstandard dialects are highly structured systems..." (1969:31).  The focus began to shift to the idea that it was not group/culture deficiencies, but group cultural differences that created certain boundaries in learning.  Hence, the stage was set for the new generation of Cultural Difference Theorists.                                                                    TOP


            Fredrick Erickson is a major proponent of Cultural Difference Theory.  He uses the term "microethnography" to describe his technique of "situation-specific analysis" (1976). Using this technique he observes "naturally occurring interaction in people's lives..." (1976:137).  In this way, Cultural Difference Theorists are more focused on the `micro' elements of people's lives and communities.  As Erickson points out this theory "provided a way of seeing classroom troubles as inadvertent misunderstanding--teachers and students playing into each other's cultural blind spots" (Athropology and Education Quarterly, 1987).  Other related research includes Au's work with Hawaiian students (1980), Philips work with Warm Springs children (1972), Delgado-Gaiten's work with Latino and Chicano populations (1987), Heath's work in the Piedmont Carolinas area (1983), as well as, further theory extrapolation done by Trueba (1988), Davidson (1992), Labov (1969) and Vogt (1987).          TOP

            In 1982 Shirley Brice Heath's study of three populations in the Piedmont Carolinas area brought to light the components of micro-communication differences.  Some differences included cultural and socio-linguistic variabilities; in this case, between the African American in Trackton, the Euro-American in Roadville, and the Euro-Americans in the Town.  Most importantly, her study prompted educators to modify teaching methods in order to accommodate the different "ways with words" and understandings.  Teachers, parents and students involved admitted that they had gained insights from the process of sharing information across groups.  Here continues the thrust of micro-ethnographic techniques.  It is a research that involves interaction, praxis and even transformation.                                                                                         TOP

            But this area is not without its criticisms too.  Some argue that the Cultural Difference Theory does not explain why some teachers can do well with many students, despite ignorance of cultural differences or techniques that cater to such.  Nor does it explain why some marginalized or immigrant populations succeed despite their having cultural differences from the educational system.  The last major theory deals with another side of the quest for answers.  It is called the Cultural Ecological Theory. 


            John Ogbu (1986) is a major proponent of the Cultural Ecological Theory.  The ecological view does not dismiss the importance of cultural difference, but focuses more on macro-ethnographic.  It attempts to explain, for instance, why some immigrant groups do well in school, while others do not.  Ogbu maintains that there are three types of minorities: autonomous, immigrant and caste-like.  While autonomous minorities are those who may posses ethnic, religious, linguistic or cultural identity, they are not "subordinated" in the social, economic or political system.  Cast-like minorities, however, were brought into the United States society involuntarily, such as through slavery or through colonization.  Immigrant minorities, on the other hand, have become a part of American society voluntarily and don't experience the same hardships with academic success as involuntary minorities.  Ultimately, the involuntary minorities are subject to "secondary cultural differences" from prolonged contact with a different dominant culture that causes a kind of resistance.  Ogbu calls this resistance "cultural inversion" (1987).         TOP

            Ogbu claims that these variables and others create barriers for involuntary minorities and keep them in a position of subordination.  He cites the example of how these minorities come to perceive a job ceiling that will not allow them equal access to jobs.  This creates a "why try" attitude and explains why involuntary immigrants may be less successful academically than voluntary immigrants..  Also some groups do not want to give up cultural identity to "act white" in order to fit into the dominant Euro-American system (1987:331-332).  Other supporters of this stance include Gibson (1987) and her work with Punjabi Indians, Apple's work with caste-like populations (1979), Fordham's work with African American students (1991), Matute-Bianchi's work with Hispanic and Japanese students (1986), Philips (1972), Suarez-Orozco (1987, 1989), Gumprez (1972) and others.                  TOP

            Major criticisms of the Cultural Ecological Theory include the idea that there is little practical discussion  of how involuntary minorities might succeed in the academic system.  when the problem is institutional, there is less likelihood of quick change.  Also, there is the danger of stereotyping certain populations without regard to micro-influences.  In the 1987 issue of the Anthropology and Quarterly, and in view of the limitations of both Ecological and Cultural Difference Theories, Erickson suggests that the key concepts in both can be merged.  The result is an attempt to consider all the variances one should in order to approach students in a culturally respectful and aware manner; a manner that teachers can utilize to facilitate the learning of students from diverse backgrounds and experiences.  Others such as McDermott question the researcher's preoccupation with the idea of "student failure" and hints that we may be looking at the least significant part of a larger significant whole.  As he says "we must work against our culture in order to study it, and every study must be directed by a vision of change and renewal" (1987:360-364).  With hope, Post-Cultural and Ecological Theorists will take up the cue.  In the meantime, certain educational realities for students of diversity persist.