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
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).
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).
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
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
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).
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
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
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.
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.