Academic journal article Social Education

Elementary Students in Substantive Culture Learning

Academic journal article Social Education

Elementary Students in Substantive Culture Learning

Article excerpt

In today's culturally diverse and interconnected world, elementary teachers have a primary responsibility for opening students' eyes to the world and its peoples. Without understanding diverse cultures locally and globally, young people cannot make sense of issues and events that affect their lives nor can they make informed economic, political, and environmental decisions.

Yet there are conflicting pressures that often obstruct culture learning. Time constraints--such as a curriculum mandate that reduces the teaching of Middle Eastern cultures to one week--often lead to superficial treatment of complex cultures. Monetary constraints often mean students see films or read library books about people as they were twenty to thirty years ago without ever realizing how different those people's lives are today. To create student interest, teachers may focus on the most strange and bizarre customs or the most "primitive" people of the region. This approach not only teaches students that other cultures are only of interest because they are "weird" or exotic, but it also does little to help them understand the majority of the world's peoples. When students focus on the Masai in a unit on East Africa, they are learning as much about Kenyans and Tanzanians as Africans would learn about the United States by studying the Amish. And finally, many hands-on activities-learning a dance or song, eating food or trying on clothes--trivialize cultures. If Japanese students made quilts, are Southern fried chicken and Boston baked beans, and sang "Old MacDonald had a farm," would they have acquired information that leads to understanding of Americans today?

Content of Substantive Culture Learning

Substantive culture learning can teach students to understand the norms, beliefs, values, and actions of diverse people. It also gives young people the intercultural skills and habits of the mind for lifelong interaction with people whose norms are different from their own. Based on appreciation of insider perspectives, students learn how people in the selected culture perceive work, time, space, roles (based on gender, age, religious beliefs, inherited position, etc), the importance of the group versus the importance of the individual, social hierarchies/class/status, and parents' expectations for their children. These topics provide teachers with a structure for knowledge that moves beyond the superficiality of dress, holidays, food, or a focus on the exotic and bizarre. Substantive culture learning also teaches the bases of cultural similarities and differences, such as how people (1) categorize, (2) differentiate, (3) make ingroup/outgroup distinctions, and (4) how people attribute or judge the causes of behavior. (1)

These ideas of substantive culture can be used to develop culturally relevant pedagogy for new immigrants or refugees. Available at www.interculturalpress .com, are the books, ExperientialActivties for Intercultural Living, Living with Strangers in the USA and Cross-Cultural Dialogues. (2) These provide teachers with insights into culture learning and ideas for teaching the ways in which diverse cultures make judgments, ask questions, and perceive appropriate behavior, body language, conflict and cooperation, and so forth. Elementary teachers would find such materials useful in teaching intercultural skills.

Pedagogy for Substantive Culture Learning

Below are several instructional strategies that can contribute to substantive culture learning in kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms. Collectively, they develop in students the skills and knowledge needed to construct a foundation for life-long learning about the world's peoples and develop cross-cultural competence in interacting with people different from themselves. The strategies also address the NCSS standards on culture and global connections. Table 1 lists some of the choices teachers have in how they make decisions on both content and methods along with a comparison of instructional activities and resources teachers commonly use. …

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