Academic journal article School Community Journal

The Intersection of Culture and Achievement Motivation

Academic journal article School Community Journal

The Intersection of Culture and Achievement Motivation

Article excerpt


Achievement motivation is something that all members of the school community want to support in students, however few may recognize that it is influenced by culture. The very meaning of "achievement" is culturally variable, and the motives that students have for achieving may be quite different, depending upon their cultural background. The practices of schools tend to reflect the individualism of the dominant U.S. culture. Many students come from families that are more collectivistic. Elementary bilingual teachers used a cultural framework of individualism/collectivism to guide understanding and innovations related to achievement motivation. Examples illustrate cultural differences and how they can be bridged.

Key Words: achievement motivation, cultural differences, bridging cultures, individualism, collectivism, academic goals, social goals, schools, teachers' practices, parents, Latino, action research, expectations


Achievement motivation is an important contributor to students' academic success (Pintrich & Schunk, 1996) and, hence, of interest to all stakeholders in the community of the school. It is well documented that cultural differences affect achievement motivation (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002; Kaplan, Karabenick, & DeGroot, 2009; Maehr & Yamaguchi, 2001; Otsuka & Smith, 2005; Urdan & Maehr, 1995). For that reason, parents and teachers may be coming at the issue from very different perspectives because of cultural differences between home and school (Rothstein-Fisch & Trumbull, 2008). We believe that if a school community truly wants to promote the success of all students, it must recognize how achievement motivation varies culturally within the population it serves.

School personnel need to learn from parents how students have been socialized at home to think about academic achievement. At the same time, they can also help parents understand the culture of the school and the kinds of expectations schools may have of their children. Such communication is key to forging continuities between home and school (Shor & Bernhard, 2003; Trumbull, Rothstein-Fisch, Greenfield, & Quiroz, 2001). In this article, we use a cultural framework (individualism/collectivism) to explain how Latino immigrant students' achievement motivation may be different from that of their mainstream American peers. We offer examples from elementary teachers' classroom-based research to illustrate how achievement motivation can be approached in a more culturally responsive way. Our findings come from Bridging Cultures,®1 a teacher collaborative action research project.

What Is Culture?

"Culture" is a contested construct: Nearly everyone believes it exists, but few can agree on exactly what it is and whether using research about culture to inform educational decisions is more helpful-leading to insights-or damaging-leading to stereotypes (Hollins, 1996). Nevertheless, faced with increasing student diversity and evidence that students from a given cultural background appear to share certain understandings and "powerfully motivating sources of their action[s]" (Strauss & Quinn, 1997, p. 3), many educators are paying attention to culture.

We characterize culture as a dynamic system of values, expectations, and associated practices that help organize people's daily lives and mediate their thoughts and actions. These values, expectations, and practices are learned in social contexts and are transmitted across generations, even as they are modified by people within a culture in interaction with people from other cultures and in the face of new needs (Greenfield, 2009). Cultures are not strictly bounded; that is, there is considerable overlap in the values, expectations, and practices of different cultures (Strauss & Quinn, 1997).

Approaches to Achievement Motivation

Achievement motivation theory has been primarily cognitive in nature, attributing the sources of motivation to individual goals (e. …

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