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Teaching And Learning Styles - The Cultural Context

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Clearly, preparing graduate students for teaching requires more than preparing them to deal with different institutional settings and students; it requires crafting a training program that prepares them for different learning and teaching styles from many gender and ethnic perspectives-a veritable array of pedagogies.


The posting below looks at some of the role cultural context plays in developing and using various teaching and learning styles. It is from Chapter 7, Teaching, Testing, and Measuring Intelligence, Uncovering the Evidence That Cultureal Context is Important, in Beyond Affirmative Action Reframing the Context of Higher Education, by Robert A. Ibarra. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2537 Daniels Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53718. Copyright ?2001 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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TEACHING AND LEARNING STYLES Uncovering the Evidence That Cultural Context is Important


Teaching is so fundamental to academics that we scarcely think about it. That, unfortunately, is also a fundamental flaw in training graduate students. Traditionally, learning from the "master" meant acquiring knowledge, learning research analysis and methodologies, and - if the graduate student is lucky-perhaps trying to teach if a teaching assistantship is available. In the past this experience did not necessarily come with training or guidance, for learning to teach relied mainly upon knowing the academic discipline well. Today higher education is beginning to realize that knowing something well is simply not enough to teach it effectively. Thus graduate student programs, such as Preparing Future Faculty (PFF), sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council of Graduate Schools, are being offered and are growing in both size and popularity at various graduate schools throughout the country. Long overdue, these programs are immensely important for recontextualizing academia. One goal is to change the pedagogy of teaching to match institutional types (i.e., two-year community colleges or four-year liberal arts schools) and thereby change academic culture. PFF programs can focus on the contrasts and "cultural gaps" encountered by junior faculty in both teaching and learning styles. Doing so reveals clues to what those differences in cultural context and cognition are.

Galloway (1996), perhaps unintentionally, effectively demonstrated some of these pedagogical differences in the published proceedings of recent PFF symposium held for graduate students at Howard University. In her symposium presentation, "Coping with Cultural Differences in the Learning Process," Irelene Ricks, and African American graduate student in political science, commented on unexpected teaching situations she has encountered:

What I began to discern with growing unease was a cultural difference in how the students engaged in the learning process. Simply put, they were quiet, too quiet to my way of thinking. They were respectful and dutiful, but inactive participants. I like open exchange> I am an interactive person, so I found myself developing little strategies to draw them out (group presentations, debates) with little success. What this meant was that I had to modify my teaching style to fit their learning style-something I was unable to do easily. Somehow we completed the semester with both teacher and students trying to adjust (Galloway 1996, 34)

PFF students learn to teach in different types of colleges and to students from a variety of ethnic groups, and Ricks does not tell us what the different cultural backgrounds of her students were. She just thought they were too quiet and inactive. Regardless, Ricks has clear preferences for a more high-context teaching style-interactive, collaborative, group-oriented learning activities- and for students who are more active in the classroom, a learning style that researchers have found typical of African Americans (see also Brice-Heath 1983). Though one could argue this also could be a difference in the teaching styles and expectations at small colleges versus large universities, for African Americans something more may be involved. Confirming that African American schoolchildren tend to be cognitively field sensitive and highly interactive learners, Shade suggests that "the group consciousness, cooperation, sociocentric, and affective orientation that seems to underlie Afro-American culture has an effect on learning" as well (1982, 238). Chambers, Lewis, and Kerezsi (1995) reiterate the difficulties minority faculty encounter when teaching majority college students in this country. Evoking the findings of Rosalie Cohen (1969) and Hall (1976, 1984), among others, Chambers, Lewis, and Kerezsi point out that at all levels of education in the United States the predominant analytical style is that of the middle-class majority populations (1995, 48). They have found that conflicts between cultural context and cognition make faculty less effective and can generate negative racial attitudes among students.

What Ricks is saying also points to another strategic mandate for high-context minority faculty-adapt to the culture of the students and abandon and attempt to transform them to your cultural teaching perspectives. This is an uneasy lesson that minority faculty soon learn, revealed in Rick's parting advice to others: "Don't try to change the culture-it isn't broken and you don't need to fix it" (Galloway 1996, 35).

Clearly, preparing graduate students for teaching requires more than preparing them to deal with different institutional settings and students; it requires crafting a training program that prepares them for different learning and teaching styles from many gender and ethnic perspectives-a veritable array of pedagogies. Because such training is probably the least developed component of higher education, programs like PFF are few. The American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) in Washington, D.C., is dedicated to advancing college-level teaching and learning programs. Historically, AAHE has fostered new initiatives for learning more about what constitutes a learning-centered campus. The initiatives are not only innovative but aimed at reforming higher education in general (see E. Anderson 1993; Edgerton, Hutchings, and Quinlan 1991; Lambert and Tice 1993). Within a variety of new ideas on teaching and assessment, some, like peer collaboration and review teaching (Hutchings 1996), are even headed in the direction of accommodating high-context learners.

But even the mixture of programs and goals at AAHE appears to be missing major ingredients in the recipe for enhancing faculty and student success-how cultural background affects teaching and learning. AAHE's programs never even mention ethnic cultures, context, or cognition. The organization is not alone in this omission, for other organizations that work to improve college teaching also do not incorporate these concepts in their programs.

This omission is not, however, the result of insufficient research on diversity and teaching/learning styles. In fact, quite a few scholars and teachers have incorporated and developed pedagogical models centered around the diverse learning styles of college students (see M. Adams 1992; Schmeck 1988; Tobias 1990). The problem is centered around the compartmentalization, fragmented, somewhat low-context approach used to institute cultural change by using these teaching and learning models.

Let me explain. A small portion of organizational initiatives and related literature on the topic acknowledges the importance of multicultural research and researchers (J. Anderson 1997; J. Anderson and Adams 1992; M. Ramirez 1991; M. Ramirez and Castaneda 1974). Felder (1993) and Felder and Silverman (1998), for example, have developed some very promising models that, although they may not highlight ethnic or gender diversity, incorporate college students' learning styles so inclusively that the models closely match the needs of all high- and low-context and field-sensitive and -independent students simultaneously.

The remarkable feature of Felder's "multistyle" approach is that is was created for teaching science, specifically, his (inherently low-context) chemistry and engineering courses. The problem, however, is that many organizational efforts, and much of the research on pedagogy mentioned earlier, fail to adequately address the core issue-how to change all, not just a few, of the components of academic organizational cultures. This means doing more than simply adding multicultural ideas piecemeal to a curriculum or to the pedagogy of teaching as if they were stand-alone components; it means changing them systematically and synchronously along with other components within the infrastructure of institutional culture itself. That is not an easy task.

Yet in a variety of ways educators can sense when the style of academic cultural systems is causing students to disconnect. Lani Guinier senses a disconnect between teaching and learning that unfairly discriminates against female students, especially in law school. Challenged because of her supposedly controversial views on minority voting rights after she was nominated to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department in 1993, Guinier is now challenging the traditional Socratic teaching style in law school classrooms (Mangan 1997). Her views reflect the same concerns evident when high-context Latinos and Latinas are subjected to learning in predominately low-context educational environments. Hall (1977, 106-8) describes legal procedures and trial law in the United States as an illustration of how law has been overadapted to a low-context culture.

The importance of Guinier's book, Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law School, and Institutional Change (1997), is that she not only understands the problem but provides a way to create a more inclusive learning environment for women and ethnic minorities. Although her intent is to change the learning process, she appears to be suggesting a way of doing this that doe not compromise the long heritage of legal education and training. Her insights reach far beyond gender differences.

Guinier illustrates the multiple teaching styles that can reframe the context of academia. (Guinier, of course, is writing about women, but she says applies equally to men from high-context cultures.) She believes that women have difficulties in law school-more stress, lower grades, fewer honors than men-because the traditional Socratic method is designed to shape students into gladiator-like trial lawyers. In the classroom "a professor calls on students and asks them a series of questions about a court decision in order to extrapolate the underlying legal principles" (Mangan 1997, A12). The problem, Guinier finds, is that this method unnecessarily belittles and intimidates women in a combative, less-than-respectful atmosphere. Because the Socratic teaching method has become a deliberate one-on-one sparring match between student and professor, its advocates believe it is ideal for preparing students to deal with the unexpected. It also favors majority males, who are low context and more aggressive. "Women," Guinier argues, "generally learn better through cooperative approaches [which are high context] than through adversarial ones," which are low context, and in an atmosphere of respect (i.e., student centered and high context) (1997, A12). In her book she describes women who "participate only after listening to what others are saying. They see conversation as a way of collaborating to synthesize information, rather than competing to perform or win" (in Mangan 1997, A12). The Socratic method forces women, she says, to act like males; when they do, their self-esteem suffers.

In a brief description of Guinier's class Mangan tells us that Guinier has students sit in a semicircle, and she encourages students with a number of high-context techniques and methods (1997, A13). She asks them to build upon other students' comments, compiling and extending ideas in a collaborative process and tracking arguments through what appears to be a comprehensive (rather than linear) thought process. In effect, her approach fosters a more controversial process of social interaction. When challenges arise-and they do-they are between students and not professor versus student. In a traditional classroom students usually sit in an auditorium facing the professor, with little or no interaction among students. Guinier claims that this environment favors men and affects women (and men from high-context cultures) adversely because they are reluctant to volunteer (1997, A13). Moreover, high-context individuals take longer to adjust to and participate in a confrontational atmosphere.