Cultural Styles in a Pluralist Society

By Asa G. Hilliard III

I have been an educator for more than 30 years. During most of that time I have been a teacher educator. I have had the opportunity to observe thousands of teachers. I have had the opportunity to read extensively in the area of teaching strategies. I have been interested in locating teachers and schools where students who normally are expected to have low achievement are actually helped to have superior achievement. Many of the students who have been helped are the same students who, some argue, require a unique pedagogical style to match their cognitive or learning styles.

Since I have been interested in behavioral style and have conducted research on the topic, I have taken every opportunity to focus my observations and to query teachers—both successful and unsuccessful ones—in order to determine, if possible, the role that style considerations play in the work of teachers.

What I have learned is that the behavioral style is important and useful in some limited circumstances—I will address them later—but that it is very premature to draw conclusions for classroom strategy based on style; or to prescribe pedagogical practice in a general way.

I do believe that greater sensitivity to style issues will make meaningful contributions to pedagogy in the future. Yet I remain unconvinced that the explanation for the low performance of culturally different “minority” group students will be found by pursuing questions of behavioral style. Since students are adaptable, the stylistic difference explanation does not answer the question of why “minority groups” perform at a low level.

In short, I believe that the children, no matter what their style, are failing primarily because of systematic inequities in the delivery of whatever pedagogical approach the teachers claim to master—not because students cannot learn from teachers whose styles do not match their own.

Low Expectations

In fact, there is a protocol of interactive behaviors of teachers who, for whatever reasons, have low expectations for students. Excellent evidence of this conclusion can be found in the research summarized by Jere Brophy and cited by Eva Chun in 1988. The research shows that teachers tend to:

  • demand less from low-expectation students (“lows”) than from high-expectation students (“highs”).
  • wait less time for lows to answer questions
  • give lows the answer or call on someone else rather than try to improve the lows’ response through repeating the question, providing clues, or asking a new question.
  • provide lows with inappropriate reinforcement by rewarding inappropriate behaviors or incorrect answers.
  • criticize lows more often than highs for failure.
  • fail to give feedback to lows’ public responses.
  • play less attention to lows and interact with them less frequently.
  • call on lows less often than highs to respond to questions.
  • seat lows farther away from the teacher than highs.
  • use more rapid pacing and less extended explanations or repetition of definitions and examples with highs than with lows.
  • accept more low-quality or more incorrect responses from low-expectation students.
  • interact with lows more privately than publicly.
  • in administering or grading tests or assignments, give highs but not lows the benefit of the doubt in borderline cases.
  • give briefer and less informative feedback to the questions of lows than to those of highs.
  • use less intrusive instruction with highs than with lows, so that they have more opportunity to practice independently.
  • when time is limited, use less effective and more time-consuming instructional methods with lows than with highs.

This range of teacher behavior toward low-performing students is only one aspect of an even larger reality. Another aspect has to do with the real world of pedagogy.

I believe most educators operate on the belief that our pedagogy is systematic, that there is a generally accepted professional practice. As mentioned above, we tend to believe that this practice can be differentiated. We imply exactly that when we group children in tracks or assign them to special education categories. But this assumption simply does not fit the empirical facts. The most accurate description we can give of present circumstances is that teachers generally have the freedom to create their own unique, ad hoc approach to the design of instructional strategy. Uniform strategies are generally not required. This fact alone would make it difficult to change in any consistent way the manner in which all teachers react to various styles, assuming that it were desirable to do so.

There may be very good reasons for using what we know about style in the design of teaching. This has less to do with matters of inequity, however, than with making pedagogy better for all. The traditional approaches to pedagogy have tended to be rigid and uncreative. They are far from exhausting the wonderful possibilities for teaching and learning.

The Uses of Style

Where, then, does this leave us? What can now be said about the utility of the style phenomenon for educators? I believe that the meaning of style for us at our present level of understanding can be found in four main areas.

First, the misunderstanding of behavioral style leads educators to make mistakes in estimating a student’s or a cultural group’s intellectual potential. The consequences of such errors are enormous, producing mislabeling, misplacement, and the ultimate mistreatment—inappropriate teaching—of children. If stylistic differences are interpreted as evidence of capacity rather than as an expression of preference, a long chain of abuses is set in motion.

Some children, for example, develop a habit of focusing on the global characteristics of a problem rather than on its particulars: Others do the reverse. Ideally, a student would be flexible enough to do either. Since schools traditionally give more weight to analytical approaches than to holistic approaches, however, the student who does not manifest analytical habits is at a decided disadvantage.

Second, the misunderstanding of behavioral styles leads educators to misread achievement in academic subjects such as creative expression. Orlando Taylor, a sociolinguist and dean of the School of Communications at Howard University, has shown, for example, that there is often a gross mismatch between the storytelling styles of African American children and those of their teachers.

Many teachers from Eurocentric cultures have a linear storytelling style. Many African American children, on the other hand, exhibit a spiraling storytelling style, with many departures from an initial point, but with a return to make a whole. Many teachers of these children are unable to follow the children’s coherent stories. Some teachers even believe that the children’s stories have no order at all. Some lose patience with the children and indicate that they’re doing badly.

Third, the misunderstanding of behavioral style can lead educators to misjudge students’ language abilities. When students and teachers differ in language, teachers sometimes use their own language as a normative reference. They are regarding common English as language, instead of a language. As a result, any child who speaks a different version of English is seen as having a “language deficiency” rather than a “common English deficiency.” This judgement makes a big difference in how the problem is defined.

On the one hand, there is a deficiency in the student; on the other, there is an objective for instruction, with no suggestion that the student is somehow impaired.

Finally, the misunderstanding of behavioral style can make it difficult to establish rapport and to communicate. The literature on teachers’ expectations of students is generally very clear. The images that teachers and others hold of children and their potential have a major influence on their decisions to use the full range of their professional skills.

If a teacher mistakes a child’s differing style for lack of intellectual potential, the child will likely become educationally deprived as the teacher “teaches down” to the estimated level.

As I have mentioned, this involves simplifying, concretizing, fragmenting, and slowing the pace of instruction.

What We Know of Style

There is something we can call style—a central tendency that is a characteristic of both individuals and groups.

This style is cultural—learned.

It is meaningful in the teaching and learning interaction.

Students’ style is not, however, to be used as an excuse for poor teaching or as an index of low capacity.

It is too early for us to say how or whether pedagogy (classroom teaching strategy) should be modified in response to learning styles.

A proper sensitivity to style can provide a perspective for the enrichment of instruction for all children and for the improvement both of teacher-student communications and of the systematic assessment of students.

Educators need not avoid addressing the question of style for fear they may be guilty of stereotyping students. Empirical observations are not the same as stereotyping. But the observations must be empirical, and must be interpreted properly for each student. We must become more sensitive to style out of a basic respect for our students, for their reality, and for their tremendous potential for learning.

Reprinted with permission of the National Education Association. Copyright © 1989 by the NEA. Bird graphic reprinted with permission from SPICE Latin American Project. Stars graphic is from Pueblo Designs by H. P. Mera.

Asa G. Hilliard, III, is Professor of Urban Education at Georgia State University. He recently co-authored Saving the African American Child.