Making Connections: Challenges We Face

By Cynthia Ellwood

As teachers, we know our job will never be a science, but a craft and an art that will forever demand that we stretch and grapple and grow in order that our students will do the same. In our classrooms, we constantly find ourselves making complex decisions about when to tell and when to stand back and let a child struggle to discover. Hundreds of times a day, we have to decide exactly when and how to demand, cajole, accept, judge, nurture, admonish, push, provoke, and inspire a collection of unique individuals.

But if good teaching can’t be reduced to following five-step lesson plans, setting behavioral objectives, or pumping content from the text into the child, what exactly is it? How do we define the challenges we face, and how do. we construct a, vision of the kind of teachers we want to become? A good part of the answer to these questions must come from reflection on and dialogue about our experience as teachers. But this process can be informed by the work of educational philosophers and researchers. I believe we can learn a great deal, first by reexamining the insights of John Dewey, and second by looking at a body of ethno­ graphic studies that ‘raises important ques­tions for teachers in multicultural settings.

Dewey’s Model: Connecting Children and Content

Educational philosopher John Dewey argued that what we teach and how we teach must be closely tied to the interests and experiences of our students. “Somehow and somewhere,” he wrote, “motive must be appealed to, connection must be established between the mind and its material.” Relating new information to “what the child has already seen and felt and loved,” not only excites·students’ in­ terests, it enables them to develop new understandings, powerful new schemas from which to build further. Students’ prior knowledge and skills “serve as methods in the holding and discovering of truth,” Dewey wrote. “They are the tools by which the individual pushes out most surely and widely into unexplored areas.”

Dewey argued that connecting school knowledge with students’ own experience and understandings could help them make sense of new information, engage their interest, and nurture their critical capaci­ ties. Without this connection, Dewey held, school knowledge is reduced to a collection of “dead facts and barren symbols” which students can only hope to ap­ ply at some remote point in the future.

Both critics and would-be disciples of Dewey have frequently interpreted his ideas as a recommendation  to abandon adult guidance, dismiss systematic study, and toss out traditional content in favor of an almost magical “touchy-feely” process whereby  the child’s mind somehow un­ folds naturally. In fact, however, Dewey vigorously opposed such an  approach, saying its advocates were guilty of “the sentimental idealization of the child’s naive caprices and performances.” Dewey argued that children, as immature beings, possessed both positive and negative intellectual impulses, and they were not likely to develop into thoughtful, intellectually self-disciplined adults on their own. In Dewey’s view, it was the teacher’s job to present students with ever greater challenges toward the development of orderly, well-grounded “habits of mind.”

Actually, the traditional academic disci­plines were a focal point of the model school Dewey directed. Teachers at his University of Chicago Laboratory School taught Greek and American history, litera­ ture, mathematics, biology, and industrial and fine arts. But this did not mean teach­ ers simply poured the content into stu­ dents’ heads. Whether she was teaching Greek history or biology, the progressive teacher’s job as Dewey defined it was to find paths from students’ experience and prior understandings to the key ideas and organizing principles of a discipline. Fre­quently, this meant guiding young people in the roles of novice historians and ama­ teur scientists so they might discover im­ portant ideas for themselves. Teachers needed an understanding of their subject matter (and their students) that was so so­ phisticated as to allow them to transcend the texts and traditional  curricula-and help children internalize the very heart of the discipline.

Interaction: No Simple Matter

At its core, education according to Dewey involved an interaction between the subject matter and the learner, and teachers were charged with forging this connection. Historian Marvin Lazerson argues that Dewey’s definition of a good teacher has in fact become widely accepted, both among educators and the general public. Excellent teachers know their subject matter and their students so intimately that they constantly (and successfully) pursue innovative ways of joining the two. The trouble is, Lazerson points out, Dewey and the teachers at the Chicago Lab School in the 1920s and 30s never fully explained how difficult and demanding this kind of teaching really was. While Dewey offered us an ideal, a vision, he also helped to obscure the deep complexities of the teaching process.

One way to define our role as teachers then is the constant effort to draw connections between subject matter content and the skills, understandings, and interests our students bring to the classroom. I would add another dimension to this equa­ tion: our own passions and understand­ ings. Teaching might be thought of as triangular-involving the constant inter­ play between content, the student’s experience, and the teacher’s experience in the world.

Simply defining what is appropriate corttent is a difficult task even if we could define it in isolation from the other two elements of the triangle. We find ourselves grappling with questions like: How do I teach students to think like a historian? a mathematician? a scientist? a linguist? an investigative reporter? What precisely is critical thinking? Can thinking skills be taught in isolation? How do I give stu­ dents the opportunity to focus on some questions in depth and still “cover the cur­ riculum?”

If questions about content are troubling, even more difficult is the task of discover­ i g what understandings children already have in their heads. One scholar has com­ mented that Deweyan teachers need both a thorough command of their subject matter and insight·into “those common experi­ ences of childhood.” (Cremin, 1964) But a new body of ethnographic research sug­ gests that even that is an oversimplifica­ tion, at least for those of us who teach in multicultural environments.

Multicultural Education: Ethnographic Insights

Enthnographers study the classroom as an anthropologist would study a culture, relying heavily on careful, systematic ob­ servation and thick description to under­ stand what goes on in schools. An increasing number of these studies in a wide variety of settings suggest there are all sorts of unspoken assumptions and be­ havioral expectations in the classroom which usually correspond to white middle class cultural patterns. Without under­ standing why, children who come from other backgrounds may have a harder time “fitting in” and performing well according to these unspoken norms. In tum, the most caring, well-meaning teacher may unwittingly misinterpret the motives, intentions, and capacities of these children with potentially severe consequences for the children’s futures.

Heath’s Study

One ground-breaking study by anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath in the Piedmont Carolinas area showed that the “fit” between language patterns in the child’s home or community .ind that of the school can play a powerful iole in deter­ mining how successful the child is in school. Heath (who grew up in this area of the southeastern U.S.) thoroughly studied how language was used and taught in the homes and communities of three distinct groups of people in the area: white work­ing class residents of Roadville, black working class residents of Trackton, and the white and black middle class “townspeople”. Though the three groups lived in close proximity and interacted fre­ quently, they differed dramatically in such norms as the way adults talked to babies, what was defined as truth and what was defined as truth and what was “story” and children’s integration into adult activities. Patterns of interaction in the school corresponded most precisely to patterns of interaction in the homes of townspeople, the group from which teachers came.

Cultural differences greatly influenced school success. Children of the townspeople, for example, were accustomed to commands stated as questions (e.g. Why don’t you…? or Would you like to…? meaning, Do it now, please) and adults “quizzing” children by asking questions for which the adults already had the answers (e.g., What color is that? or What day is today?). Children from the black working class community of Trackton were con­ fused by such questions; in their commu­nity these questions seemed neither gen­ uine nor logical. (Why would you ask a question if you didn’t need an answer? Is the teacher so ignorant that she doesn’t know her colors?) Similarly, the white working class children of Roadville had been trained to “stick to the facts” in narrative, causing teachers to think  the children lacked imagination when asked to tell a story in class.

Even differences in play caused misun­derstanding. Heath observed that Roadville children frequently played in common spaces in their homes, using household utensils and real food and water when they played house, for example. Trackton chil­ dren were accustomed to playing outdoors because their homes were small. Teachers couldn’t understand why the children in­sisted on taking “indoor toys” outdoors, why they didn’t play with toys in the appropriate play spaces, or why they failed to store toys “in their proper places.”

Competent, dedicated, well-meaning teachers judged children as disorderly, slow to learn, or even lacking in moral training because they were unaware that the mis­ match between their expectations and the children’s behavior arose out of cultural differences not deficiencies.

Heath went beyond simply documenting cultural interference-and attempted to in­ volve teachers as ethnographers in explor­ ing alternative solutions. Once teachers discovered that behayiors they had judged negatively actually arose simply from the lack of fit between cultures, many began to change their classroom behavior. They kept journals that enabled them to reflect on classroom events, sought ways to ar­ticulate their expectations more clearly, enlisted the help of parents in explicitly teaching children “how to go to school,” and altered their teaching approaches in varied large and small ways in order to build bridges between the experiences of their students and classroom knowledge. An elementary science teacher and several high school language teachers turned their students into community researchers, an elementary school teacher used community artifacts to teach the shape of letters, a number altered their approach to question­ ing and storytelling based on what they’d learned, and several found imaginative uses for tape-recorders that turned students’ own talk (and their talk about their talk) into classroom tools.

Studies in Indian Communitjes

Studies in other settings have revealed similar results. Teachers of Indian students frequently characterize them as “quiet.”

Sometimes such students are seen “dull” or “unmotivated.” Or teachers de­ spair of their ability to “reach” Indian stu­ dents. A study on the Warm Springs In­ dian Reservation by Susan Philips sug­ gested Indian students’ apparent silence in the classroom actually reflected dif(erences between the social organization of the typical classroom and that of the Warm Spring Indian community. While a main feature of classroom discourse involves teacher directed groupings in wliich chil­ dren are expected to call out answers indi­ vidually or together, Phi1ips found no equivalent participation structure in the Indian community. There, no single per­ son is invested with the power to control the actions of others. The roles of leader, audience, speaker, and listener are fluid and often shared. Philips found Indian students participated fully (responding more readily than non-Indians) in situations where stu­ dents worked together on projects in small groups with only remote supervision by the teacher.

While Indian children remained re­luctant over the period studied to speak in teacher run group situations, they did learn to take advantage of classroom processes that were more compatible with their cul­ tural experience. For example, they in­ creasingly bid for the teacher’s private at­ tenti9n during periods when the class as a whole engaged in independent desk work.

Many other ethnographic studies in a variety of-American Indian communities echo Philips’ findings. For example, a study by noted ethnographers Fred Erick­son and Gerald Mohatt comparing the teaching style of an Indian teacher and a white teacher new to a reservation school found that the Indian teacher moved around the room more frequently, engaging in many private interactions with his Indian students.

Some Implications

We must be very, very careful to  avoid moving from the idea that learning styles might be culturally shaped to adopting stereotypes and recipes for “managing” certain groups of children. (The notion that black children need more “structure” antl discipline is an example of this trap.). But this research can restrain us from judging children to be morally or intellec­ tually deficient when they don’t act as we expect them to. It can encourage us to keep searching for ways to reach our stu­ dents across the static of cultural inter­ ference. It can remind us to pay alert attention to the messages children seem to be sending.

William Labov, whose work has chal­ lenged the myth that black dialect is lin­guistically inferior to the dialect known as Standard English, found that the language proficiency of the young black children he studied appeared very different depending on the context. While the children might have been judged to be linguistically lim­ ited or “deprived” on the basis of their re­ sponses to a formal interview, they demonstrated great fluency and linguistic sophistication in less formal situations. Hall and Cole recognized similar results in their studies comparing the language of black 3 1/2 year-olds in a classroom and a supermarket.

Whether because the children were less at ease in the formal settings or because: they had a different sense of the expectations there, they did not reveal how sophisticated their command of language ac­tually was. A teacher or interviewer who saw them only in the formal situations might seriously misinterpret the children’s abilities.

A study by Ray C. Rist showed just how much damage misjudgments about children’s academic abilities can do. The kindergarten teachers he observed based their expectation of students’ potential on the socio-economic status of the children and arranged them in corresponding “ability groups.” (Teachers and children were of the same race.) From that time on, children in the lower groups received less positive attention, more control-oriented attention, less instruction, and fewer affirmations of their potential. Three years later, the children who had been placed in the higher kindergarten groups were doing well in their second grade classrooms, and their children who had been placed in the lower groups in the early days of kindergarten were on the road to failure. Rather than allowing teachers to give “extra help” to the lower groups, such grouping seemed to guarantee that poorer children had less of a chance.

The Rist study is not an isolated one, as Jeannie Oakes shows in her book, Keep­ing Track. Nor can any of us afford to be smug in the assurance that we are incapable of bias. Culture (including socio­ economic as well as ethnic influences) shapes, the way we see the world in the most subtle detail.

Toward Culturally Appropriate Curriculum? Three Examples

These studies arc particularly important because they suggest a way we can begin to understand the relative lack of success of some ethnic groups in school without resorting either to charges of overt racism or the view some groups are somehow de­ ficient. They also imply that we may be able to modify classroom interactions to minimize cultural interference and perhaps even build on the particular strengths dif­ferent groups of children bring to the classroom.

The Kamehameha Project

Like Heath, some researchers are using ethnography to ,find “culturally appropri­ ate” educational approaches. When Hawai­ ian children in the Kamepameha Early Ed­ucation ‘Project were introduced to a new approach to reading which stressed com­ prehension and discussion of main ideas (instead of decoding skills), their perfor­mance on nationally normed standardized tests jumped from the 27th to the 67th percentile. Researchers sought to under­ stand why. They concluded that the new approach succeeded because it incorporated elements of Hawaiian “talk story” familiar to the children. (Talk story is a folk narra­tive style involving an elaborate system of turn-taking and co-narration by children with a receptive adult.) Now teachers in the project consciou ly attempt to build ‘ on this familiar cultural pattern.

When ethnographers have tried to de­ velop educational strategies based on their research they have implicitly adopted a Deweyan model, one which connects aca­demic skills with children’s experience. In Au’s micro-ethnographic study of a read­ing lesson led by a Hawaiian teacher, the teacher began the lesson by eliciting stu­ dents’ experiences about themes in the reading and, after they had read the story and reviewed key events, she helped them, draw relationships between their experiences and what they had read.

A Latino Community Project

In two Hispanic interventions, Diaz, Moll, and Mehan drew connections using, children’s language and information gleaned from the community. A writing project, for example, involved 27 low­ scoring Spanish dominant high school students and their English-monolingual teachers. The research team first studied how adults in this specific Latino community used reading and writing in their daily lives, what parents wanted for their children, and what issues were of particular interest to the community. They gener­ated writing assignments accordingly, em­phasizing expository writing (because parents were apxious for their children to have this skill), process writing methods, and assignments about high profile com­munity concerns.

Students as Ethnographers

Some of the teachers in Heath’s study engaged students as enthographers in their (students’) own communities. One low-track fifth grade science class composed largely of black males reading at the sec­ond grade level or below approached a unit on plants by investigating methods of farming in their community. The stu­dents’ job was to analyze “whether or not science could explain why the local folk methods either worked or did not work.” The students became eagerly involved in the unit and more than mastered the material in the text, which they used only as a resource. “All the students passed the text’s unit test — half with scores over 90% — even though their cumulative records showed none of the children had ever before passed a science unit test.) More importantly, they learned to exercise sophisticated research and analytic skills with confidence and considerable independence. Another teacher in the Heath study turned her students into linguistic ethnographers who researched the use of language in their homes and communities.

These student/ethnographers were not collecting cultural artifacts from an ethnic heritage perspective. Instead the goal was to forge linkages between how students learned information in their daily lives and ways of knowing and learning inherent in different school disciplines. Children not only started from what they already knew, they learned to translate what they knew into the language of the classroom, what Heath calls the “scientific or school-ac­cepted labels, concepts and generalizations. Further, as mini-ethnographers they learned how to learn using methods far more advanced than. children of their age usually do, and they acquired an unusual consciousness of their own learning pro­cesses.

Joining Dewey and the Ehnographers: A Vision of Interactive Teaching

These examples — the Heath study, the Latino project, and the Kamehameha Pro­ject — imply a Deweyan model of teaching that talces into account and builds upon cultural differences. Heath notes that teachers did not.see themselves as teaching a different core, content, or even abandon­ ing many familiar classroom methods. The distinction here is the same one that was key to Dewey: Heath says teachers “did see themselves as engaging students in an interactive process in which students learned to share in the goals and methods of the classroom” (p. 340, Heath’s em­phasis). They built bridges linking the child’s experience and ways of understand­ ing with the forms and content of academic knowledge.

One could argue that the pedagogical approaches these ethnographers have gen­erated succeeded not because they were somehow culturally specific but because they represented good pedagogy generally. All of the interventions drew on insights from the new “whole language” or “process” approach to literacy instruction. Heath observed that some of the ideas her teachers tried were intuitive and some were based on considerable social scientific re­ search and theory. Some were probably simply good pedagogy, while others truly tapped cultural differences.

Undoubtedly each of these projects suc­ ceeded because it blended an enriched understanding of these children and their experience with general pedagogical good sense-whether informed by research, the­ory or intuition. Significantly, the strate­ gies these researcher-educators employed stand in sharp contrast to the “basics education” to which working class and ethnic minority children are more commonly subjected. It may well be that the simple assumption that students are not culturally deficient or lacking in intelligence is the real key to many “culturally appropriate” pedagogical strategies. This assumptio.n impedes the teacher from concluding that a student who doesn’t learn is deficient, almost forcing us to search until we can find a way of reaching the child.

The Vision and Our Practice

A compelling educational vision emerges from a reexamination of Dewey’s philosophy and the body of ethnographic studies exploring the fit between school culture and the culture of dispossessed groups. Both Dewey’s model and the ethnographic-based interventions combine high goals with bridges to student experi­ ence. Both see education as a complex in­ teraction by which student and teacher must arriye at shared meanings if school­ ing it to be successful in empowering the student. The ethnographic studies add an extra admonition to the teacher: we may have to search especially hard to discover the connections between the child’s point of view and school learning when the child comes from a background different from our own.

The model offers us an ideal toward which to strive. It is an ideal in which teachers and students patiently learn to understand the rules of one another’s behavior: how and when we talk, what we mean, what we expect in an interaction. In this ideal classroom, children practice skills and develop understandings that will enable them to act more powerfully in the world. This classroom is a place where learning is not only more sophisticated, rigorous, and meaningful, but more engaging and active. It is set in a milieu where professionalism receives both moral and material support, and where the goals of education are never reduced to tiny tid­ bits of skills. Will we ever arrive at such an ideal? Probably not, but the success is in the striving.


Au, K.H. (1980). Participation Structures in a Reading with Hawaiian Children: Analysis of a Culturally Appropriate Instructional Event. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 11 (2), 91-115.

Cremin, L. (1964). The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education 1876-1957. New York: Vintage Books.

Dewey, J. (1902/1971). The Child and the Curriculum. In The Child and the Curriculum and The School and Society (Combined edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, J. (1844/1953). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.

Dewey, ]. (1938/1963). Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books.

Diaz, S., Moll, L.C., and Mehan, H. (1986) Socio-cultual Resources in Instruction: A Context Specific Approach. In Beyond Language: Social and Cultural Factors in Schooling Language Minority Students. Los Angeles: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Ci;nter, California State University.

Erickson, F. & Mohatt, G. (1982) Cultural Organization· of Participation Structures in Two Classrooms of Indian Students. In G. Spindler (Ed.), Doing the Ethnography of Schooling. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Hall, W.S. & Cole, M. (1978)). On Participant’s Shaping of Discourse Through Their Understanding of the Task. In Nelam, K. E. (Ed.), Children’s Lan­ guage. New York: Gardner Press.

Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with Words: Language,’ Life and Work in Communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Labov, W. (1970). The Logic of Non-standard English. In F. Williams, ed.,Language ·and Poverty. Chicago: Markham.

Lazerson, M. (1984). If All the World Were Chicago. History of ,Education Quarterly, 24(2), 165-179.

Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Philips, S. U. (1972). Participant Structures and Communicative Com tence: Warm Springs Indian Community in School and Classroom. In C.B. Cal?en, V.P. John, and D. Hymes (Eds.), Func­ tions of Language in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.·

Rist, R.C. (1970). Student Socia1 Class an,d Teacher Expectations: The Self Fulfilling Prophecy iri Ghetto Education. Harvard Educational Review, 40(3), 411-451.

Cynthia Ellwood teaches English and bilingual social studies at South Division High School in Milwaukee.