Educating the Masses: Education, Culture, and the World

February 14, 2011

This post is just the beginning of a multi-part series that will examine education on three continents (North America, Africa, and Asia) to determine the role culture plays in the success of specific educational models – and to see what, if anything, can be done to adapt models successful in one culture to a completely different cultural system.


I’ve been a professional educator for 7 years, on top of another 7 doing more generalized youth work.  (*1)  I’ve taught on three continents (North America – U.S., Africa – Tanzania, and Asia- China) and delivered and developed curriculum for every age-group from pre-school through high school (with trainings for other teachers and adults, as well).  So let’s just say I have some pretty broad knowledge of  world education systems (and cultures) – not to mention an understanding of how general human teaching and learning works, as well.

But recently, I’ve found myself getting more and more involved in the politics of education.  If you’ve read my blog, you know that that entails how systems of oppression overlap with the education system, but I’ve also begun to get  involved in general education reform,  (*2)  and I can’t help but notice some screaming ironies:

In the U.S., everybody is concerned with “catching up to China” and replicating aspects of the Chinese education system in order to do so.  (*3)   This includes increased focus on the math and sciences while cutting “peripheral” arts and physical education programs, as well as more emphasis on standardized testing, more class hours, and stricter, more intense study.

But in China?  Yup – you guessed it – parents and teachers (and the government) are concerned with trying to integrate  U.S. models of education into their system.  This includes more emphasis on creative thinking, the arts, and general problem-solving.  It also examines decreased specialization and creating more time for “kids to be kids.”

And in Tanzania, where the school system is a devastating  failure – they are concerned with copying anybody else (*4) with pretty much zero integration of their own ideas and culture.

The end conclusion seems simple – the “grass is always greener” and there may be no such thing as a “perfect” education system.  But the reasons behind that go much deeper than most education reformists or “experts” tend to go – and that failure is linked to a lack of true understanding or thorough examination of the cultures in which these education systems have grown.

Because education, quite simply, is a cultural system.  Its success, failure, or otherwise is completely dependent upon the culture of its teachers and students.

Over my next few posts, I’m going to examine this concept in more detail – starting with how education and culture mix on a micro level (in this post), and then explaining how that applies to the current Chinese, U.S., and Tanzanian systems (and how that keeps them from being able to successfully replicate each other’s educational successes).

So let’s get started.

Part I: The “Small Schools” Model and Cultural Ignorance

So what do I really mean when I say that “education is a cultural system”?

To clarify, let’s take a common U.S. example: the “small schools” model of education.

There are all sorts of model schools and anecdotal evidence out there that suggest that “small schools” (schools with a small student body, smaller class sizes, etc.) tend to bring out better academic results in their students.  As a result, in the last decade, there has been a big movement in various school districts (and at a national scale, as well) to push for adjusting schools to be based more on a “small schools” model.  This has been implemented in many places, and the results are coming in . . .

And . . .  nothing really seems to be any better.  Some of the schools are doing well, some haven’t changed, and some are doing much worse.  Just like the general story behind all the other “large schools.”

With the “large schools,” of course, that makes sense – because many of them are patterned after unsuccessful models.   But these “small schools” are all patterned off of the same “small schools” model – many directly patterned off of specific successful schools.  So what’s going on!?

Well, in this focus on a single variable – “small” vs. “large” schools – educators are completely ignoring the key to the million other variables involved in any student’s academic success.  And that’s culture.

Schools are cultural systems.  What I mean by that is that they bring a group of people together – some with more or less authority – and have them interact at a social level within boundaries set by explicit and implicit “rules”  of behavior.  Thus, the people that are part of this group – not limited to those in authority – dictate and create a culture specific to that one, single school.

Of course, that specific cultural system is highly influenced by the larger cultural backgrounds of those participants (which brings in class, geography, ethnicity, race, and all the rest).  Therefore, no matter how focused or determined authorities are on creating a specific cultural dynamic within their school, they will soon see that culture shift due to the pressures put on it by the backgrounds of the staff and students.

If intensive work isn’t done to take the effects of outside cultures on schools into account, a school designed to be exactly like another, successful school will quickly change into one with a very different dynamic.  And that, of course, goes on to affect the subsequent success (or failure) of the students and staff involved.

So the problem with the “small schools” model is that it tends to skip right over the power of culture on education. (*5)  Yes, on a theoretical level, it makes sense that “small schools” should be better for students, but without adjusting for culture, that doesn’t do anything.  I can’t just take a successful school model from New York and apply it to my school in Portland and expect the same results.  (*6)  The cultural pressures involved are just too different.  Hell – I can’t even take a successful school from SE Portland and think I can apply it as-is to a school in NE Portland, because even such small geographical differences can make a huge impact (as well as the cultural backgrounds of my staff, etc.).

Taking that concept to a worldwide level?  Aiyaaaaa.

So when national governments are fighting over educational reform concepts and demanding their schools to be more like those of a totally different country, the challenges to successful adaptation increase a hundred-fold.  Therefore, for the U.S. to have standardized test results and a school system more similar to China’s, we actually have to shift our entire culture to be more like China’s, and vice versa.

Can that even be done?  Possibly.  But it can’t even be considered until we spend more time delving into how these two very different education systems came into being to begin with.  And we can’t do that until we better understand the cultural histories within which these systems developed.

Luckily, this particular Chinese-American educator has a little bit of insight on that, and I’ll gladly share that with you in my next post.

Upcoming: “China vs. the U.S.: the Long, Winding – and very different – Roads of EduCultural Development”

(*1)  One of those years was spent in a public school in Tanzania (East Africa), 4 in the U.S. (public and alternative) school system, and coming up on two here in China (a combination of public school, supplementary-public school, and even subbing in an international school). My main focus is math, but I’ve taught biology, physics, creative writing, psychology, public speaking, music and general audio production, P.E., and English (for English-Language-Learners and otherwise), among many others.  And I’ve taught sciences and math – as well as English –  in public schools outside of the U.S.

(*2) I’m currently associated with organizations in the U.S. that are looking into developing new school models, and the work I’m doing here in Shanghai involves direct interaction with various official Chinese educational entities around new models for Chinese education.  My work in Tanzania also involved collaboration with governmental education entities.

(*3)  And please don’t bring up the “Tiger Mom” here.

(*4)  Simply duplicating the UK system – going so far as to teach and test in English, as opposed to the official language – Swahili.  And you guessed it – very few people are even competent English speakers (including the teachers), so you can imagine the kind of disaster that entails.

(*5) As well as the million variables that shape individuals’ academic success that are tied into culture.

(*6)  Which is why I highly admire the Harlem Children’s Zone model, for instance, but am a bit skeptical about its scalability.


One comment

  1. Wow…So THIS is what you’ve been up to…I have a lot of catch-up reading to do:) My eyes are burning from staring/reading intently at the screen for the last two and a half hours. I’m so impressed, not to mentioned very interested in your writing as I’m (still) in the same line of work. I have a few questions, though: Are the links to articles on the right side of the page working? Also, what does CVT mean?? Well, it’s a school night so time to take a break – looking forward to reading more! Glad you’re doing well.

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