Friday, September 11, 2015

Cultural Studies: Embrace Thinking and Move Beyond a Collection of Information

Let me start by saying this...learning about culture does not mean handing students resources and having them collect information for a report. This is simply research. To understand culture, students must engage in thinking like social scientists. For this reason, I am hopeful that teachers will start to problem solve and grapple with the question, "What does it look like for a student to reveal that they are developing a deep understanding of CULTURE?"

In many grade levels, students examine the culture of people. Sometimes students look at cultures of the past/present or the culture of a region/nation. We use the word "culture" in broad ways because culture is a HUUUUUUGE concept. As adults, we typically understand the nuances of culture. Still, we (adults and teachers) are challenged as we search for ways to support students in understanding the complexity of culture. Before I begin to discuss how students might learn about culture, I want to explore how adults automatically think about the nuances of culture. Here are some examples:

  • Belief Systems: I might find myself listening to stories on NPR about religion throughout the world. If I listen to stories that take place in foreign countries, I often compare how religious beliefs elsewhere compare to the religious beliefs and practices within my own country. I'm making generalizations about one nation and comparing them to generalizations about my own nation. At the same time, I might listen to religious news stories that are from the United States. When I listen to these stories, I often compare these beliefs to my own beliefs. I recognize that culture includes BELIEF SYSTEMS. When I take the time to compare/contrast the religious beliefs of different places and people, I begin to understand the great diversity of beliefs in our world (both now and in the past). In doing so, I also begin to understand a bit more about myself and the cultures to which I belong.
  • Daily Life: I might find myself reading about people living in a different time and place. As I do this, I compare their daily life with daily life in my own country. I also compare their daily life with the life that I live. By comparing/contrasting my daily life with others, I begin to understand others throughout history living in different places. I also further my own thinking and understanding of myself and the cultures to which I belong. 
  • Forms of Artistic Expression: In my study of Mexico, I access information about artistic expression. As I read about and view the art of Mexico, I start to compare this to the art of my country. I also compare it to the art that I feel connects with who I am as an individual. By comparing/contrasting the art of Mexico with the art of my country, I begin to learn more about the different ways that cultures express themselves. I also begin to understand myself and the cultures to which I belong.

As adults, we are able to look at the unique facets of culture. When we read, listen to news stories, or watch a program about people from other times and place, we automatically begin to compare and contrast our own culture to the cultures of others. We also immediately start to explain why we think these differences exist. Sometimes we think to ourselves, and sometimes we have conversation with others to explore this type of thinking, This becomes a natural process for adults due to the exposure we have to people and stories from around the world. 

We must ask ourselves, "What does it look like for a student to reveal that they are developing a deep understanding of CULTURE?" Might I suggest a type of learning process that moves beyond the collection of numerous facts and embraces a shift towards critical thinking about the concept of culture.

Step 1: Acquire and Classify Information - Students access multiple sources and classroom lessons that are based on aspects of culture. As students engage with information, we must ask them to classify information. Does the information help us to understand a facet of Daily Life? Does the information help us to understand technology that was produced by people to make life easier? Does the information help us to understand belief systems? Through classifying information, we provide a scaffold for students to "dissect" culture and develop an awareness of the many facets of culture. 

Step 2: Compare and Contrast Cultures - To make sense of information, we must ask students to compare the details of one culture with another culture. For example, every culture develops forms of government. Comparing two cultures and their beliefs deepens understanding. When comparing cultures, students can look at cultures of the same era, of different eras, and of different places. Compare the governmental beliefs in one culture to the governmental beliefs in another culture. Compare the jobs and economic activities of one culture with the jobs and economic activities of another culture. Compare the forms of technology in one culture with the forms of technology in another culture. Comparing the facets of culture leads provides a more focused task for students.

Step 3: Ask, "Why is that so?" - When we compare and contrast cultures, we might ask, "Why do these similarities exist between these cultures? Why do these differences exist between these cultures?" This allows students to make inferences that lead towards deeper thinking about cultures. Cultures are different for a reason, and we ought to invite thinking that asks students to consider these potential reasons for similarities and differences.

Step 4: Ask students to compare other cultures to their own culture (national culture, family culture, individual culture) - In the end, we want students to understand themselves and their world. The more students make comparisons, the deeper they will understand the big concept of culture. 

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