Education Reform: An On-the-Street View of Cultural Models at Work

Have you ever given a talk and been left with the sinking feeling that the message people were left with and the one you had intended to provide were dramatically different? Well, you are not alone!

One way that anthropologists explain this phenomenon is with the theory of cultural models. While this theory is complex, some of its basic tenants are summarized in the following quote from one its founding scholars, Naomi Quinn:

Culture in this sense of understanding encompasses the largely tacit, taken-for-granted, and hence invisible assumptions that people share with others of their group and carry around inside them, and draw upon in forming expectations, reasoning, telling stories, and performing a plethora of other ordinary everyday cognitive tasks. (From Finding Culture in Talk: A Collection of Methods, 2005)

As a group of FrameWorkers and I recently waded through the summer heat wave on the streets of Baltimore doing interviews for our project on Digital Media and Learning, we were reminded just how powerful—and predictable—cultural models are in shaping people’s views and opinions. Over the past 4 years in studying how the public understands education, I have been continually reminded of the power of culture. It amazes me how commonly held this set of implicit assumptions are that generate a predictable, patterned and narrow set of opinions, views, and perspectives on education.

Our research has demonstrated clearly that when Americans think and talk about education, they employ a highly shared set of assumptions about how the education system works.

These assumptions include:

1- a good teacher is, to the exclusion of all else, an innately caring individual;

2- education involves a narrow cast of characters—teachers, students and parents;

3- educational outcomes are the result of and can always be explained in reference to levels of student (and teacher) motivation and drive;

4- and going “back to the basics” is the answer to all of education’s problems.

The fact that the application of these models lead to perspectives that are dissonant at best, and, at worst, antithetical to progressive education reform, is a central concern to us at FrameWorks. This is a challenge that we will continue to address in our work on reframing the public debate on education reform and the role of digital media and learning.

This is all to say that the next time someone comes up to you after a presentation and says “I thought your point about X was so powerful” when you thought your point was about Y, don’t be so hard on yourself—blame culture! And if you’re talking about education and want to avoid some of these lost in translation issues, check out our issue and toolkit pages on education reform and digital media and learning.



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