Culture Happens to Anthropologists Too – A Reflection on Public Attitudes Towards Education


Caring Teachers Are All We Need, Right?

“A teacher has to be caring…that’s really about it.”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve asked someone how to improve education and gotten an answer like this, I’d be…well, you know the script.

As an anthropologist who three years ago turned the ethnographic eye from wildly exotic cultures (think the Swahili Coast of East Africa) to my own, I have been continually amazed and chronically sobered by the cognitive power of culture to shape my understanding and that of those around me.

Which leads me to some surefire advice on how to make a quick buck. One of the safest bets out there right now–although FrameWorks certainly does not condone gambling–is that the word “caring” will appear in the first 20 words of someone’s response to a question about how to improve education. Trust me, if you find someone willing to engage in this social experiment wager, go for it…easy money.

My conviction in recommending these odds is based on my faith in the power of culture—as a shared system of powerfully implicit (and explicit) meanings, that shape how individuals approach, understand and make meaning of issues and information.

FrameWorks’ research on education has revealed a host of incredibly powerful cultural models related to education. For example, a good teacher is a caring teacher and teachers are the education system. Over and over again, we have been struck by the depth of these assumptions and their power in conscribing the ways that Americans reason about quality teaching and the role of teachers in education. Of all the cultural models we have documented across all of the issues on which we do research, these have emerged as some of the most obstinate and predictable.

Furthermore, we have found that together these two cultural models create a tight and powerful, if incredibly unproductive, logic about improving education. If a good teacher is a caring one, and teachers are the education system, then, of course (duh!), all we need to do in order to fix education is to make existing teachers care more or find new ones who will.

From a public policy perspective, this tight little nugget of logic is highly unproductive. It hyper-focuses remedial attention on one narrow solution to a problem that, in reality, has many. In so doing, it occludes attention to the myriad of systems-level ways of improving educational outcomes for all Americans. What is clear to all of us working at FrameWorks is how pernicious and unproductive this cultural “double-whammy” is for education reformers.

So, here is where I go back and explain the title of this post. Despite the fact that for the last three years I have been intensely studying the cultural models that Americans rely on to understand education and teaching, I found myself a purveyor of these very models the other day.

I’m the father of a two and half year old who has just started preschool at a school that I am quite impressed with. They were recently featured on an NPR story about early childhood development – a field that we are also helping to bring to public attention to at FrameWorks. The other day I found myself talking to a friend about my daughter’s school.

My friend asked me something in the way of, “Why is this school so great?,” in a way that clearly showed annoyance by my enthusiasm manifest in my earlier NPR brag). My immediate response was, “The teachers just really seem to care so much for the kids.”

I immediately froze as I realized that the anthropologist was in fact a living breathing member of the very culture he was studying. I, too, am subject to the same implicit structures for thinking and talking about education as my research subjects. I took the very same orientation to the subject of teaching effectiveness that I had (probably earlier that very same day) excoriated as being so “unproductive” to policy and educational change. “Guilty” I thought.

And this, to me, is the powerful evidence of the truly implicit and utterly deep level at which culture informs our perspectives, patterns of talk and ways of thinking. Despite my acute awareness, and critical stance on American notions of teacher quality, I wield and am subject to these very understandings because of their nature as truly implicit cognitive structures. That’s culture at a cognitive level for ya.

This perniciousness, instead of being cause for defeatism among communicators, is actually cause for optimism as it suggests that tools that reframe issues at the level of cultural models can harness this implicit power and have wide effects through the cultural groups that employ shared culture in mind.




One thought on “Culture Happens to Anthropologists Too – A Reflection on Public Attitudes Towards Education

  1. Nat,

    I so appreciated the story about your daughter’s pre-school and how you “bought into” the very model that you’ve been studying—and working to reframe–these past few years. When I read your post, I had just come from a meet-and-greet in my own daughter’s middle school classroom, and that experience sparked some reflection on my part about “the caring teacher” cultural model.

    When people ask me how school is going this year for my daughter, I invariably tell them that she has a wonderful teacher, meaning that my daughter likes her very much—and that she is very responsive and “caring.”

    In fact, it is extremely important for a teacher to care about his/her students because the classroom is a relational environment—and learning, as we know well from FrameWorks’ research on early child development, involves a complex braiding of the cognitive, social, emotional and physical domains of development.

    The real problem, in my opinion, is that “caring teacher” obscures not only that every teacher is part of a larger system, as you mention, but that an effective teacher possesses a multitude of skills and competencies that are developed over time and with practice. For example, this morning at the middle school, I saw evidence of subject matter expertise in how the teacher had designed the English Language Arts and Social Studies sections of the classroom (the cognitive domain, if you will). I saw a variety of behavioral strategies as well—for example, the children had been asked to sign a contract of sorts indicating their commitment to several community values, such as respect, and effort (the social-emotional domain). Attention to executive function was also very much in evidence, as the teacher had established a very particular way for her students to organize their work. Effective teachers juggle these multiple domains and make the work seem like second nature when, in fact, the training and practice and collaboration required for effective teaching takes years—and many hours of professional development and mentoring. Therein lies the misunderstanding of the teaching profession, which is, of course, reinforced by popular culture. Whether it’s the Hollywood film featuring the “star” teacher who seems anointed with a special gene, or the news reports of union teachers whose problem is that they don’t “care,” the real story about how an effective teacher is made, not born, often remains invisible.

    So the real task, it seems, is for education reformers to tell this invisible, more contextual and thematic, story of teaching. Who supports the teacher behind the scenes? Where do the resources come from? How does teacher learning affect student learning? For an example, take a look at the following blog post titled, “Supporting Great Teachers,” by Linda Nathan, veteran teacher and the Founding Headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy:

    By the way, I hope your daughter always has “caring” teachers in her life! Effective ones, too!


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