Tag Archives: culture

Enculturation and Acculturation

I’ve been writing my M.A. thesis over the past couple months, and have been thinking a lot about the role of culture in how students learn, how teachers teach, and how we prepare students for the world.

Aikenhead distinguishes between Assimilation, Enculturation, and Autonomous Acculturation. These three approaches toward education, with a focus on cultures, need to be distinguished and understood.

Assimilation is forcing a new a culture onto a student whose worldview diverges from that of the culture. This is what was being done at Canada’s residential schools.

Enculturation is an attempt to bring students into a new divergent culture. This is what universities do for science students.

Autonomous Acculturation is finding ways for students to adopt a new culture under their own power. This would be like lending a student a popular science book.

Softer approaches are labeled “anthropological”, and are akin to taking a trip to the zoo. The teacher might say, “this is how scientists work”, and the students learn about scientific culture, rather than being turned into scientists.

The chess videos of Ben Finegold are a great example of enculturation. GM Finegold identifies heroes (Morphy, Carlsen), trades in quips (“never play G3”, “put it in H”), establishes values for the community (high ELO ratings, clever play), and relates the mythology of the field. The people who attend the lectures, or watch online, are submitting themselves to the enculturation provided by GM Finegold, and thus adopting the culture of chess as their own. There is little doubt that the children who attend his class (like the ubiquitous Arjen) see themselves as chess players, idolize chess grandmasters, and trade in the culture of chess.

What I am seeking to understand is how society should bring children into the culture of science. In the former Soviet Union, children went to schools that placed great emphasis on maths and the sciences: students who did well won prizes, and could be assured of successful careers within the Soviet technocratic apparatus. This is enculturation, as part of mainstream education, starting from young ages.

In the West, students who develop a love of science generally do it outside of their classes — through extracurricular activities, through popular science books and websites, or because of teachers who inspired them to continue thinking about science outside of school. This view helps to explain some of the continued disproportional representation of students from poor school districts, in spite of efforts to ensure high-quality classes for these students. These students, because of their socio-economic situations, and because of a lack of extracurricular programmes through which they can autonomously acculturate themselves to science, are less likely to adopt the culture of science as their own before the critical point of applying to university.

My question, then, is what role schools should play in connecting students with the culture(s) of science (and other cultures, like the humanities, arts, and trades). I think schools should teach using an anthropological approach, and provide plentiful opportunities for students to autonomously acculturate themselves during the course of their education. It is too much to ask that students jump wholeheartedly into a new culture every 45 minutes, but visiting new exhibits in a cultural zoo, followed by some time for students to deeply acculturate themselves via projects, and under the supervision of a cultural transmitter like Ben Finegold — now, that would be great.

Classroom Culture

The thing I worry about most is the nature of my students’ interactions with me, with my subject, and with our shared environment. Lately, I’ve come to think of all these things as (my part of) the culture they encounter in, and around, school.

I want to be clear, in my use of the term “culture”, that I am not referring to climate of the school. The attitudes, behaviours, and discourse of the people in the school are like the motion of iron filings, and the pattern they form locally is the climate. Culture is the magnetic field.

Culture is, as Geertz puts it, “an ordered system of meaning and symbols, in terms of which social interaction takes place” (p 144). The meaning includes things like our values and our core beliefs, the symbols include the things we put on our walls and the vocabulary we adopt; the social interaction is education.

Creating a positive culture in a school or classroom has become a popular discussion-point for the education advice sector (example, example). Teachers should collaborate, listen, enact classroom rules that promote respect and sharing, and directly instruct children about community values. That’s a good start, and it is probably enough for the beginning teacher. But for those of us who really, genuinely care about our students, we are often compelled to do more.

Jose Vilson, in typically concise honesty, described what he learned teaching a difficult class during his first year in the classroom: “When I took off my mask and invested myself in a group of kids, the homeroom became a home. For all of us” (p 87). For him, the next step to creating a positive classroom culture was appreciating the students as individuals, with hopes and needs and fears. How else can we reach out to students, and establish the sort of culture the beginning teachers cannot?

Love Your Students

Love your students. Take them for who they are, flaws and all, and love them anyway. Love them when they are causing trouble, and you will see their misbehaviour as symptomatic of some deeper need. Love them when they do poorly on assessments, and they will learn that some things are more important than test scores. Love them for their humanity when fellow teachers blame them for their failures. Don’t be afraid to tell them so, at the right time.

I once had a troublesome high school math class that missed the deadline for an important project. They assumed I would treat them as their other teachers did: admonishment, an extended deadline, and complaints home. I told them that my love for them wasn’t contingent on their work.. They should finish it at their own pace, but that it was necessary for the course. That changed the dynamic of our classroom: mutual trust and affection meant that we could navigate problems, rather than butting heads against them.

Accept Friend and Follow Requests

We all know that our social media need to be sanitized. So what’s the problem with connecting with our students online? I tried to answer that question last year.

On Facebook, I can wish happy birthday and celebrate achievements outside of school. I can keep an eye out for dangers, too, and help students learn about privacy and the internet.

Develop Respect Beyond “Mister”

My students have called me a lot of things, but they rarely call me my name. Even after years of developing and displaying their deep respect for me as their teacher, my students use an awkward and unnecessary formality: “Mr Doucette”. I would rather that my students show their respect for me and my classes through their actions, and by accepting me as a human being — which is something quite difficult when you’re not even allowed to use my name.

Dress Appropriately

Several years ago, I developed a teacher costume. At the time, as a young male teacher, I needed to send the appropriate cue to female students whose crushes distracted them from their work. I typically wear a white or blue shirt with a bow tie, a v-neck sweater or cardigan, a tweed jacket, corduroy trousers, and brown dress shoes. It is almost comically professorial, and it makes me a well-known character in my school.

Recently, however, I’ve found that my style of dress makes it difficult for students to conceptualize me as a human beyond the teacher character they’ve framed in their minds. I wonder how I could dress in such a way as to promote positive classroom culture? I’ve got a great hoodie that says “Niceness is Priceless”, and I’ve worn it a few times.

Eliminate Implicit Bias and Stereotype Threat

Implicit bias is probably affecting how most teachers act in the classroom. During the past two years, I’ve kept a careful eye out, and caught myself a few times: calling more frequently on boys than girls, presuming girls are more interested in the social sciences and boys in the physical sciences, and “mansplaining” to my peers more than once. I think I’m getting better at treating everyone as an individual worthy of their own types, rather than relying on stereotypes.

Stereotype threat, on the other hand, is something I cannot eliminate, because it is brought into the class by my students. I can try to ensure that all students know their particulars are not relevant to academic success in my class. For some students, who struggle, I have had mini-interventions that seemed to be successful.

Surround Ourselves with Cultural Artifacts

The walls of my classroom are covered in student work and colourful, engaging, and useful posters. I’m happy with that. But these cultural artifacts are of my designs. Even the student work was created according to tasks and rubrics I designed. If the classroom is truly to become a shared cultural space, then I think the walls need to reflect our shared culture, even if that means posters of Rey and Biebs.

Social Justice in Physics

Moses Rifkin does a superb 6-day unit on social justice in his physics class. Here, by arguing against it, a Fox News correspondent makes it clear why social justice is needed:

I wanted to do something similar to Moses, but I had two constraints:

  1. Since I teach IB physics, and already don’t get enough contact hours, I couldn’t devote more than a class period to it.
  2. Since I teach at an international school in Northern Europe, the social justice issues experienced by my students and in our culture will not necessarily be racial in nature.

Thus, I tried to lift out my favourite parts from Moses’ curriculum, and recontextualize everything to be more universal in nature. Our discussions ended up primarily focusing on sexism, with class, religion and disabilities as other sources of examples and discussion.

We started with some ground rules, directly pilfered from Moses:


Second, I introduced the idea of stereotype threat. Two students had studied this in a psychology class, but had difficult explaining it. I gave an example (as a North American in Europe, I fear being seen as monolingual, and am disinclined to practice languages as I struggle to learn, thus learning less well). The students brainstormed examples in pairs, then shared out. This took about 15 minutes.

Third, I had students randomly select from a list of social groups. They used their computers to quickly find and research two physicists from that social group. In a circle, they shared who they found and I probed with questions like “how did you find this person?”, “how did you choose this physicist?”, “had you heard of this person before today?” and “was it hard to find physicists in this social group?” Our list of social groups (the last two were suggested by students during our discussions):

women, men, heterosexual, homosexual, black, white, young, old, disabled, able-bodied, Christian/Muslim/Jewish, Eastern religion, European/American, not European/American, upper class, lower class

This led fairly naturally to a discussion of why some of these social groups are under-represented among physicists. I asked the students to make hypotheses to explain the under-representation, and then to offer counter-examples for the hypotheses, if they could think of any. Our hypotheses were that the distribution of physicists:

  • represents the population
  • is determined by the geographical location of universities and research institutions
  • is determined by the populations access to education
  • is determined by social expectations
  • is determined by history/politics

These were all seen to be unsuccessful as a complete explanation. Next, we switched directions, and looked at the barriers for people of under-represented social groups. Some good arguments were presented here, including the effect of expensive tuition at university, the impact of stereotypes, and the role of religion. I was able to cap-off these arguments by labeling these effects as the essence of institutional sexism, racism, classism, ablism, agism, homophobia, etc.

We finished with the Implicit Association Test about gender and science. I told the students that they need not share their scores, but many were keen to talk about it, so I know that we got a variety of results that approximately conform to what one would expect from a mixed group.

Before we left, I tried to introduce the idea of privilege, and especially of white privilege, but I think this fell flat, like everything does when you’ve got two minutes until lunchtime.

Rule of Names

In “The Rule of Names”, Ursula Le Guin introduces us to a world in which people’s names have magical power over them. The idea reappears in Harry Potter, where Voldemort enchants his very name. And as teachers, we know that names necessarily precede trust, discipline, and learning.

Generally, we choose what our students call us. In some schools, teachers and students use first names only; in others, it is strictly a last-name basis. Honorifics (Ms, Mr, Mrs, etc) indicate — and perhaps teach — respect for one’s elders or superiors. Nicknames or first names promote closeness, friendliness, or treating students “as equals”. We may use different names with different grades, or in different contexts. But clearly, names are pedagogically meaningful.

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The names in use at my school, I suspect, reflect gender, cultural, and positional hierarchies. The following data reflects the most common form of address used by students at my school, when they interact directly with their own teachers (all data has been corroborated by others). The graphs in this post show the number of adult employees at my school, without numbers on the axes to protect privacy (sorry maths students!).

Interpretation: Locally hired employees are more than five times more likely to be called by their first name than foreign hires (significant at p = 0.01). Male teachers are 52% more likely to be called by their last names (significant at p = 0.05). And while 76% of teachers are called by their last name, none of the school’s TAs are so addressed (significant at p = 0.01).
Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 10.37.16 PMI am concerned about this for two reasons:

  1. It creates and reinforces unhealthy stereotypes. Names may reflect class or gender divisions, and this may have unintended consequences. For example, a student may conceptually put her TA (Ms Anna) into the same category as the domestic help, while her teacher (Mrs Smith) is considered to be the same class as one’s parents, with various undesirable outcomes. Or students may subtly be conditioned to believe that teaching is a woman’s career, and that men who teach are only undertaking it temporarily, perhaps on their way to bigger things.
  2. It shows that our work environment may embody some unhealthy biases. For example, the foreigners may call their local coworkers by their first names because those are easier to pronounce, without offering the same courtesy in return. Or some might unconsciously suspect that the TAs are less professional or less dedicated to their jobs.

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I don’t have a conclusion or an answer. But if you do, please leave a comment or write an email to let me know!

Quantifying Border Crossing

In a previous post, I wrote about our failure to provide a culturally relevant and responsive education for all students. One component of that failure — the one closest to my heart and practice — is the conflict between “science culture” and students’ own cultures. The theory of border crossing provides a context for understanding the cultural mechanism at work here, and thus suggests a way forward for science teachers.

Border crossing was usefully applied to science education by Costa [paywalled]. Aikenhead gives a very good (albeit long-ish) overview, including contextualizing border crossing as a cultural theory of science. A subsequent paper by Aikenhead summarizes the idea quite well.


Border crossing suggests that students cross a virtual border between their home culture and the culture of school-science when they enter the science classroom. Students can respond to this crossing in several particular ways:

  1. Potential Scientists cross the border easily because their home culture is aligned with school-science culture. For example, they might have learned the Newtonian view of nature implicitly from their parents.
  2. Other Smart Kids can manage the border crossing because they are attuned to school culture even though the science culture is foreign to them. They tend to achieve high grades because they work hard, but are unlikely to grasp new scientific concepts intuitively. They tend to be able to apply science concepts in scientific contexts, but consider them applicable only in particular domains (such as the classroom, or science tests).
  3. Outsiders are students who struggle with the border crossing. They tend to do poorly at school overall because school culture is incompatible with their personal culture.
  4. Outside-Insiders tend to understand science ideas fairly readily, but often have difficulty in science class because of the baggage associated with the school environment. For example, they might have problems in their dealings with authority.
  5. I Don’t Know students have essentially “checked-out” from the learning process, because of the huge gap between their home culture and school culture.
  6. Aikenhead has also identified a group of students he terms the I Want to Know students. These students tend to be interested in science, but may have some difficulty with learning in the science classroom.

I think of I Want to Know as a moderate form of the Outside-Insiders, and the I Don’t Know students as extreme forms of the Outsiders. Thus, I will exclude the former of these from the subsequent analysis for now.

Although I know about these groupings, and can use them to help me target my instruction, it is usually difficult to categorize students, especially when our conversations take place through the medium of the very science culture I’m trying to abstract. To help with this process, I have been working on a paired-test assessment that identifies students’ approaches to border-crossing.

The assessment instrument consists of two tests (I will share these in a future post). The first is a standard-looking multiple-choice test that is administered in the classroom. The second can be taken online with a computer or a smartphone (via the browser), and is visually similar (and written somewhat akin) to the popular BuzzFeed quizzes. The idea is that the first test will represent a student’s cultural leanings in the classroom, and the second test will represent home cultural beliefs.

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The tests are related to the energy concept, which I chose because of its ubiquity as a core idea in science and because of its presence as a concept in non-scientific worldviews.

Each quiz has four answers, which correspond roughly to four different energy concepts:

  • the scientific, mechanistic view of energy
  • energy as a force of life (vis-viva)
  • energy as a property of moving and changing things (flux)
  • energy as a measure of harmony or balance (qi)

By looking at answers to the paired questions, we can identify students as belonging to one of the four border-crossing groups under consideration. The graph below shows the four answers on the horizontal and vertical axes for the first paired question. Circle areas are proportional to the number of students who chose each pair of answers.

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My next step will be to determine whether each student is consistently falling into one of these four groups over all eight questions. There’s more to come, stay tuned and let me know what you think!

Your School is Not Multicultural

Your school is not multicultural. It is not intercultural, either, although I’m not sure there’s much of a difference. Despite the best verbiage we can manage, we’re continuing to colonize non-Western minds and cultures. And no-one seems to care.


I realize these are controversal claims. The purpose of this post is go deep into some aspects of schooling to identify how Western ideals are pre-empting our tame attempts at multiculturalism.


Globally, wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of the Western elite. Using the levers of economics, politics and the media, the powerful seek to maintain the hegemony for their own profit and security. A paradigm of Western dominance is the necessary backdrop to any discussion about intercultural education.

Multiculturalism in education is about respecting individuals, and consequently about using education as a means to establish equality and social justice in our schools and communities.

Thus, our effort to establish a level playing field for all cultures is an act of decolonization. We seek to run our schools without bias against non-Western students. We seek to make our classes about the world, not just the European experience. However, the lofty goal of multicultural education has largely been betrayed, and our schools continue to oppress and colonize students with non-Western cultural heritages.

Gorski concludes that

…the practice of intercultural education, when not committed first and foremost to equity and social justice – to the acknowledgement of these realities and the disruption of domination – might, in the best case, result in heightened cross-group awareness at an individual level. But in many cases, such practice is domination. And in any case, ignoring systemic oppression means complying with it.

If we fail to actively fight against Western domination, we are complicit in its perpetuation.


Let’s start with the United States. In the US, 83.5% of teachers are white (and non-Hispanic) while only 63.7% of the general population is white. Black, Asian, and Hispanic people are half as likely to be teachers as their white peers.

In the UK, 91.5% of teachers are white. In Canada, 94%.

In international schools, the effect is worse: work permit restrictions mean that only those from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or Ireland can be hired by most schools. The result is that international schools are largely staffed by a mix of local teachers and these Western imports.

Contrast the cadre of white teachers at my school with their culturally diverse students.

B7Q2HrxCUAAEac6B7Q2HvjCUAAvSQcThe above pie charts depict the country-of-origin for staff and students at my school in the 2014-15 academic year. The staff fail to reflect the diversity of backgrounds of the students, and they also exaggerate the cultural impact of one country in particular: the USA.

The problems with a non-representative teaching population are numerous. Teachers are unable to relate to the unique challenges students face, and students fail to find role models at school who carry the same cultural orientations as themselves.

A worse impact, however, is that the dominant culture will act to suffocate multicultural exchange, sharing, and compromise. Cultural touchstones, attitudes, or belief systems shared by the Americans and Latvians in the pie charts above will be held nearly-universally by the faculty of the school. Examples include respect for free-market capitalism, support for NATO, and celebrating Christian holidays.

A Belorussian student told me about the frustration he felt that the children in his neighbourhood had taken up the practice of trick-or-treating on the evening of October 31st. These children are not American, he says. Yet the reaction when I suggest to new international teachers that we tone down our Hallowe’en celebrations is one of incredulity: it’s Hallowe’en, of course you have to carve pumpkins and eat candy…

Meanwhile, amidst the hoopla and fervour of celebrating their own cultures, the staff forgets that students and their families have traditions of their own. Although nearly a quarter of the students celebrate it, we let Orthodox Christmas pass without even a mention (except for emails home, demanding explanations for unexcused absences). Students experience crucial life-events at home — the sort they would share with friends, back in their home countries — but don’t feel like their beliefs are welcome at school: after all, none of their teachers would understand, right?


Many schools face the age-old immersion challenge: total, or supported? In practical terms, do we insist that students speak only the common language of the school (ie: English), or do we encourage them to use the languages they know as a springboard to learning?

The research suggests that total immersion provides quicker language learning, and so many schools make it a school rule: English Only! One school in Poland took a hard line, suspending students for infractions: soon, the student body was trained to speak only English in the school.

But while language learning is a valuable academic goal, the costs of such a policy are tremendous.

Language is a fundamental component of a student’s culture. It is the medium by which their beliefs, ideals, and commonalities are shared. It is the prism through which they view humanity and the world. It is how they communicate with their families. Refusing students the right to speak in their native tongues acts to choke the connection with their cultural biosphere.

But even worse, given our understanding that language acts reciprocally to frame our thoughts, restricting students to a learned language constricts their ability to think, to reflect, and to be creative. Imagine writing a poem or conducting a science experiment about snow when you only know the word “cold”.

Cutting off their language acts to sever the core of a student’s self from the human we see in the hallways. Language learners aren’t just quiet because they don’t know how to express themselves: they are quiet because they have nothing left to express! Promising we can reconstruct cultural meaningfulness after the language has been developed is a hollow promise: by then, it is too late, and we have created another split-minded student who feels isolated from school.


Whether we call them rules, expectations or policies, every school has a set of social norms that are upheld through some form of disciplinary system. These serve two purposes: to ensure the smooth running of the school, and to prepare students to live freely in a state under the rule of law.

Like national laws, school rules are rooted in the history and philosophy of their institutions, and thus reflect the preconceptions, biases, cultural norms, moral codes, and traditions of the power-brokers in the school. School rules created by Westerners embody Western culture, and these rules are rarely as impartial or rational as the rule-setters imagine them.

Let’s look at some examples.

No weapons allowed.” A prohibition on knifes, firearms, and other weapons seems reasonable: it is clearly designed with student safety in mind. Yet, once they are in the building, we equip our students with scalpels in the biology classroom, carving knives in the art room, and power tools in the tech shop. The problem isn’t that we don’t trust students with dangerous items, but rather that we don’t trust students who feel comfort or ownership with sharp tools.

We phased out the bringing of pocket knives into schools over the past generation: not because the children were using them aggressively, but because they were carving up their desks! I use a bullwhip as a demonstration of breaking the sound barrier in my physics class, but it has been made clear to me that the whip is not for public display (never mind that a whip isn’t even a weapon). The prohibition on weapons, thus, is not for practical purposes, but rather for the appearance of safety. Assuring safety through appearances — “security theatre” — is certainly a Western cultural phenomenon.

Listen respectfully by making eye contact, remaining silent, and putting away the cell phone.” In the classroom, an assembly, or any of the many other places we expect obedience from students, the expectation frequently voiced is that students should “listen”. By this, we mean that they should face the speaker and make eye contact; remain silent and avoid reacting outward to what is being said; and refrain from interacting with technology, notes or other items while listening.

Eye contact is a culturally-fraught issue. Research suggests significant cultural differences in the interpretation of prolonged eye contact between individuals from Western and East Asian cultures, for example. Likewise, the question of how to best acknowledge the speaker’s thoughts is answered differently by different cultures: silent listening is preferred in some, while others place higher value on interchange to acknowledge a message being received. Similarly, the role of technology is at the heart of a new cultural divide, with the live-bloggers and note-takers on one side and the listen-quietly advocates on the other.

In short, a vision of listening as a passive, quiet, inactive affair with eye contact and no feedback is a particular Western viewpoint, and cannot be supported in any school that claims to be multicultural.

“That shirt is so inappropriate.” A complaint I frequently hear from my fellow teachers is about the cultural expressions of our students: the way they dance, the way they touch each other, and the way they dress. To people from the West — and especially Americans, given the puritanical and Protestant roots of their country — good taste means modesty.

This belief is shared by some cultures, including those that adopt a conservative interpretation of Islam and other Western religions. But the belief that modesty means appropriateness is not universal, and the repercussions of Western dominance of cultural norms in the school are clear.

When a student is told that her dancing is too suggestive, her hugging too personal, and her dress too revealing, these direct and damaging value judgments are masquerading as objective dictates. The young man whose pants are hanging low off his hips is carrying his culture with him — to demand he hitch up is to demand his check his culture at the door. A selectively-permeable cultural barrier that admits only the dominant culture is surely a structure of cultural imperialism.

Where’s your hall pass?” As a final example, consider the obsession many schools seem to have with tracking and controlling the geographical location of students at all times. What logic underlies the demand that a 16-year-old be required to obtain permission before stepping outside to urinate? This obsession with control is a deeply-rooted trait of Western culture.

A preoccupation with control extends through many school rules: tardy slips, limited numbers of absences, a chain of communication, mandatory departure times, doctors’ notes, to-the-minute timetables, long lists of graduation requirements, homework, and mandatory school supplies are common features of schools — yet none are necessary for effective learning.

Students are faced with only one true choice: to submit to the dominance of a Western-oriented school culture, or to rebel against it.


The undertow of colonialism is also prevalent in the curriculum of our schools. The traditional line-up of courses — literature, history, geography, maths, and science — reflects a narrow view of the world and excludes much non-Western culture simply by preventing it from entering the classroom.

Our language classes remain fixated on the reading of fictional stories. These stories overwhelmingly focus on the Western canon, with anti-colonial works both scarce and of a fundamentally different nature from Shakespeare and Dickens. Indeed, the works of these two authors (like many of the other classics) were pop art of their day, ret-conned as high prose. The effect is that most of a literature course is spent immersed in the mores and ways of Western society, with a foray into Things Fall Apart just different enough to suggest to students that other cultures, too, exist. A truly multicultural “literature” class would spend much of its time on the oral tradition; examining pottery, stelae, and papyri; and connecting with the cultural media (television, film, music, and online media) that are most relevant in students’ lives.

History is a uniquely Western obsession. While many cultures place value on the remembrance of the past, only Euro-Americans focus on digging up ruins, on gaining newness from the old, and on constantly revising our knowledge of things long-gone. Like geography, historical studies of other cultures are a shallow form of colonialism. However, focusing only on the history of Western society (as we do) denies the value of non-Western cultures when this particularly-Western form of cultural expression is elevated to become a course of study at school. As Joseph writes in The Crest of the Peacock, describing the Eurocentric view of world history,

Where [non-Europeans] appear, they do so in a transitory fashion whenever Europe has chanced in their direction. Thus the history of the Africas or the indigenous peoples of the Americas often begins only after their encounter with Europe.

Geography, likewise, is fundamentally an expression of colonialism. By learning about other cultures without developing empathy for them, we subdue them by knowledge. A Western student who learns that Korean children sit on the floor and eat off a short table considers this weird, different, and categorized: these facts serve to make Koreans non-threatening others. Unfortunately, by the time they get to high school, where projects and studies can meaningfully build empathy toward unmet strangers, the study of human geography and other cultures is largely superseded by other courses such as history or psychology. In their teenage years when Western children are finally ready to begin decolonizing their worldviews, we take away the one course that could most effectively help them to do so.

There is an extent to which school mathematics is effective training for adult life. For many students, their high school maths courses will serve as preparation for university. Aside from this preparation, however, there is a great deal of maths remaining in the curriculum, the instruction of which is motivated by arguments about the value of math as a form of logic and art. Although math in broad terms has nearly-universal application, the subject we teach in school is neither the symmetries of Islamic tiling nor the spherical geometry required to navigate by the stars.

Instead, we teach a form of mathematics developed by English, French, and German mathematicians — calculus — with very little application to quotidian life (and, oddly, it is only at this point that the history of mathematics begins to appear in the classroom: we neglect the contributions of the Arab scholars, but not the modest contributions of European mathematicians). The alternative — statistics — is marginally more useful, but with even less cultural currency. If mathematics is to be taught as something other than strict skills training, it will need to be a form of mathematics that values the world’s diverse needs, uses, and employment of mathematical ideas.

Science has a built-in culture that is overwhelmingly Western. The philosophy underlying scientific practice owes much to Enlightenment-era thinking, and there are significant problems associated with poor cultural representation among scientists. Worse, science confronts head-on, and sometimes even attempts to refute, cultural beliefs held by students. These “misconceptions” are seen as the problem, rather than as equally-valuable ideas. Although there are grounds to make science classes multicultural, there has been little effort made by educators to value the science of students’ cultures or to bring non-Western culture into the science classroom or curriculum in a meaningful way.

Some modern curricular developments hold promise, but others represent regressions. The “maker” movement is premised on a particular technological culture that is unquestionable Western. Art, music, and physical education courses have potential to be multicultural but often seem hamstrung by their sizeable Western traditions.

The International Baccalaureate [IB] promises a multicultural education, with a mission statement that begins,

The International Baccalaureate® aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

Yet the IB curriculum itself is intercultural only in a superficial way. The science and math courses in the Diploma Programme are the familiar listing of Western concepts, with no space for non-Western views, and the literature and history courses have little scope for decolonizing curricula.

The market of the IB is the internationally-mobile Western family, who want a familiar variety of education when they live in China, Brazil or Kenya, as well as the internationally-aspiring family that is willing to set aside their culture in order to give their children a Western-style education. The IB Organization is incentivized to offer a Western education while promising an intercultural one, so we cannot be surprised that they are not delivering a decolonizing curriculum.

Making it Worse

If you ask an educator or administrator about multiculturalism at their school, they tend to point to two things: an atmosphere of respect, and themed events. Undeniably, respect is a key ingredient to intercultural understanding. However, mere respect does not right the wrongs of colonialism. At best, the respect-based approach calcifies the existing power structures. Thus, we need to do more than merely encourage our students to listen and respect each other.

The second oft-cited side of multiculturalism is the themed event. This could take the form of an international song-and-dance show, a mother-tongue reading session, or ethnic food day in the cafeteria. The problem with these events is that they are not acts of decolonization.

Instead, the non-Western cultures are put on display, to be marvelled at, to be tasted, to be trivialized, and to be reduced to their barest sense of otherness. Are Korean students empowered when the cafeteria serves kimbap, or are Aboriginal students empowered when their classmates perform a tribal dance? Of course not. Their complex culture has been collapsed to a mere exhibit, and the social hegemony has only gotten stronger.

Consider, too, the balance of learning that happens when students engage in intercultural sharing. The children from non-Western cultures will share their complex worlds with the others, but learn relatively less, as they already understand Western culture. The children from Western cultures, on the other hand, will learn more. We claim that knowledge is the key to power, so who is being empowered by this sharing activity?

Clearly, our traditional ‘sharing’-based approach to culture isn’t going to decolonize the school.


The problem of culture looms large, both because of its importance in education and because of the impotence of our attempts to be intercultural educators. Colonialism runs deep in the school, through the adults, the policies, the curriculum, and even our attempts to be multicultural. The solution will require that we care deeply about our students, work tirelessly to bring about change, and think critically about everything we do as educators.

But most importantly, we need to start talking about this. In schools where the dominant Western culture has so prevailed that colonialism is expected without even being articulated, we need to start talking abut it. In schools where power structures support the oppression of non-Western cultures through overt or mendacious means, we need to start talking about it. And in schools where the students are getting hurt every day because they don’t fit into the cultural narrative we’re written for them, we need to start talking about it.

Let’s conclude with visionary tweets from a series by Jose Luis Vilson:

Author’s note: This post is part of an evolving understanding of culture in schools. I have adopted a blunt style here for the sake of the argument. I would be grateful for your feedback and criticism via comments below.

Physics Culture

This year, I’m going to be focusing, blogging, and thinking deeply about the role of culture in the physics classroom and in the school generally. Conversations with peers and (more importantly) with students, some really great perspectives in the literature, and some talks from this year’s AAPT summer meeting have convinced me that culture is the key.

Here is a diagrammatic depiction of my current understanding of culture. In my school — and in most, I believe, even in thoroughly non-Western nations (1) — the culture is firmly rooted in the Western tradition: Christian morals, American pop culture, enlightenment philosophy. Even though we are an international school, an IB World School in fact (2), there are few occasions where we move outside that cultural paradigm.


Firmly within the context of the school culture is the physics culture. I was once told that, if you were to design a school system whose sole goal was to produce physics PhDs, it would be hardly distinguishable from the one we have today. In any case, physics is a pretty standard component of school, and even when we are using progressive methods, we rarely push the boundaries on our school’s academic cultures.

Quite isolated from the school culture is the student’s home culture. Some of these cultures might include components of indigenous knowledge, which could take the form of a knowledge structure in parallel to Western science, but which we nonetheless tend to exclude from instruction.

Given this structure, there are four primary areas of interest for me:

  1. What is the nature of each of the cultural “sets” on the Venn diagram?
  2. How can we “decolonize” the culture of the physics classroom? How can we move it away from its ensconced position within the Western tradition, and enrich it with non-Western cultural ideas? What is the role played by white male privilege in maintaining the status quo?
  3. How can we improve the process of “sense-making”, that is, the process by which students are traditionally understood to learn physics? What is the role played by language — both the specific vocabulary, and the impact of learning a new language while simultaneously studying physics in that language? What role do social factors play in learning? What are the best practices for learning physics?
  4. How do students negotiate the transition between their “home” ways of thinking and the culture of the physics classroom? This may considered a form of border crossing (3).

In the broader context, cultural issues are essential because our current school system is damaging students. Within physics, thinking carefully about culture is a necessary prerequisite to answering those unavoidable and uncomfortable questions about gender and racial inequality. It is also imperative that, as a physics educator, I develop a way of teaching that respects and honours my students’ cultures while also providing them the benefit of the knowledge and skills that are the birthright of contemporary humans.

(1) I taught in a local school in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, for four years. It still strikes me as amazing how similar the science and history curricula were to that which I studied in Canada.

(2) From the International Baccalaureate mission statement,

The International Baccalaureate® aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect … [and] who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

(3) The theory of border crossing in science has been developed by Aikenhead and others. I’ll be writing more about this soon.

Hans and Fatima

I wanted to quickly write about two example student interactions. The first is Hans (more details), a student who doesn’t know anything, but is very good at picking up on the teacher’s cues. Hans is the archetype of question-wiseness.

The second is Fatima, a student who outlined “Fatima’s Rules“. These rules outline how a student who cares only about grades goes about studying, achieving a very shallow knowledge and little conceptual understanding.