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Ask Dr. Lynch: The Impact of Culture on Academic Performance

EducationWorld Q&A columnist Dr. Matthew Lynch is a department chair and an associate professor of education at Langston University. He has researched topics related to educational policy, school leadership and education reform, particularly in the urban learning environment, and he is interested in developing collaborative enterprises that move the field of education forward. Visit his Web site for more information. Read all of his columns here, and be sure to submit your own question.

Dr. Matthew Lynch

This week, reader Stacey W. asks:

Last week, a colleague and I had a contentious debate about culture and its effect on academic performance. She said that it had little effect, and I contended that it had a major effect on learning. What is your stance on the subject? What does educational research say?


There is nothing wrong with a little healthy debate among teachers, as it moves the field forward and forces us to examine what works and what doesn’t. A person’s culture and upbringing has a profound effect on how he sees the world and how he processes information. This fact was discussed by Richard Nisbett in his work, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why.

Nisbett worked with psychologists in Japan and China and determined that the holistic way of viewing the world that is indicative of many students from those countries differed from that of their American counterparts, who tended to view the world in parts or distinct classes of objects that could each be defined by a set of rules.

In other words, the Asian children see the world in terms of the relationship between things, whereas the American children see the world in terms of the objects as distinct entities. This information is helpful when we consider how cultural background might influence approach to learning and school performance. There are a number of theories that seek to explain differences in school performance among different racial and ethnic groups. Three theories stand out: the cultural deficit theory, the expectation theory, and the cultural difference theory.

The cultural deficit theory states that some students do poorly in school because the linguistic, social and cultural nature of the home environment does not prepare them for the work they will be required to do in school. As an example, some students may not have as many books read to them as are read to children in other homes. Not being able to read has a negative influence on students’ vocabulary development. Vocabulary development may also be stifled by the amount and nature of verbal interaction in the home. As a result, some children arrive at school lacking the level of vocabulary development expected. The cultural deficit theory proposes that deficiencies in the home environment result in shortcomings in skills, knowledge and behaviors that contribute to poor school performance.

Expectation theory focuses on how teachers treat students. Teachers often expect less from students of certain racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. When teachers expect students to perform poorly, they approach teaching in ways that align with their low levels of expectations. In these instances, students tend to perform at the low levels expected of them by teachers.

Rosenthal and Jacobson tested this theory in their Pygmalion Effect study. A group of teachers were told that their students were due for an intellectual growth spurt during the school year. Even though the students were average in terms of academic performance, the teachers interacted with them based on this expectation. All students in the experimental group improved both academically and socially by the end of the year. Based on the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy, students who experience high expectations seek to reach the level of expected behaviors. Correspondingly, students who experience low expectations act to meet the level of behavior expected of them.

The cultural difference theory is based on the idea that students who are raised in different cultural settings may approach education and learn in different ways. It is important for teachers to be aware of the difference between the school atmosphere and the home environment. People from different cultural traditions may have an approach to education that differs from the mainstream approach used in American schools. For instance, differences can be noted in the Polynesian concept of learning, whereby younger children are generally taught by older children rather than by adults. This is a very different approach to learning and one that may need to be considered in an American school that is attended by Polynesian students.

Teachers need to ensure that they incorporate methods of teaching in their classrooms that accommodate various beliefs and cultural notions students bring to school. This requires each teacher to develop an understanding not only of their students’ culture, but also of students as individuals. It is also important for teachers to ensure that they treat all students the same and to have high expectations for each one, so that they will all strive to reach their full potential.


About Dr. Lynch

Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Langston University and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Dr. Lynch also is the author of the newly released book It’s Time for a Change: School Reform for the Next Decade and A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories. Please visit his Web site for more information.

If you have a question for “Ask Dr. Lynch,” submit it here. Topics can be anything education-related, from classroom management to differentiated instruction.

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