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Learning: The Cultural Context

The idea of a learning environment as a cultural context emphasizes that the character and personality of learning is culturally diverse. Learning is a global phenomenon, but like an ecology of learning, it is fuelled by diversity. The ways in which people learn to apprehend, comprehend, perceive, think, create meaning, build beliefs, behave and feel have an intimate connection to their own cultural context. In other words, learning cannot be fully understood without consideration of the specific cultural terrain it resides in. Too often, I believe, we tend to think about learning in ethno-centric ways, or in ways that are specific to our own cultural preferences. The challenge is similar to that of new media learning environments in that we need to develop the capacity to stand outside our own cultural conditioning in order to appreciate and invite a variety of cultural perspectives into our own learning...

Understanding the Acquired Context of Learning

In The Silent Language Edward Hall explores a wide range of insights into culture and learning (see: Edward Hall: The Silent Language). One of his most important insights is that learning cannot be separated from the acquired context (i.e. - the specific cultural setting) in which it occurs.

One problem he points out is that our own cultural context acts as a barrier to understanding and therefore learning through other cultural perspectives. Hall's belief is that an individual's own culture is an invisible ground that shapes people's thoughts and actions in ways that are often imperceptible. An important direction for learning, then, is to make this invisible ground visible - to develop the ability to stand outside our own cultural norms, symbols and traditions so that we are more open and receptive to other cultural patterns. In other words, to begin building an understanding of how people learn in cultures other than our own we must be able to comprehend the acquired context of learning.

What this means is that we must learn to amplify our powers of discernment. Often we tend to equate learning with the acquisition of content or skill, however Hall is focusing on something quite different. Discernment is closely linked to perception. By improving our powers of discernment we improve our ability to be more open to the unfamiliar and the mysterious - and therefore more open to new possibilities for learning. At the same time, we also come to realize how our perceptions of the world and ourselves we find ourselves in is shaped and conditioned by our own cultural context.

We know for example that appreciating and understanding another culture cannot be effectively developed through learning to translate words from one language to another so that they match the definitions and rules of our own language. We need to interact with the symbolic and experiential context of the words, the underlying stories and mythology they lead to, and the feelings and emotions associated with them. This pathway for learning is similar to the one described by Hermann Hesse (also see: Curriculum: The Obliteration of Individuality):

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette.
- Hermann Hesse in The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel

One reason that many of the most important writers turn to art is that through art we learn to increase and expand our perceptual acuity. This is a well-established pattern and, to my thinking, a vitally important one. By expanding the ways in which we perceive we in turn expand the ways in which we can come to understand something and create meaning from it. Quite literally, we learn to think, see and touch differently. This is one of the most important purposes of having Art in education systems since it is one of the few places in the curriculum that authentically offers ways to expand our perceptual abilities, that is of course, if Art in education is not reduced to an art program.

Cultural Assimilation or Expansion

The form and function of our education systems communicate the signs and symbols of our own culture. Schooling acts as a kind of pervasive filter that shapes certain experiences we have in life, and also shapes the ways in which we perceive and create meaning. Even while exploring information about other cultures, this information is translated into our own ways of perceiving and knowing. This is perhaps one of the most limiting features of curriculum and instructional design.

There are a number of interesting accounts that reveal the general malaise of our ethno-centricity. Kathryn Lucci-Cooper notes (see: Identity: Genocide of the Mind):

I found myself competing in world of people who could not understand the language of my thoughts. A people controlled by material wealth and enslaved by issues of time. I was compelled to conform or fail. It was my first real failure.
- Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing

Accounts like these reveal the worst aspects of our own culture. At the same time, these kinds of conflicts really reveal important opportunities for opening up our own cultural preference to new possibilities. If we seek open space in our dialogues then we should also seek open space in our perception of other cultural settings. In a very important sense, learning that is limited to a single acquired (cultural) context is the same thing as limiting the experience of being alive. Embracing other cultural contexts, and therefore other ways of thinking about and perceiving the world, opens us up to new possibilities in life.

Learning Is Immersion Into Cultural Diversity

Of course, making a statement beginning with the words "learning is" is the beginning of a mistake. At the same time a probe like this can force us to consider the fundamental importance of how learning and cultural diversity are unavoidably connected. The most important books that help to open our minds up to cultural possibilities in my own explorations are:
  • Hall, Edward. The Silent Language: Provides important insights into the relationship between culture and learning.
  • Hesse, Hermann. The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel: A fictional exploration of culture as improvisation.
  • Moore, MariJo (ed.). Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing: A compelling collection of writing from various authors exploring their personal quests to preserve cultural identity.
  • Cowan, James. Two Men Dreaming: A wonderful account of James Cowan's experiences with Australian aborigines.
  • Huxley, Aldous. Island: Huxley's utopian culture.

Books such as the ones listed above help to open our sensibilities to other cultural possibilities. The role of improvisation is critical in our exploration of culture, just as it is in learning. In other words, culture should be treated as something that provides content for creative thinking and expression. Culture should not be used as a means to enforce conformity and uniformity. If it is possible that a great deal of the conflict in our world is due to an inability to communicate across cultures then it seems to me we must focus learning on reducing this inter-cultural divide. By this I do not mean the mere acquisition of foreign languages, although that is of course helpful, but finding ways to connect our sensibilities, thoughts, and behaviors so that greater sense of appreciation and understanding can be fostered.

In a project I was involved in approximately ten years ago, I connected a group of students to another group of students in Japan via real-time conferencing. Everyone seemed concerned about the language barrier, but it seemed to me that this barrier was in fact the opportunity. What happened online was course only natural for youth - they figured out how to communicate with one another even though they did not share the same language. In other words, they improvised communication and in doing so discovered ways to share thoughts and ideas with one another. We later conducted parallel water purity experiments to compare the quality of water in lakes and rivers. While having my students learn Japanese would have been beneficial, I found their interaction to be quite profound. The students, of course, thought it was all a completely normal way to handle the language barrier.

If we are to promote ideas about learning we must simultaneously promote ways of appreciating the various acquired contexts for learning. Without this principle in place we limit learning to our own cultural setting and in doing so further entrench ourselves in the status quo.

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