Wednesday, 26 August 2009
CULTURAL CODES AND THE CLASSROOM
Schools play a fundamental role as a stepping stone to social mobility - an individual who is successful in education is more likely to secure employment with a higher wage, higher status and higher class position. Educators tend usually to come from the middle classes, so in the majority of state schools, the teachers are from a higher social class background than their pupils. To belong to a social class is not merely a statistical grouping - compare the different language codes, cultural tastes and interests of the working and middle classes for example. The problem of social mobility can be found in the teacher-pupil relationship, and whether the teacher should bring the interaction down to the lower status levels of their pupils or 'maintain standards' by demonstrating their own codes. The former may ensure that more children understand some concepts, whereas the latter is more likely to profoundly assist the most able students to learn to a higher proficiency.
The question of class codes, here meaning both classroom and social class, is one of dominance and subordination. If the middle class educator interacts using his own class-cultural system, this behaviour can be adapted, learned and appropriated by those students from lower background who are able to understand and react to it. In a society that remains as socially divided as ours, an understanding of the workings of middle-class mores is pivotal in the process of social mobility. If a working class pupil develops an interest in Shakespeare, her English teacher will be more inclined to dedicate time to teaching Shakespeare to this individual. By keeping schools as a middle-class, typically authoritative/authoritarian, institution, teachers can provide a route for social mobility for a minority of their pupils.
The key problem with teaching through the cultural and linguistic frameworks of this 'dominant' group, is that students who do not share this culture are unable to grasp it. It presents itself as alien, and far-removed from their daily life.
The alternative is to adapt the curriculum and teaching style to make it more like that of the students' own social group. This will enable more students to learn things that are undoubtedly 'of use' to them, but which stray away from representations of the dominant culture. But students and parents are not cultural dupes: they understand the benefits of learning the dominant culture, and they value the importance of learning the culture of their social superiors. 'Coming down' to the level of their pupils can be conceived of as denying the pupils the required tools for social mobility.
Which cultural code to use when teaching is a difficult choice to make, but either way, those students who are the most distant from the cultures of the dominant classes are likely to fail. If teachers educate at the level of their 'socially inferior' pupils, they are still likely to demand an active interest in education from their pupils, and very often it is amongst the most deprived that anti-school sentiments ferment. And of course, if teachers educate using the cultural codes of their own social class, they will do little but mystify and alienate the students of the lowest status, who haven't the abilty to decipher the teachers message. The two alternatives create different educational successes, but both create the same failures.