Culture, Gender and Learning Preference

Does culture determine learning style? This question has been the subject of hot debate. Some suggest that cultures exhibit characteristic learning styles, and that our teaching methods should be reformed to accommodate these differences. They lend support to these generalizations through various ethnographic studies. One of the main researchers of this phenomenon was Barbara Shade. In 1982, Shade organized what she believed to be characteristic African-American learning styles into five dimensions:

1. Worldview: a greater cautiousness and apprehension (Shade justified this as the result of life in an urban setting in the face of racial discrimination)
2. Social cognition: an increased focus on interpersonal relationships as opposed to tasks
3. Stimulus variety: the preference for exposure to a variety of simultaneous stimuli
4. Conceptual tempo: a more reflective than impulsive mode of thought (Shade noted the role of wise elders in the traditional African society)
5. Field dependence: dependence on environmental cues and a preference for social structure in a work context

(Learning Styles of African-American Children)

It is important to note that these represent the views of one particular person regarding the culture study. Regarding each of these categories, it is evident that individual variations would naturally be very significant within cultures. In general, any attempts to directly characterize a culture have been heavily disputed, and the consensus is that these cultural characterizations are merely influences, and not legitimate generalizations.

Pat Burke Guild of New Horizons for Learning is among those who suggest that these generalizations are complete fallacies, and there exists far too much variation within these culturally defined races to make any generalization. One article stresses, "Such questions are controversial because information about a group of people often leads to naive inferences about individual members of that group." It later adds, "Reports about culture and learning style consistently agree that within a group, variations among individuals are as great as commonalities. Even as we acknowledge that culture affects learning styles, we know that distinct learning patterns don't fit a specific cultural group." (Diversity, Learning Style, and Culture).

Although there is not one general characterization encompassing all cultures, an individual's culture, family background, and socioeconomic situation can be important external factors affecting learning. In an article called Learning Styles and the African American Student, Beth Durodoyle and Burtina Hildreth explain, "Guidelines used by individuals to select information to which they attend and to interpret given information are also determined by culture. It is only natural to assume that culture would affect how children learn." (Durodoyle and Hildreth). On this topic, Guild explains that African-American children are faced with very unique cultural pressures:

"Hale-Benson (1986) points out: "A duality of socialization is required of Black people. Black children have to be prepared to imitate the 'hip', 'cool' behavior of the culture in which they live and at the same time to take on those behaviors that are necessary to be upwardly mobile." (Diversity, Learning Style, and Culture).

The impact of gender on learning preference has also been a topic of much interest among researchers. EduGuide suggests ways in which the learning styles of boys and girls tend to differ. It contains the following chart of differences:

Girls are more likely to
1. be good listeners —a trait that serves them well in today's language-rich classrooms.
2. print neatly and follow directions carefully.
3. sit calmly in their seats.
4. gather facts before they draw conclusions.
5. need concrete examples when learning abstract principles.
6. need to talk about their subject before beginning a writing project.
7. work well in cooperative groups.
8. entertain themselves during boring parts of the school day.
9. pay attention to more than one activity at a time.
10. discuss problems with a teacher.

Boys are more likely to
1. do well when using mathematical-logical thinking.
2. settle for messy handwriting and disorganized work.
3. need space to spread out their materials; move around in that space.
4. deduce conclusions from general statements.
5. be comfortable with mathematical symbols and general ideas in math.
6. lose focus on a writing task and spend little time talking about what they plan to write.
7. prefer to work alone; argue over who will lead when working in a group
8. act out and disrupt the class when bored.
9. find it hard to concentrate on learning when they are upset.
10. act as if they don't care about learning when they are confused or frustrated.

Despite these bold generalizations, the site qualifies its characterization, explaining, "Although individual differences always trump gender-related differences, here are some differences between the ways boys and girls in K12 grades classrooms behave that have implications for teaching and learning." (Boys and Girls Have Different Learning Styles).

Such opinions about the generalizations between learning preferences of boys and girls has led to debate over the bias of the educational system towards girls in recent years. As Sara Mead states in "The Truth About Boys and Girls", "After decades spent worrying about how schools 'shortchange girls', the eyes of the nation's education commentariat are now fixed on how they shortchange boys." (Mead). Mead explains that this is the result of a perceived greater academic performance from girls in recent years relative to boys. The statistics show, however, that academic performance among boys and girls, as well as high school graduation rate, is very similar between boys and girls. It is difficult to impossible to see how the education system could shortchange either sex when both sexes are performing at the same level. Mead explains, "There are many things - including biological, developmental, cultural, and educational factors - that affect how boys and girls do in school...Research on the causes of gender differences is hobbled by the twin demons of educational research: lack of data and the difficulty of drawing casual connections among multiple, complex influences." It seems that, ultimately, there is no simple way to characterize the learning styles of such internally diverse groups of people. Furthermore, the concept of gender itself is not a binary system, as such studies would suggest, but a wide spectrum, so constraining a study to these two culturally defined groups betrays yet another oversight.

Strong evidence supports the assertion that any attempts to identify a particular culture or gender with a preferred learning style are factually unsupported. There does, however, exist evidence supporting the notion that culture and gender can have an influence on learning on a case by case basis. In each case, however, as is often the case among culturally defined groupings of individuals, within-group diversity tends to trump between-group diversity.