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Black Cultural Learning Styles


Liz at the blog I Speak of Dreams had a fascinating analysis of "black cultural learning styles," an idea which she believes should be laid to rest. This idea suggests that black children are shortchanged in "euro-centric" schools because their learning styles are incompatible with most classrooms.

This link, though critical of the theory, is helpful because it gives some examples of what a black cultural learning style supposedly is: cooperative rather than competitive, impulsive, and passive, among other characteristics.

What really caught my attention was a comment she linked to within her essay, where she quoted a person who said there was a push in a school district to note "learning styles" on a student's individualized education program. The black kids, however, were getting the "kinesthetic learner" label, this commenter noted, while the white children tend to be called "auditory/visual learners."

When you say X is a "kinesthetic learner," you are basically saying, "forget all that higher-level thinking; algebra, critical reasoning, abstraction, language and mathematics are not for you, you can only learn with your hands. Off to McJobs!" Of course the people bandying about these stereotypes don't realize the import of what they're saying -- black kids better stick to menial labor -- but it's the soft underbelly of the crocodile.

There's tons of great links within the original essay. Have others noted what this commenter is suggesting, particularly within the area of special education and IEPs?

Tip of the hat to JohnL at Teach Effectively, for pointing out the blog post.


I know a principal who believes the term "kinesthetic learner" is effectively a euphemism for "stupid". Constructively, she proposes that a goal of education is to get the student comfortable with whatever learning style is most appropriate for each topic. That's a goal, not just a means.

Are learning styles over-rated? Studies (such as Stahl, S. A. (2002), "Different strokes for different folks?") observe an "utter failure to find that assessing children's learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on their learning."

I believe that issues such as parental and peer support, prerequisite skills, and trajectory for the future tend to account more for success and failure than do learning styles.

Teachers should know the research about culturally rooted learning styles. I strongly urge reading Geneva Gay's Culturally Responsive Teaching, Janice Hale's Black Children, Lisa Delpit's Other People's Children, and Tempii Champion's Understanding Storytelling Among African American Children, among others. All students are individuals, yes, but/and part of who they are as individuals is linked to race, ethnicity, culture, etc. Especially children who are less assimilated to the dominant culture are likely to bring with them to school cultural orientations teachers must know, so as to avoid deficit model misunderstandings and misinterpretations that can be deeply damaging.

Every child has their own learning style and to suggest that it is dictated by their ethnicity is ludicrous. I work in a Special Education Classroom, with a mix of Asian, Hispanic and African American students. They all have their preferred method of learning and some of them definitely benefit more from auditory stimulation than visual and some of them need props. As much as possible we, as the educators, try to repeat things reading them aloud, looking at them as we read and demonstrating them as best we can to cover all possibilities. There is no trend in our classroom that follows a particular ethnicity learning a particular way.
I'm not sure that I have a good explanation as to why African American children's performance is falling behind but I do think it would be encouraging to see more African American teachers as role models for the students. This is not to suggest that teachers of other ethnicities cannot be good role models.

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