Susan McLaughlin-Jones grew up in Massachusetts town where, in order to go to the bathroom, students had to use a very special word. “If you didn’t use the word ‘sanitary,’ you weren’t allowed to go,” McLaughlin-Jones explains. “Years later, when I was student teaching in a school 500 miles away, I had students ask to go to the restroom and I said no. I thought they were being rude. They thought I was being crazy.”
McLaughlin-Jones remembered this many years later, in 2009, when she started looking at data from an elementary school initiative that sought to close the achievement gap in growth between African American students and their peers.
She had then been in the classroom for more than 20 years, most of them at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky, where she teaches science. “Everyone kept saying that teachers weren’t teaching these kids right,” she says.
But she examined the data and found that students who missed more than five days in a semester weren’t really making any progress, and that this finding correlated with all demographics. “I realised we weren’t dealing with a race problem,” she says, “so much as a culture problem.”
She then initiated a pilot in her own classroom called Culturally Engaging Instruction.
Culturally Engaging Instruction provides educators with a framework to systematically reduce the cultural dissonance experienced by students who encounter a discrepancy between their cultural background and that of the school.
“The United States is the top-ranked country for individualist behaviour,” she says, “but students often bring values and behaviours from collectivist paradigms. We assume that all kids want to go to school and get the As, but some families value that kid being home to provide childcare so Mum can go put food on the table.”
These students receive mixed messages, says McLaughlin-Jones, and when the school expectations and the home cultural expectations don’t match, students find it hard to do well. “Schools themselves make assumptions about values. When parents don’t show up to the parent-teacher conferences, it’s not that they don’t care – it’s that they have other things on their plates.”
‘We think these rules are fair but they are not working’
McLaughlin-Jones describes other scenarios that create cultural dissonance between individualist school settings and students from collectivist cultures. “Negotiation is the rule in individualist cultures,” she says.
“For instance, a parent whose son got a 91.4 wouldn’t necessarily think to ask what he would need to do to take his grade to an A. In collectivist cultures, parents might be embarrassed to call, so those parents’ kids don’t get the extra boost. African American kids, for example, might be completely unaware that it’s OK to walk up to a teacher and ask for an extension because in their paradigm that just would not happen.”
Traditionally, she says, these students remain underserved. “We think these rules are fair but they end up not working well for students whose cultures don’t match.”
Because all of Kentucky’s high school juniors are required to take the ACT, McLaughlin-Jones was able to use her Culturally Engaging Instruction technique as a pilot test, to compare her juniors to juniors in the rest of the school.
Using this framework, she taught her lessons in groups, making sure any wrong answers couldn’t be attributed to any one student – members of each group had to participate in conversations about the questions and be able to work collaboratively. “It was organic collaboration,” she says, “as opposed to the stilted kind of collaboration we often force on students.”
After just two sessions of intervention – one lasting 45 minutes and another 90 minutes – her African American students completely closed the achievement gap.
In other classes, the African American students were an average of two points behind on the test. Culturally Engaging Instruction helped to bridge this gap by approaching education from a radically different paradigm, by defining student values, beliefs, and behaviours across a cultural continuum of indicators. “It’s a new way of looking at how we structure schools,” says McLaughlin-Jones.
McLaughlin-Jones is, by all accounts, a teacher who leaves an indelible mark on her students.
Zoe Lucas, one of her students at Lafayette, says: “People who don’t like learning realise, in her class, that they’re not going to get away from loving it.”
Anne Weinberger, the parent of one of McLaughlin-Jones’ students, has similar praise: “She understands, so well, the mental processes behind learning, and she addresses the thinking process so that her students can learn faster, better.”
Lucas describes McLaughlin-Jones’ love of learning as infectious. “In class, while she’s going through the lessons, she’ll tell us how she sailed across the Atlantic using only a sextant.” As McLaughlin-Jones guides her students through the similarly murky waters of matching themselves to the culture of their school, they are fortunate to have her charting the way.