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close this bookProspects - Quarterly Review of Education, Vol. 25, No. 4, 1995 (Issue 96) - Education and Culture (UNESCO, 1995, 264 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentEducation and culture: an introduction - G.R. Teasdale
View the documentTerritory, indigenous education and cultural maintenance: the case of the Arakmbut of South-Eastern Peru - Sheila Aikman
View the document'A fair chance for all?' Indigenous rights and tertiary education in Australia - Peter Gale1
View the documentBasic education amongst national minorities: the case of the Yi in Sichuan Province, China - Keith M. Lewin1
View the documentInformal learning: a case study of local curriculum development in Indonesia - Elias Kopong
View the documentThe impact of school science on the world-view of Solomon Islands students - John A. Lowe
View the documentChanging manifestations of wisdom and knowledge in Thailand - Zane Ma Rhea1
View the documentMbu: a culturally meaningful framework for education in Papua New Guinea - Michael A. Mel
View the documentEducation for cultural identity: a Fiji case study - Unaisi Nabobo and Jennie Teasdale
View the documentLearning and schooling of Basarwa (Bushmen) children in Botswana - Pat Pridmore
View the documentConcepts of learning, knowledge and wisdom in Tonga, and their relevance to modern education - Konai Helu Thaman
View the documentThe cultural construction of home and school knowledge in Tribal India - Avinash Kumar Singh
View the documentCulture and learning in a New Zealand secondary school - Edna Tait
View the documentTechnacy: towards a holistic understanding of technology teaching and learning among Aboriginal Australians - Kurt Seemann and Ron Talbot
View the documentIn conclusion: questions of culture and education - Angela Little

In conclusion: questions of culture and education - Angela Little

Angela Little (United Kingdom)

Professor of Education in Developing Countries, and Head of Education and International Development, at the Institute of Education, University of London. She has worked and researched extensively in Africa and Asia. As a social psychologist, she has a special interest in learning, and as an 'agent of development', a sensitivity to the diversity of cultural contexts, the significance of context for effective learning and the quality and relevance of educational exports from one setting to another.

Many analyses of the relationship between education and culture treat culture in one of two ways. Either it is seen as a set of pre-existing attitudes or factors which mitigate against the functioning and processes of the school, or it is seen as something which is reproduced among the younger generation by the school. In both cases culture is regarded as an entity, bearing either an antecedent or consequent relation to the process of education. In both cases culture conveys a slightly negative message. Either culture holds back, prevents or slows down the goals of the educator and educational institution, or the educator and educational institution are servants in the maintenance and reproduction of pre-existing cultures, which in many instances are judged by the outsider to be stagnant and regressive. Culture, broadly defined, is invoked as an explanation of failure rather than success, of problems rather than achievements, and as a predictor of future difficulties rather than future possibilities.

The papers in this volume reinforce aspects of these dominant concepts. Yet they also move us in significant ways, towards an alternative conception. All focus on the processes of in-school and out-of school learning. Both types of learning are viewed as activities which occur within cultural sub-systems, some of which may conflict with each other. In almost every case, culture is imbued with a dynamic rather than a static quality, with a history as well as a future. The development of a cultural identity is posited as a central outcome of the learning process. But it is recognized that the shape and form of that identity is moulded through different and sometimes competing learning contents, processes and goals. The shape and form of that identity may be determined to some extent by the nature of the economic and political power relations between the stake-holders or major players in the learning process (the educators and learners), and by the learning systems.

Relativism and excellence

In general, the authors are non-judgmental about the value of the alternative learning contents, processes and contexts. They highlight similarities and differences (and in some cases conflicts) between the contents, processes and contexts of alternative learning systems. Their focus is on the process and outcome of learning, with the implications of learning for the formation of cultural identity; they are also concerned with the fusion - or not - of learning systems. They are concerned with understanding, rather than imposing value on, the various contents, processes and contexts of the systems within which learners, especially young people, learn. At the same time, some of the authors acknowledge the value judgements made by educators and learners about learning performance within learning systems. In his description of the Melpa learning system, Michael Mel identifies salient concepts of knowing and learning which underpin the learning system experienced by all children. Some children attain 'a good level of language' and are able to articulate better than others, implying that standards of excellence are valued, and are intrinsic to the learning system. This point is important for those who regard the consideration of alternative systems of learning as a relativistic mind game in which all forms of learning are assumed to have equal value, irrespective of context. To acknowledge the co-existence of alternative learning systems is not to acknowledge that all forms of learning have parity of status. Clearly there are standards of excellence within learning systems. And, plausibly, there are standards of excellence between them. The general issue raised by many of the authors is not whether one system of learning is more excellent than or superior to another; but rather, in which settings and contexts are aspects of one system likely to be more excellent than aspects of another?

Learning within and between learning systems

The focus on learning within cultural systems also reminds us that learners everywhere (not just in indigenous cultures) experience disjunctions and conflicts between themselves and educators, between familiar content, processes and contexts and the unfamiliar which the educator offers. Any analysis of learning from the learner's viewpoint needs to address the processes of exchange between the learner and educator within one or more cultural learning systems over time, and the congruence or disjunction between those experiences, arising from the characteristics of alternative learning systems. Young children worldwide experience a disjunction between the familiar and the unfamiliar within the home, as well as within the school. They also experience a disjunction between the content, processes and contexts of learning experienced in the home and those in school. These experiences, I would suggest, are fundamental to the processes of learning in any society. If there were no gap or disjunction between what the learner knows and what the educator wants him/her to know, then the possibility of learning would be severely compromised. However, the articles in this issue underline the extent of the gap between the contents, processes and contexts of learning among children growing up in indigenous communities. Where a formal system of learning has been imposed or transposed from another setting, then the gap between it and the indigenous alternative is likely to be wider than that between alternative systems of learning arising out the same context, for example as between home and school learning in an industrialized country. The following questions arise: does the depth and nature of the gap between alternative learning systems facilitate or inhibit effective learning in one or both systems? Does the depth and nature of the gap encourage ritualistic rather than meaningful learning in one or both systems? Does the depth and nature of the gap influence the types of creative fusion and synthesis possible between systems?

Fusion, synthesis and selection

Fusion and synthesis is the underlying theme of John Lowe's account of Solomon Island students' world views which draw on three learning systems - traditional and indigenous, Western science and Christianity. Although a number of 'disjunctions' and incompatibilities between notions derived from each may be identified, these disjunctions are not necessarily 'dysfunctions'. In other words, students of science retain much of their customary and familiar world view while appreciating the new and unfamiliar view that science offers. Science opens new horizons without losing sight of the familiar and traditional. Students develop strategies to deal with incompatible visions. Students appear to develop a capacity to be selective in what they accept from Western science, and in choosing when to use it. However, as he points out, this strategy of selection is not unique to Solomon Island students. English school students also use scientific concepts in the context of school science, but may switch to an alternative set for 'life-world' purposes.

Forms of interaction between learning systems

Most of our articles examine relations between what are termed indigenous learning systems and formal school learning systems. In every case those relations have been underpinned by inequalities in political power and economic status, and characterized by the domination of one system over another. Formal school learning systems have been imposed on a people by colonizing powers. The formal school learning-system has been designed to 'civilize' indigenous populations and to open avenues to alternative and higher economic status. Indigenous systems have been ignored or deliberately undermined.

The counterpoint of 'Western' systems of learning with indigenous systems has been described by a number of writers. Bude (1985) for example, contrasts the didactics, learning fields, learning orientations, content and methods of traditional black African education and Western style primary school education in Africa. Teasdale (1990), building from Christie (1985), contrasts the informal learning strategies of Aboriginal societies with the formal learning strategies of Western schooling, and begins to explore the fusions that sometimes occur through their interaction. The articles in this issue maintain and develop some of these distinctions, yet they encourage us to extend and refine our thinking about the range of cultural sub-systems of learning and the range of relationships between them.

Several cultural sub-systems are described herein. First, there is the school with its learning content and processes. While several of the authors refer to 'Western systems of learning' it is important to recognize the range of Western spheres from which these systems derive. At least four spheres - Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands - are alluded to in these papers. Their influence has been exerted sometimes through religious missionary bodies, and sometimes through agencies of the national or colonial state. Western systems of learning may share a number of characteristics; but they also differ in important respects. The second cultural sub-system is that of indigenous learning systems. While many of the authors refer to systems of knowledge outside the school, most overlook the distinctions between them. Indigenous learning systems may be informal and confined to everyday learning. Or they may be more formal, involving structured learning contents and processes. Examples of the former include the learning routines of economic survival described by Avinash Singh among the Ho, or the learning of explanation through appeals to magic as described by John Lowe among school-children in the Solomon Islands. Examples of the latter include initiation rites, and schools based on indigenous religions and knowledge. Few of the papers describe these more formal structures of indigenous learning.

Once the range of cultural sub-systems available to the learner has been described, we may move on to consider the forms of interaction between them. The following descriptions of five sub-systems may prove useful to readers.

1. This includes several of the settings described in this issue, the first of which is the domination of indigenous systems by metropolitan models, imposed through colonial, neo-colonial or internal colonial power relations. This type might be sub-divided into the following: (a) indigenous systems based on oracy dominated by systems based on literacy; (b) indigenous systems based on literacy dominated by other systems based on literacy. A further sub-division would distinguish formal from less formal indigenous systems.

2. A second type of interaction might be described as cultural hegemony in which a powerful country may, even in the absence of formal political control, exert influence on the structure and functioning of the formal education system of another country, which in turn has implications for its relations with indigenous systems. Financial aid and loans from foreign donors to education carry implications for the forms of cultural exchange between educators and the modelling of one system on another, through textbooks, consultancy and training.

3. A third type is voluntaristic borrowing or modelling, in which policy-makers or educators deliberately select and adopt policies and practices from elsewhere, even when there is no political or economic obligation to do so. Contemporary examples abound (Phillips, 1989; Taniuchi, 1986). Zane Ma Rhea's account suggests that active selection and adoption of external models and practices characterized the historical development of learning systems in Thailand.

4. A fourth type of interaction occurs when people migrate from one set of cultural sub-systems to another, importing, maintaining and developing some of them as they move, and bringing these to bear on their participation in education systems in the host country. Unaisi Nabobo and Jennie Teasdale allude to this type of cultural interaction when they describe the historically transposed culture of Fijian Indians.

5. Finally, a fifth type may be described as that of mutual co-existence, with a separation of learning domains. Some of the work on Aboriginal education in Australia described by Peter Gale alludes to this form of interaction. It might be sub-divided further into (a) mutual co-existence, which provides access to the knowledge resources of a second system in order to empower, transform and preserve the first; and (b) mutual co-existence which provide participants in the system access to the knowledge, resources and qualifications which provide the passport to full participation in the second. Sheila Aikman's account of Arakmbut attitudes to the local Spanish-medium school provides a good example of the former; and John Lowe's account of student participation in science learning in the Solomon Islands, a good example of the latter.

Language and literacies

So far we have discussed systems of learning based on oracy and literacy, and have discussed some of the forms of interaction between them. The match or mismatch between spoken and written forms of language, is a fundamental characteristic of all forms described above. Most of the articles in this issue describe learning systems employing different oracies and written literacies. Most describe the learning of and exchanges between these literacies as mediated by educators, elders and community members. Increasingly however, written texts and the spoken language in indigenous communities are being augmented by visual literacies mediated by technology - TV, video, CD-ROM and computer software in general. Not only is this software designed in contexts remote from most indigenous communities, but it is increasingly used in learning settings outside the formal school system. What effect will technology have on the nature of indigenous learning systems, on the types of interaction forged between alternative learning systems, and on the separation or integration of learning domains?

Single and multiple identities

Finally, a note on cultural identity. Many of the articles place the development and maintenance of cultural identity as central to the process of learning and to the development and transformation of cultures. Few of the papers address directly the learning of multiple or multi-layered identities as distinct from the learning of a single cultural identity. In remote indigenous settings with little cultural exchange, the development of a single cultural identity may indeed be an apt description of identity formation. But in settings where people are mobile and/or where there is considerable interaction between learning systems with different and sometimes contradictory goals, contents and processes then the possibility of persons developing or aspiring to develop several integrated or separated layers of identity should also be considered. The questions of culture which then arise are: under what conditions does the formation of identity within a primary cultural system contradict or reinforce the formation of a further identity within a second? Who controls decisions about the content and goals of alternative learning systems? Do those who design learning systems remote from the contexts of use have a moral responsibility to understand how those systems are used, how they interact with alternative systems, how they affect the formation of cultural identity and how they may become more sensitive to context?


Bude, U. 1985. Primary schools, local community and development in Africa. Baden Baden, Germany, Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft.

Christie, M.J. 1985. Aboriginal perspectives on experience and learning: the role of language in Aboriginal education. Geelong, Australia, Deakin University Press.

Phillips, D., ed. 1989. Cross-national attraction in education. Comparative education (Abingdon, U.K.), vol. 25, no. 3. (Special number, 12.)

Taniuchi, L. 1986. Cultural continuity in an educational institution: a case study of the Suzuki method of music instruction. In: White, M.I.; Pollak, S., eds. The cultural transition: human experience and social transformation in the Third World and Japan. London, Routledge, Chapman & Hall. 256 p.

Teasdale, G.R. 1990. Interactions between 'traditional' and 'Western' systems of learning: the Australian experience. In: Little, A.W. Understanding culture: a pre-condition for effective learning. Paris, UNESCO.