What influence does culture have on a student’s school success?

Page 1: Culture

Circle with cultural imagesFor some people, the word “culture” evokes thoughts of special holidays, certain kinds of music or literature, styles of dress, and ethnic foods. But culture is more than that: Culture is also a way of describing the combination of the various groups to which one belongs—racial, ethnic, religious, and social, among others. To be part of a culture generally entails sharing a variety of customs, attitudes, practices, values, educational expectations, and ways of relating to others. And, though many cultures share particular attributes and values, it is important to remember that major differences exist between and within them.

Hand shake, bow greetingEven our most basic personal interactions are subject to cultural influences. For example, think back to the last time you were introduced to someone. Many people believe that the “correct” way to greet a new acquaintance is to shake his or her hand with a firm clasp while making eye contact. When we encounter someone who greets us in an unfamiliar fashion, however, we might conclude that the individual is unprofessional or is acting in an inappropriate manner. This is often not the case; there are, in fact, many “correct” ways to offer greetings, and these vary widely by culture. In some cultures, it is considered proper to shake a person’s hand while simultaneously patting his or her arm. Others believe that when one shakes a woman’s hand, her fingers should be grasped gently; a full-handed clasp is deemed impolite. In still other cultures, people greet one another with bows.

Student studyingThough it is true that particular styles and values might be central to a cultural group’s beliefs, individuals may alter their cultural identities as they learn about others’ attitudes, values, and traditions. Likewise, a person might choose to abandon some of the cultural beliefs that were important elements of his or her upbringing. Cultural beliefs, that is, are not fixed; they can change. A variety of experiences or circumstances can influence an individual’s cultural beliefs, a few examples of which are presented below:

  • The person attends college
  • The person moves from one country to another
  • The person experiences a life-altering change (e.g., prolonged unemployment)

It is important that teachers understand how greatly culture affects their students. Much as learning influences our values, culture shapes and influences the way we learn. Culture also shapes the nature of today’s classrooms. Statistics reveal that in the United States today a significant number of students from culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) backgrounds are enrolled in the nation’s school systems. Indeed, in many large, inner-city schools, the majority of students are African American or Hispanic. Wherever they teach in the United States, however, all teachers should understand that culturally and linguistically diverse students attend school and learn alongside peers from the dominant culture.

For Your Information

pencilsStatistics indicate an increase in public school enrollment for students from historically under-represented racial or ethnic groups from 22 percent in 1972, to 31 percent in 1986, to 43 percent in 2006.


Clint McDougal
Teacher Preparation Coach

Career Development Program
(Former general education
teacher and bilingual educator)
Albuquerque Public Schools and
University of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM

Clint McDougal talks about the importance of recognizing differences within cultures (time: 0:44).


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Clint McDougal stresses that teachers should be aware of the different cultures in their classrooms (time: 1:05).


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