Seeking a Culturally Attentive Educational Psychology

Frank Pajares

In his recent book, The Culture of Education, Jerome Bruner asserts that the purpose of most educational research has been to discover a set of transcendent generalizations about academic functioning--even if those generalizations are hedged by specifications about 'cross-cultural' variations. He contends that the hunt for generalizations loose of cultural moorings, the hunt for universal truths, tends to permeate most of our research and our way of thinking.*

Today you have heard from scholars keenly aware of the need to situate and contextualize the generalizations typically drawn from educational research. Using achievement goal theory as a foundation, Akane Zusho and Paul Pintrich discover that the generalization that a tendency to avoid failure should result in maladaptive consequences may not hold for high-achieving Asian American students in the area of mathematics. In fact, a fear of failure can drive these students to adopt potentially adaptive goal orientations. Keenly aware that additional cultural and contextual factors may alter these relationships, they acknowledge that these motivational patterns may well differ for low-achieving Asian American students and urge that replications be conducted with different cultural groups at different levels of achievement. Indeed, they suggest that gender and generational differences should also be explored, as these may play a role in observed relationships.

April Taylor and Sandra Graham offer us something relatively unusual in educational research--results of a developmentally and culturally sensitive intervention that is both theory guided and consists of multiple components and multiple informants. They report on results of an intervention in which minority children characterized as aggressive are trained in social skills and in the use of academic motivation strategies. The social skills training focused on helping children to attribute nonhostile intent to peers in situations of ambiguous provocation as well as helping them learn to forgive and to accept responsibility for misdeeds. The academic motivation training focused on strategies related to taking personal responsibility for their own achievement--to develop an appreciation for achievement task goals, to become risk takers while adopting a realistic level of aspiration, to learn the importance of setting proximal goals, to attribute failures to controllable, hence changeable, factors, and, finally, to learn the value of self-responsibility and effort.

In this undertaking, Taylor and Graham make clear that the aim of education must transcend the development of academic competence. Schools have the added responsibility of preparing fully-functioning individuals capable of pursuing their hopes and their ambitions, capable of breaking the negative habits of conduct that compromise their futures, and capable of developing the resilience and strength necessary to overcome the obstacles they face in their present circumstances and will face throughout their lives.

Nel Noddings observed that the ultimate aim of schools should be to nurture the "ethical self"-- "to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people." Intervention programs such as the one that Taylor and Graham presented to us today can aid children in these pursuits. One need only cast a casual glance at the American educational landscape to see that concern for students' intellectual development cannot be divorced from concern for students' personal, social, and psychological well-being. Attending to the affective concerns of students is both a noble and necessary enterprise.

Tabbye Chavous examined perceived ethnic fit of African American students in primarily White universities and showed how structural factors and racial beliefs may play different roles in differing contexts. A host of interactive effects provided differing insights. David Lopez aimed to muddy the waters and, I suspect, succeeded in muddying those that I will bring to this discussion with a model of self-regulated learning whose aims are perhaps, but perhaps not, in conflict with the issues I wish to raise. Whether they are, or they are not, his study is expertly analyzed.

What is especially noteworthy about the research efforts that have been presented today is that they so clearly illustrate that culturally bounded understandings of individuals are the understandings required to make sense of human conduct. Let me illustrate using findings from my own line of inquiry.

Twenty years of study has demonstrated that students' confidence in their academic capabilities, their self-efficacy beliefs, strongly predicts those capabilities. In fact, self-efficacy is typically as good a predictor of academic success as are previous achievement or general ability. That is self-efficacy's central and most essential generalization. We also know that students have a tendency to overestimate their competence, that is, to believe that they can do more than they can actually do. Overconfidence is considered a good thing because it provides individuals with the impetus necessary to surmount obstacles and attempt tasks that are slightly above their actual capabilities. In essence, then, it is widely acknowledged that self-efficacy beliefs predict the academic outcomes with which they are compared and that most students are healthily overconfident about their capabilities.

However . . .

  • When Asian American students are asked to provide judgments of capability, they express overconfidence to a much lower degree than do European American students.
  • When African American students are asked to provide self-concept judgments or self-beliefs of capability, they are often more overconfident about what they can actually accomplish than even European American students. In these studies, academic self-beliefs can be poor predictors of academic capabilities.
  • The overconfidence of American girls is considerably lower than that of boys. Girls tend to provide judgments of confidence that are quite consistent with what they are actually capable of accomplishing. As Nel Noddings, once observed, when girls make self-efficacy judgments, they are giving you their promise.
  • American gifted students tend toward overconfidence to a much lower degree than do regular education students. As is the case with girls, gifted students tend to provide efficacy judgments consistent with their competence. In these studies, confidence judgments predict academic capabilities very strongly.
  • But gifted American girls have a tendency to underestimate their competence. And there is evidence to suggest that many gender differences in academic self-beliefs may actually be a function of the stereotypical beliefs about gender than students come to hold, beliefs that are culturally acquired.
  • Special education students in self-contained special education classes overestimate their capability even more strongly than students in nearly any other group. In these studies, confidence judgments tend not to predict academic capabilities at all.

There are other conditions under which self-efficacy beliefs do not perform their predictive role in human functioning. In prejudicially structured systems, for example, students may find that no amount of skillful effort will bring about desired outcomes. In such cases, students may possess the necessary skill and high self-efficacy required to achieve, but they do not achieve because they lack the incentive. Self-efficacy will also have no bearing on performance if schools lack the effective teachers, necessary equipment, or resources required to aid students in the adequate performance of academic tasks. When social constraints and inadequate resources impede academic performances, self efficacy may exceed actual performance not because students do not know how to do what they believe they know but rather because they are prevented from doing what they know they know.

So, as these findings and today's presentations illustrate, generalizations to the effect that a motivation construct predicts this or that outcome or correlates with this or that other construct are complicated by a number of factors and should not be taken as general rules about academic motivation that are independent of cultural variation. Instead, findings must be carefully understood as being bounded by a host of situated, cultural factors that must be attended to if the constructs themselves are to have any, as William James termed it, practical, or cash, value. Recall Lee Cronbach's caution that "when we give proper weight to local conditions, any generalization is a working hypothesis, not a conclusion."

In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino envisions a conversation in which Marco Polo describes to the Great Kublai Khan the Roman arch, an architectural wonder at that time unknown in the East. To describe the arch,

    Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
    "But which is the stone that supports the bridge?" Kublai Khan asks.
    "The bridge is not supported by one stone or another," Marco answers, "but by the line of the arch that they form."
    Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds:
    "Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me."
    Polo answers: "Without stones there is no arch."

The critical questions in education involve matters that cannot be settled by universal prescriptions. They demand attention to the cultural forces that shape our lives. As our presenters today have made amply clear, cognition and action are always situated in a network of cultural particulars. Theorists such as Vygotsky and Bronfenbrenner and Pintrich and Graham remind us that however elegant the insight or telling the behavior, neither can be understood fully beyond the natural boundaries provided by the local, situated, cultural conditions in which they are embedded. However elegant the arch, it can never be understood fully without understanding the stones that comprise it, support it, indeed, create it.

But, as Sandra Graham observed in her review of motivation in African American students, developing an educational psychology that reflects with some fidelity the cultural variation of human action, cognition, and motivation is not altogether easy. A culturally attentive educational psychology faces a number of responsibilities.

  • First, and most obviously, a culturally attentive educational psychology regularly includes social and cultural groups in research programs and agendas, traces the course of human functioning in social/cultural contexts, avoids formalistic principles about groups and group membership, and depicts group differences accurately.
  • A culturally attentive educational psychology is sensitive to the dynamics of failure but at the same time avoids the deficit model of educational research, research that too often focuses on the characteristics of individuals who have adopted maladaptive strategies and de-emphasizes the characteristics of those who adopt adaptive behaviors and those who surmount great obstacles and persist in the face of formidable risks.
  • A culturally attentive educational psychology does not only acknowledge but centrally focuses on the complex relations between the cultural background, social class, and economic factors embedded in social structures. It embeds its understandings in the socialization practices of differing environments.
  • Finally, a culturally attentive educational psychology would be as interested in discovering root causes for the statistical relationships it reports and promulgates as it would be in discovering the relationships themselves. Answering these why questions would require rather a powerful reorientation in our present methodological tastes.

As the world shrinks and the impact of cultures grows, attempting to understand how cultural variations influence academic motivation seems more critical than ever. A culturally attentive educational psychology can help us clarify how motivational and self-regulatory strategies are created and develop as a result of differing cultural practices or differing group membership, as well as how these practices influence our students' school success and enrich their lives.

I was in the 5th grade when I got my first pair of glasses. I found them most uncomfortable. One day, during religion class I think it was, I found myself assiduously adjusting them, the way I've seen so many kids do. I had them lying on the desk like this, and was twisting and bending the ear pieces, trying to get them to align just right, narrowing the nose bridge.

Sister Margarita, clearly curious about my engineering efforts during religion class, walked toward my desk at the back of the room and rather sternly asked, "Manolito, que estas haciendo? (Since the theme of this session deals with cultural concerns in research, I thought it appropriate to throw in a foreign language).

I explained to Sister Margarita that my glasses just didn't fit right. I had finally shaped them so that they were perfectly symmetrical--the ear pieces perfectly aligned, both ends perfectly making contact with the flat desktop, the nose bridge perfectly arched. I was certainly I had created the perfect "vision delivery device."

But I was miserably frustrated because they still felt off-balance on my face.

What else could I do, I asked.

Sister Margarita wore eye glasses. So her advice was no doubt borne of years of living in the eye-glass-wearing culture. She looked me over with some scrutiny, learned toward me, and whispered, "You should account for the shape of your head."

I keep that thought carefully in mind when I read research findings or attend conference presentations in which authors and speakers promulgate theoretical dictums or present research findings about matters of consequence they seem so certain that they know are so, and present them in ways that leave the clear impression that they are so for us all. That they fit all our heads.

As William James observed, "the desire to formulate truths is a virulent disease."

Although the lesson from the episode with Sister Margarita has had a beneficial influence on my life and, I hope, on my habits of thinking, I do want to confess to you that, at the time, its influence was not quite so beneficial.

When Sister Margarita looked me over what she actually told me was that one of my ears was lower than the other, and that I should adjust my glasses with that minor deformity in mind. I spent my middle school years with my head at a slight angle so no one would notice.

Even the most contextual insights have their unintended consequences. But that is a theme for another session.

Note: No doubt most of us believe that we already have achieved the proper balance between universal and particular understandings in our research, in our teaching, and in our way of thinking. The hedging in which we so often engage is done to emphasize that we have already achieved that balance. Bruner does not agree. He writes,

"Do not be consoled by the false claim that psychologists already do [keep an eye on both the universal and the particular and do so with proper regard for how these shaping forces interact in the local situation] and [that they] have always done so. It is simply not so: sociotropes and biotropes still think they are involved in a zero-sum game; most mind-modelers would sooner be caught without their computers than be caught [making] interpretations; and all of them seem to delight in establishing separate divisions . . . where they can have the comfort of speaking only to their like-minded constituency. Psychology, alas, seems to have lost its center and its great integrating questions." [Back to discussion]

Self-Efficacy | William James

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