Look around you, schools urged

14th November 1997 at 00:00

Teachers are being urged to have a better understanding of foreign cultures, writes Jon Marcus.

Research shows that teachers misinterpret behaviour common to other cultures as learning problems in immigrant students. "Shyness" exhibited by Hispanic children, for example, is rooted in a tendency to be compliant around adults.

The influential Institute for International Education says that American schools teach native students too little about foreign cultures.

Peggy Blumenthal, an IIE vice- president, says: "America has traditionally been inward-looking, very self-confident that the solutions to our problems are available to us locally." She added that this puts US businesses at a disadvantage.

The report, which Dr Blumenthal co-authored with funding from the US-Japan Foundation, recommends that schools focus on other cultures and that students learn at least one language other than English. Children have to learn a foreign language in only one-third of American schools.

Schools with large numbers of immigrant pupils have already begun to tackle the problem, according to Martha Julia Garcia-Sellers, a Tufts University professor of child development.

She told of a seven-year-old boy who would freeze when asked to choose an activity because he came from a culture in which children were not given choices but always told what to do.

Dr Sellers and her team worked with 16 first-graders at two schools near Boston where the Spanish-speaking population has tripled in the past 10 years. She found that students' reading and writing skills improved when their education was adjusted for such cultural differences.

"We are dealing with words and concepts, such as "anti-bias curriculum" but really our society is quite segregated," she said. "We found there's only a few schools that are even trying to deal with these cultural issues."

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