Preface to the Series on Cultural Interchange

In 1996, our NCREST-based team, dismayed by the inadequate educational progress of too many children in our country’s public schools, began the research project reported in this monograph series. Various theories purported to shed light on the American dilemma of how to educate children outside the mainstream; some of the theories we agreed with, others we didn’t. One explanation, which intrigued us because it raised issues for which we had no answers, was that cultural barriers between home and school stood in the way of educational progress, especially for poor children and children of color (Comer, 1993; Delpit, 1995; Fine, 1993; Ladson-Billings, 1994; National Coalition of Advocates for Students, 1994; Poplin & Weeres, 1993; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988). Herbert Kohl, in his book, I Won’t Learn From You!: The Role of Assent in Learning (1991), put the matter most starkly when he said that some African-American and Latino children refused to learn in school because they believed that participating in the educational process meant accepting a cultural system that categorized them as inferior.

While there was something in this literature that rang true, we weren’t sure how to connect it with our experience in public schools that were engaging poor and minority students in innovative learning communities (Bensman, 1994; Jervis, 1996; Snyder et al., 1992). In these schools, researchers saw evidence that most children acquired the skills and knowledge they needed to succeed in higher education, the world of work, and within their communities; they did not seem to choose between school and family. What made it possible for children in these schools to cross cultural boundaries? This question piqued our curiosity.

So we began our study.1 Our four-person research team conceptualized the classroom as the most appropriate place to observe what we called “cultural interchange.” We began by defining cultural interchange as the process by which members of groups with different traditions, values, beliefs, and experiences gained a greater degree of mutual understanding. We were looking for examples where teachers, students, and families drew lessons from each other and used those lessons to improve and enrich the ways they approached the world. We had our eyes open for instances where study participants were willing to accept some measures of disequilibrium, to shift or expand their worldview a little, to occasionally have their assumptions upset, and to tolerate the uncertainty that accompanies encounters with strangers.

We did not mean culture to be a code word for race. In thinking about culture, elements of behavior and mind-set produced by ethnic identification most readily spring to mind, but we assumed ethnic identification was only one of many aspects of culture. Ideas of what is valuable, what is beautiful, or what is successful are defined not only by ethnicity but by other factors such as social class, age, religion, race, and geographic locale. Culture, as it plays out in classrooms and schools, is complex and multifaceted, and we expected the interchange of culture between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and students among themselves to draw on all of these elements—although not always, and not always at the same time.

We began by looking at interchange in classrooms and school communities—with all the power differentials that implies—to capture and render a concept whereby teachers, students, and families learned from each other and integrated elements of each other’s mind-frames into their own views of the world. We each pursued the idea of cultural interchange in our own way, and each of our studies took a divergent route. We ultimately drew differing conclusions about the usefulness of cultural interchange as a concept.

Each researcher worked in a different school. Although we predicated our research design on each setting’s uniqueness and only loosely coupled our work to each other, we recognized that learning to overcome our own biases and take off our own blinders was essential. Capitalizing on our various backgrounds (academic researchers and former teachers, men and women, American and foreign-born, Asian, European, and African-American), we planned strategies to make ourselves more open to the cultural repertoire of students, families, and school personnel. While we individually analyzed our own data and wrote our own drafts, we collectively developed questions and concepts from which we could all draw. We visited each others’ schools, watched videotapes of team members’ study sites, and jointly interviewed personnel from each of the sites. Over time, we grew increasingly impressed by how differently we perceived and understood student behavior and classroom practice.

We chose schools to encompass a spectrum of student ages and, we hoped, educational practices. Access to the schools was a crucial determinant for our selection. Our presence as ethnographers was bound to be intrusive, so we selected only schools where we were known by someone on the staff. Using various ethnographic methods, each of us spent the academic year with teachers who were ready to open themselves up to the scrutiny required by this research. After spending some time at our site, we asked several students and their parents to participate in our study. We paid teachers and families for cooperating. Soon we were accompanying students to after-school activities and into their homes, churches, and communities.

Our observations focused on occasions when students brought their cultural perspectives into the collective discourse, or teachers represented their own worldviews or the knowledge of institutional culture, their “sense of school,” to students or families. Throughout, we observed the texture of human relations. The “we” here means the research team, but each of us perceived the world differently. We variously asked: Whose values were accorded respect? Whose values went unrecognized or were unconsciously ignored? Which students and families were included and participated? Which students and families were excluded or denied full participation? We attempted to understand underlying factors that shaped what we perceived as matches and mismatches among teachers, students, and their families. For this NCREST series on Cultural Interchange, we have produced four strikingly different case studies, each in a singular voice, each of which stands alone.


Bensman, David (1994). Lives of the Graduates of Central Park East Elementary School: Where Have They Gone? What Did They Really Learn? New York: National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Comer, James (1993). School Power: Implications of an Intervention Project. New York: The Free Press.

Delpit, Lisa (1995). Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflicts in the Classroom. New York: The Free Press.

Fine, Michelle (1991). Framing Dropouts. Albany: SUNY Albany Press.

Jervis, Kathe (1996). “How Come There Are No Brothers on That List?” Hearing the Hard Questions All Children Ask. Harvard Educational Review, 66, 546–576.

Kohl, Herbert (1991). I Won’t Learn From You!: The Role of Assent in Learning. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria (1994). The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Coalition of Advocates for Students (1994). Promising School-based Practices in Intergroup Relations. Boston: Author.

Poplin, Mary & Joseph Weeres (1993). Voices from the Inside: A Report on Schooling from Inside the Classroom. Claremont, CA: Institute for Education in Transformation.

Snyder, Jon, Ann Lieberman, Maritza Macdonald, & Lin Goodwin (1992). Makers of Meaning in a Learning-Centered School: A Case Study of Central Park East Elementary School. New York: National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Taylor, Denny & C. Dorsey-Gaines (1988). Growing Up Literate: Learning from Inner-City Families. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

1This work is supported by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement Field-initiated grant #R306F60079. The perspectives represented here are our responsibility, not the granting agency. return to text

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