Early Childhood Education

School Culture


“School culture” is a recognizable set of events (e.g., reading groups), routines (e.g., attendance count), artifacts (e.g., blackboard and chalk), norms and expectations (e.g., raise your hand for a turn to talk), concerns (e.g., standardized test scores), values (e.g., conformity), and roles (e.g., teacher and student) that are similar, pervasive, and socially constructed in schools throughout the country. Sociologists like Phillip Jackson (1968) recognized the special demands that a “life in school” places on students to use language in certain ways, behave in certain ways, and respond to the “hidden curriculum.” While these sociologists did not use the term per se, their notion of schools’ implicit demands to produce particular school behaviors to be successful as a student is the essential meaning of “school culture.”

Judith Green was one of the first educators to look at the classroom with a cultural lens, more specifically with an interactive sociolinguistic and ethnographic perspective. In her prolific career with diverse collaborators, Green (1983) has examined various topics, including curriculum construction, language and literacy practices, and teacher and student roles, with the basic assumption that daily life in classrooms is socially constructed and negotiated over time in face-to-face interaction.

The notion of school culture was further developed by scholars whose primary interest was in understanding the difficulties experienced by marginalized groups of children in schools. Early on, Shirley Brice Heath (1983) studied the “ways of words” of several diverse communities in the Piedmont Carolinas, and emphasized the highly contextualized nature of communication across different cultural, socioeconomic, and linguistic communities. As she followed these groups of children into the school context, the mismatch between their community’s cultural discourse patterns and those of the school became apparent. This mismatch established the idea that particular discourse patterns characterized school and might create an obstacle to participation, and thus achievement, for particular groups of children.

This insight was buttressed with a major finding from literacy researchers—that children socialized in diverse contexts come to school differentially prepared to respond to the demands of school culture (Jacobs and Jordan, 1993). Building upon Heath’s seminal work, many scholars with multicultural and diversity interests have sharpened our understanding of the essentially middle-class nature of school discourse and literacy practices, and the challenge, therefore, to diverse learners, whose experiences at home do not provide an easy match with school (Delpit, 2002; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Moll, 1992; Finn, 1999). Furthermore, Scribner and Cole (1981) established the idea that there are multiple forms of literacy, including specialized forms of reading and writing, both in school and out. Researchers interested in the school context have focused on what has been called variously “school-based literacy” (Pellegrini, 2001), “schooled literacy” (Bloome, 1987), the “official” (versus the “unofficial”) literacy practices found in school (Dyson, 1993), and “school culture literacy” (Kantor, Miller, and Fernie, 1992). Common across these terms are the notions that literacy practices are shaped by school culture in particular ways that reflect middle class-literacy, that school- based literacy is a specific variety of literacy that must be taught and learned by all students, and that it will be easier for those whose home experiences are seamless with the school context.

Understanding and accepting the power of the school culture context to shape and constrain school success reframes the discourse around many familiar topics, such as school readiness, assessment, culturally relevant pedagogy, and discipline and guidance. The idea that school culture is a relative term begs the question of the appropriate role for schools in supporting childhood socialization and the needs of diverse learners. Among the questions facing early childhood educators are how best to support various students as they come to school, and how—or if—teachers ought to change their pedagogy and curricula to help diverse students instead of requiring students to change in order to meet the requirements of the school-based context? Some propose that the primary challenge for schools is to expand the school culture so that it supports students and their families cross the bridge from home to school and become socially “bicultural” in the ways of their communities and their schools.

Further Readings: Bloome, D. (1987). Literacy and schooling. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. Corsaro, W. A. (1997). The sociology of childhood. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press; Delpit, L. (2002). The skin that we speak. New York: The New Press; Dyson, A. H. (1993). Social worlds of children learning to write. New York: Teachers College Press; Finn, P. (1999). Literacy with an attitude: Educating working-class in their own self-interest. New York: University of New York Press; Green, J. (1983). Exploring classroom discourse: Linguistic perspectives on teaching-learning processes. Educational Psychologist 18(3), 180-199; Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and working communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press; Jackson, P. (1968). Life in classrooms. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Jacobs, E., and C. Jordan, eds. (1993). Minority education: Anthropological perspectives. Norwood, NJ: Ablex; Kantor, R., S. Miller, and D. Fernie (1992). Diverse paths to literacy in a preschool classroom: A sociocultural perspective. Reading Research Quarterly 27, 185-201; Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dream keepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers; Moll, L. (1992). Bilingual classroom studies and community analysis: Some recent trends. Educational Researcher 21(2) 20-24; Pellegrini, A. (2001). Some theoretical and methodological considerations in studying literacy in social context. In S. Neuman and D. Dickinson, eds. Handbook on research in early literacy for the 21st century. New York: Guilford; pp. 54-65; Scribner, S., and M. Cole (1981). The psychology of literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rebecca Kantor, Melissa Schultz, and David Fernie