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Child Development in Cultural Contexts: Implications of Cultural Psychology for Early Childhood Teacher Education

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Child Development in Cultural Contexts: Implications of Cultural Psychology for Early Childhood Teacher Education
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  Child Development in Cultural Contexts: Implications of CulturalPsychology for Early Childhood Teacher Education Kyunghwa Lee Æ Amy S. Johnson Published online: 15 September 2007 Ó Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007 Abstract In this article we argue that early childhoodeducators, under the influence of last century’s grand uni-versal theories of child development, havenot been attentiveenough to the centrality of culture in children’s develop-ment. We discuss how the exploration of contemporarydevelopmental perspectives is critical to the field and illus-trate cultural views of child development based on culturalpsychology. The goal of cultural psychology is to study theco-creation of human beings and cultures by focusing onboth mentalities and practices, on both culture and biology.Using this lens, we explore the implications that culturalpsychology holds for early childhood educators. Keywords Child development Á Culture Á Early childhood education Á Developmental theory Á Developmental psychology Á Critical theory Á Cultural psychologyThe term ‘‘development’’ is ubiquitous within the field of early childhood education. Many influential figures in thefield have been developmental psychologists. A leading journal in the field is titled, Early Education and Devel-opment  . A Special Interest Group (SIG) of the AmericanEducational Research Association that has been home tomany early childhood educators is called the Early Edu-cation/Child Development SIG. In many universities, earlychildhood education is located in departments with nameslike Human Development and Family Studies. The guide-lines published by the National Association for theEducation of Young Children that have been a dominantdiscourse and resulted in heated discussion among earlychildhood educators in the past two decades are titled  Developmentally Appropriate Practice (Bredekamp andCopple1997). The ubiquity of the term ‘‘development’’reflects the field’s long history that emphasizes theimportance of understanding children’s development(Chung and Walsh2000). Describing kindergarten teachereducation at the end of the 19th century, Weber (1969)wrote, ‘‘it was argued that teachers working with youngchildren needed an extensive understanding of humandevelopment. Indeed, Hall maintained the need for psy-chological knowledge ‘increased inversely with the age of the student’’’ (p. 120).In recent years, some early childhood educators havecritiqued the field’s reliance on developmental psychology(e.g., Bloch1991; Burman1994; Cannella1997; Jipson 1991; Kessler1991; Mallory and New1994; Ryan and Grieshaber2005). Some of the critiques have been made tothe extent that they appear to discount science in generaland psychology in particular. We agree that an over-reliance on developmental psychology has been certainlylimiting and that the field needs to explore diverse frame-works to better serve its work with young children. Ourcritique of the field’s dependence on developmental psy-chology, however, takes a different tack. We argue in thisarticle that the field has maintained an allegiance to out-dated and limited developmental theories that requireupdating and broadening. We believe that exploring and K. Lee ( & )Department of Elementary and Social Studies Education,The University of Georgia, 427 Aderhold Hall, Athens,GA 30602, USAe-mail: kyunghwa@uga.eduA. S. JohnsonDepartment of Instruction and Teacher Education,University of South Carolina, Wardlaw 204, Columbia,SC 29208, USAe-mail: asjohnso@gmail.com  123 Early Childhood Educ J (2007) 35:233–243DOI 10.1007/s10643-007-0202-7  making use of the best contemporary developmental per-spectives remain essential to the field’s work with and itsvision of young children. For this reason, we introducecultural psychology as one such contemporary develop-mental framework that provides meaningful implicationsfor the field.In this article, we illustrate our approach to under-standing children’s development using a series of linkedvignettes about a teacher whom we call Sally Brooks. Wehave deliberately constructed these vignettes for our illus-trative purposes, drawing on Amy’s experiences as ateacher of young children in an urban context (Johnson2006), Kyunghwa’s experiences researching early child-hood teachers’ folk theories (Lee2001), as well as the work of other researchers who have developed insightfulaccounts of young children and their teachers within socialand cultural contexts (e.g., Dyson1997; Gallas1998; Gee 1996; Graue1993). Sally Brooks, a European American kindergartenteacher in her late 20s, is in her third year teaching.She teaches in a public school, in a large urban areain the southeastern United States. Historically, thestudents who attend Sally’s school have been AfricanAmerican. But, as the area around Sally’s school hasrecently experienced gentrification, the school hasexperienced an influx of middle class EuropeanAmerican students. Ten of the fifteen students in herkindergarten classroom are African American, andfive are European American. About half of her classreceives free and/or reduced lunch. Sally is particu-larly concerned with the literacy learning and‘‘readiness for first grade’’ of one student, an AfricanAmerican boy named Marcus Taylor.In our discussion of Sally and Marcus, we draw on thework of cultural psychologists such as Bruner (1996), Cole(1996), Shweder et al. (1998) and others (e.g., Goodnow et al.1995; Hatano and Inagaki1998; Miller1999). Since the 1980s this critical mass of scholars have argued thatdevelopmentalism based on the dominant experimentalpsychology has focused on biology and universality andignored how culture enters into the process of humandevelopment. We believe that a cultural psychological lensenables early childhood educators like Sally to see devel-opment as ‘‘the process of growing into a culture’’ (Lee andWalsh2001, p. 80). Developmental Theories and Early ChildhoodEducation From its beginning, the field of early childhood educationhas been greatly influenced by theories seeking to explainand describe processes of human, particularly child,development. The dominant view of child developmenttaken up by early childhood educators reflects the ‘‘threegrand systems’’ (Damon1998, p. xv) of the 20th century:that is, Piaget, psychoanalysis, and learning theory arethree grand theoretical systems that have dominated thefield. Within these three grand systems, child developmentis described as occurring in linear and universal stages andis considered ‘‘lawful and, with minor adjustments, thesame for everyone across time’’ and place (Lee and Walsh2001, p. 74). In addition, development is perceived as anindividualistic process that occurs through children’s‘‘direct encounters with the world rather than mediatedthrough vicarious encounters with it in interacting andnegotiating with others’’ (Bruner1986, p. 85). In theUnited States in particular, the discourse on developmen-talism relies heavily on Piagetian theory taken togetherwith, what Walsh (1991) called, the romantic maturation-ism which emphasizes the notion of developmentfollowing ‘‘the individual’s unique biological clock’’(p. 114). This discourse has provided the foundation for thecontemporary discourse of Developmentally AppropriatePractice (Bredekamp and Copple1997).In a content analysis of successive editions of the  Handbook of Child Psychology (1946, 1954, 1970, and1983), Damon (1998) noted the waning influence of thethree grand systems. Lerner (1998) explained that thischange reflects a movement from mechanistic and atom-istic views on development to more systemic views ondevelopment:In other words, development, understood as a prop-erty of systemic change in the multiple and integratedlevels of organization (ranging from biology to cul-ture and history) comprising human life and itsecology, or, in other words, a developmental systems perspective , is an overarching conceptual frameassociated with contemporary theoretical models inthe field of human development. (p. 2)Unlike the grand developmental theories, developmen-talists working from a systems perspective are interestednot in ‘‘structure, function, or content per se, but in change,in the processes through which change occurs, and thus inthe means through which structures transform and func-tions evolve over the course of human life’’ (Lerner1998,p. 1). A key aspect of a developmental systems perspectiveis that ‘‘development occurs through the dynamic interac-tions people experience with the specific characteristics of the changing contexts within which they are embedded’’(p. 16). Although a systems perspective encourages earlychildhood educators to move beyond the oversimplifica-tions of structuralism and universalism, many earlychildhood educators still tend to discuss child development 234 Early Childhood Educ J (2007) 35:233–243  123  in ‘‘conceptually implausible and empirically counterfac-tual lines’’ (p. 2)—that is, they focus on universal stages,far-fetched dichotomies (e.g., biology vs. culture), andseparate domains of development (e.g., cognitive, social,emotional, physical).In order to illustrate the distinction between the notionof development as a linear and universal process and theview of development as a systemic process, we return toSally Brooks’ dilemma, offering two accounts of her viewsof Marcus’ development. As you read these two vignettes,we ask that you focus your reading on these guidingquestions: • How do you think children develop? • Are there universal developmental stages that allchildren follow in all domains? • How do grand theories about the linear and universaldevelopmental stages support and constrain our work with young children?Development as a Linear and Universal ProcessSince the beginning of the school year, Sally has beenworried about the readiness for first grade of onechild, Marcus Taylor. Marcus is a 6-year-old AfricanAmerican boy who receives free lunch, and who,in Sally’s opinion, acts immature for his age. Whenfaced with a challenging task, Marcus becomes easilyfrustrated, often getting angry and sometimes, crying.In terms of academics, Sally has noted that Marcusexperiences difficulty with basic vocabulary and lit-eracy skills. Throughout the school year, Sally hasadministered to all of her students a district-mandatedreading assessment that measures the development of each child’s reading skills (i.e., oral reading skills,print concepts, vocabulary, phonemic awareness,phonological awareness, and comprehension). Sallyused the information from this assessment to createdevelopmental ability-level reading groups. At theend of the year, she will use the results of thisassessment to determine her students’ readiness forfirst grade literacy. Thus far, according to thisdevelopmental measurement, Marcus’ scores havemarked him as not ready for first grade. In particular,the measurement indicates that he is currently belowthe developmentally appropriate level for a child hisage in the following areas: (1) knowledge of printconcepts; (2) ability to identify and orally manipulatesounds within words; (3) understanding of the rela-tionship between letters and their sounds; and (4)using grade-level words to communicate appropri-ately. Sally feels that if she is going to adequatelyaddress Marcus’ difficulties in reading that she needsparental support, so she has called Mr. andMrs. Taylor to schedule a meeting. Sally is certainthat Mr. and Mrs. Taylor are not reading with Marcusat home. She is hoping that when she meets withthem that she can convince them of the importance of storybook readings for Marcus’ reading development(Sulzby1985).In this vignette, Sally measures Marcus’ readingdevelopment, focusing mainly on how Marcus does or doesnot compare with the development and learning of theother children in her classroom or in kindergarten, ingeneral. The assessment tool she is using assumes that allchildren develop literacy in a similar set of universal stepsfollowing age norms. In addition, Sally perceives Marcus’behavior as a maturity issue and presumes that he as a childfrom a low-income family has a lack of exposure to literacyactivities at home. Seeing development as an individual-istic process that follows a child’s biological clock and thatis determined by his direct interaction with a separatesetting (e.g., home), Sally locates Marcus’ problem entirelywithin Marcus and his family. Focusing on Marcus’ read-ing ability measured and valued within school, Sally doesnot attempt to understand how Marcus learns or usesvocabulary and literacy skills to communicate outside of the school context. As a result, Sally does not alter hercurriculum or instruction in a way that recruits into theclassroom the kinds of learning and development thatstudents like Marcus experience in their homes orcommunities.Development as a Systemic ProcessWhen Sally called Mr. and Mrs. Taylor to set up ameeting, she learned that Marcus’ mother hadrecently had a baby. In order to meet in the afternoonat the school, Mrs. Taylor explained that she wouldneed to find childcare for the new baby as well asMarcus’ 2-year-old sister. Wanting to see firsthandhow Mr. and Mrs. Taylor supported Marcus’ literacydevelopment, Sally suggested that they hold themeeting within the family’s home. When Sallyarrived at their home, she saw a different 6-year-oldboy than the one who sat in her classroom each day.She witnessed Marcus sharing books and modelingreading for his 2-year-old sister. Sally saw thatMarcus had many educational toys, as well as aNintendo Game Cube videogame system. Sally askedthe Taylors to describe a schedule they had forreading with Marcus, and learned that each eveningthey did storybook reading with Marcus before hisbedtime. She also learned that Marcus read weekly in Early Childhood Educ J (2007) 35:233–243 235  123  Sunday school, and participated in a reading programoffered at the local community center where he wenteach afternoon after school. When Sally explainedthat she was particularly concerned about Marcus’vocabulary development, the Taylors seemed sur-prised and showed Sally a story that Marcus hadwritten the day before at the community center inwhich he had accurately incorporated the words‘‘deliveries’’ and ‘‘customize,’’ which he had learnedfrom playing his favorite video game AnimalCrossing (Nintendo of America, 15 June2006).Marcus’ parents also showed Sally how Marcus oftenvisited the Animal Crossing website (http://www.animal-crossing.com), where he often communicatedwith other Animal Crossing players using the‘‘message in a bottle’’ activity or brief notes writtenback and forth between players on ‘‘bottle paper.’’Sally also noticed that at the Animal Crossing web-site, Marcus encountered much more complicatedvocabulary words (e.g., ‘‘exciting,’’ ‘‘unique,’’‘‘decorate,’’ ‘‘equipment,’’ ‘‘spiff,’’ and ‘‘resident’’)than he encountered in the leveled readers she hadavailable in her classroom. Sally began to ask herself questions about why in his family’s home Marcuswas using so competently the skills he so oftenstruggled within school. She began noticing aspectsof Marcus’ development that she did not have accessto in the classroom. Sally asked herself: ‘‘How mightI provide Marcus in the classroom with a more sup-portive context for extending his literacy skills in amanner analogous to that offered by his family?’’In this second vignette, Sally begins to recognizeMarcus as a child growing in ‘‘the multiple and integratedlevels of organization’’ (Lerner1998, p. 2), such as hisfamily, church, community center, school, and even hisonline game community. She witnesses the change of Marcus’ identity from a struggling reader in her classroomto a competent and contributing participant in his com-munities. She also notices that the kinds of texts thatMarcus encounters at home are more complicated thanthose provided in school. This visit to Marcus’ family leadsSally to realize that Marcus’ problem with reading is notlocated solely within him or his family. She begins toinquire about processes and means through which Marcusfunctions as a competent child at home and communities.Unlike her previous approach to the situation that focusedon Marcus’ immature behavior and poor reading skills,Sally reconsiders her teaching and wants to know how thein-school context might be altered to better supportMarcus’ literacy learning.Coming to understand child development as taking placewithin contexts, however, will require Sally to pay carefulattention to the role that culture plays in Marcus’ devel-opment. In the rest of this manuscript, we explore therelationship between culture and development, presentingcultural psychology (Bruner1996; Cole1996; Goodnow et al.1995; Jessor et al.1996; Shweder et al.1998) as a useful lens for early childhood educators like Sally. On Culture: From a Cultural Psychological Perspective From the cultural psychological perspective, culture is themost significant system within which human developmentoccurs (Lee and Walsh2001). Drawing on Bruner’s (1986) work, we understand developmental theories as being‘‘relative to the cultural contexts in which they are applied’’(p. 135). Bruner argued that any theory of development thataims to be ‘‘culture free’’ is ‘‘not a wrong claim, but anabsurd one’’ because ‘‘the plasticity of the human genomeis such that there is no unique way in which it is realized,no way that is independent of opportunities provided by theculture into which an individual is born’’ (p. 135).Although culture has long been a central construct inanthropology, only in recent years developmentalists havebegun to attend to it in a systematic way. In this section,we point out several key concepts of culture, which areessential for understanding our discussion about childdevelopment in culture. We then apply these attributes of culture to Sally Brooks’ situation.First, culture is not something that is simply ‘‘out there’’and observable through people’s behaviors, actions, andcustoms. Nor, is culture something that is just ‘‘inside thehead’’ and solely composed of people’s beliefs and ideas(D’Andrade1984). Rather, we understand culture, inShweder et al.’s (1998) terms, as the ‘‘custom complex’’that honors both the ‘‘symbolic and behavioral inheri-tances’’ (p. 867). The symbolic inheritance refers to acultural community’s ‘‘received ideas and understandings,both implicit and explicit, about persons, society, natureand divinity’’ while the behavioral inheritance includes acultural community’s ‘‘routine or institutionalized familylife and social practices’’ (p. 868). This definition high-lights that researchers interested in understanding cultureshould pay careful attention to both what people do andwhat they think as the unit of analysis.Second, such a focus on the custom complex reflects aneffort to move beyond seeing culture as an entity with aclear-cut boundary, such as nationality, race, ethnicity, andsocioeconomic class, which often functions as ‘‘‘socialaddress’ boxes or identity categories’’ (Rogoff 2003, p. 78).Instead, culture is framed as ‘‘shared meaning systems’’(Miller1999, p. 86). Geertz (1973) explained this concept of culture by using the analogy of an octopus. According tohim, the octopus, while poorly integrated, ‘‘nonetheless 236 Early Childhood Educ J (2007) 35:233–243  123  manages both to get around and to preserve himself as aviable if somewhat ungainly entity’’ (p. 408). Narrative hasbeen widely understood as a mechanism through whichcultural meanings and cultural ways of being are preserved,passed on, and enacted. For instance, Bruner (1990) arguedthat narrative enables people to bring coherence andidentity to otherwise ‘‘chaotic experience’’: ‘‘Without nar-rative, we would be lost in a murk of chaotic experienceand probably would not have survived as a species in anycase’’ (p. 128). Working in this same vein, Postman (1989)elaborated that stories provide ‘‘a kind of theory about howthe world works and how it needs to work if we are tosurvive’’ (p. 123).Third, stories, however, do more than simply enableindividuals to co-construct cohesive storylines and theoriesabout their worlds. As Narayan (1989) and Ochs and Capps(2001) have pointed out, an important aspect of narratingshared experience is the sharing of moral viewpoints. It isindeed a sense of shared morality that defines culture:‘‘Members of a culture are members of a moral communitywho work to co-construct a shared reality and who act asthough they were parties to an agreement to behave ratio-nally within the terms of the realities they share’’ (Shweder1996, p. 20).In summary, cultural psychologists see culture as a‘‘custom complex’’ comprised of both what people do andthink in their local contexts. Culture has a narrative-likequality, consisting of shared meanings and morality. Let’sapply these understandings of culture to think throughSally Brooks’ teaching dilemma. Use the following ques-tions to guide your reading of these two vignettes on howSally attempts to draw on her understanding of Marcus’culture in her teaching: • What is culture to you? • How is your definition of culture connected to seeingculture as social categories or as shared meanings andmorality? • How do the different views of culture affect ourunderstanding of child development in culturalcontexts?Culture as Social CategoriesAs Sally began to think more deeply about herdilemma with Marcus, she was concerned with howher students’ African American culture might becomea more prominent feature of her curriculum. With thewinter holiday of Kwanzaa approaching, Sally deci-ded that she would use the approaching holiday as abackdrop for her literacy teaching. She brought inbooks and other texts that explained the holiday. Sheencouraged the students to write about their ownexperiences with Kwanzaa. She also suggested to thestudents that they design and organize a celebrationfor their families and community members. In sodoing, she had students practicing many importantliteracy skills: they designed invitations for the cel-ebration, wrote individual journals about theKwanzaa holiday, collected traditional family reci-pes, and prepared signs and banners advertising theevent. Sally thought it would also be a good idea if the children wore traditional ‘‘Afrocentric’’ clothing,and if their families brought traditional AfricanAmerican foods to share. As she and her studentsinquired into Kwanzaa, Sally noticed that Marcusshowed little to no interest in the topic. Sallywas surprised, for instance, when he claimed that hisfamily did not celebrate the holiday, nor did they ownany traditional Afrocentric clothing that he couldwear to school. When Marcus was asked to writeabout his family’s traditions, he wrote instead aboutthe characters of his favorite video game. Sally alsonoticed that when students were asked to write abouttheir favorite foods that their families eat that manystudents made no mention of the traditional dishesSally was expecting them to write about. Instead,most students discussed how they enjoy eatingChinese and Mexican foods. Sally simply did notknow what to make of Marcus’ and the other AfricanAmerican students’ reactions to these activities. Shefelt frustrated that Marcus, in particular, seemed toresist her efforts to use his cultural identity as a ful-crum for helping him connect to the curriculum.In this vignette, we see Sally as trying to recruit Marcus’cultural world into the classroom. Seeking to understandhow her students’ cultural background can come to betterinform her curricular and instructional choices, she aims touse what she knows as African-American custom as a forayinto literacy. Although her intention is commendable,Sally’s approach has limitations in that she equates culturewith race (e.g., African-American) and focuses on rathersuperficial aspects of the cultural community, such as food,clothing, and holidays. In doing so, Sally is surprised tolearn that Marcus and his African-American classmates donot identify with Sally’s construction of their culture. Forexample, when asked to discuss their favorite foods, thechildren claim to enjoy Chinese and Mexican foods asopposed to the Southern-style ‘‘soul foods’’ that Sallyexpected them to enjoy. Rogoff (2003) argued that thisview of culture as ‘‘‘social address’ boxes or identity cat-egories...creates issues of variability within groups,overlapping involvements in different communities, andthe complexities of subdividing categorization systems’’ Early Childhood Educ J (2007) 35:233–243 237  123
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