from refrigerated cartons). Prior knowledge also includes the kind of knowledge that learners acquire because of their social roles, such as those connected with race, class, gender, and their culture and ethnic affiliations (Brice-Heath, 1981, 1983; Lave, 1988; Moll and Whitmore, 1993; Moll et al., 1993–1998; Rogoff, 1990, 1998; Saxe, 1990). This cultural knowledge can sometimes support and sometimes conflict with children’s learning in schools (Greenfield and Suzuki, 1998); see Box 3.9.

School failure may be partly explained by the mismatch between what students have learned in their home cultures and what is required of them in school (see Allen and Boykin, 1992; Au and Jordan, 1981; Boykin and Tom, 1985; Erickson and Mohatt, 1982). Everyday family habits and rituals can either be reinforced or ignored in schools, and they can produce different responses from teachers (Heath, 1983). For example, if young learners are never asked questions at home that seem obvious to some families—such as “What color is the sky?” or “Where is your nose?” —teachers who ask such questions may find students reluctant or resistant to answer. How teachers interpret this reticence or resistance has consequences for how intelligent or academically capable they judge students and their instructional approaches toward them.

BOX 3.9 Eating Pie and Learning Fractions

Even small differences in cultural knowledge have the potential to affect students’ learning. For example, a primary school teacher is helping students to understand fractional parts by using what she thinks is a commonplace reference. “Today, we’re going to talk about cutting up a Thanksgiving holiday favorite—pumpkin pie.” She continues with an explanation of parts. Well into her discourse, a young African American boy, looking puzzled, asks, “What is pumpkin pie?” (Tate, 1994).

Most African Americans are likely to serve sweet potato pie for holiday dinners. In fact, one of the ways that African American parents explain pumpkin pie to their children is to say that it is Something like sweet potato pie. For them, sweet potato pie is the common referent. Even the slight difference of being unfamiliar with pumpkin pie can serve as a source of interference for the student. Rather than be engaged actively in the lesson, he may have been preoccupied with trying to imagine pumpkin pie: What does it taste like? How does it smell? Is its texture chunky like apple or cherry pie? In the mind of a child, all of these questions can become more of the focus than the subject of fractions that the teacher is attempting to teach.

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