These differences have their roots in early adult-infant interactions (Blake, 1994). Whereas middle-class Anglo mothers tend to have frequent language interactions that are focused on didactic naming and pointing with their infants around objects (“Look at that red truck!”), African American mothers show comparable frequency levels of language interactions with their infants, but focused on affective dimensions of language (“Isn’t that a pretty toy? Doesn’t it make you feel happy?”). The language that children bring with them to school involves a broad set of skills rooted in the early context of adult-child interactions. What happens when the adults, peers, and contexts change (Suina, 1988; Suina and Smolkin, 1994)? This is an important question that relates to the transfer of learning.
The meanings that are attached to cultural knowledge are important in promoting transfer—that is, in encouraging people to use what they have learned. For example, story-telling is a language skill. Topic-associative oral styles have been observed among African American children (Michaels, 1981a,b; 1986). In contrast, white children use a more linear narrative style that more closely approximates the linear expository style of writing and speaking that schools teach (see Gee, 1989; Taylor and Lee, 1987; Cazden et al., 1985; Lee and Slaughter-Defoe, 1995). Judgments may be made by white and black teachers as they listen to these two language styles: white teachers find the topic-associative stories hard to follow and are much more likely to infer that the narrator is a low-achieving student; black teachers are more likely to positively evaluate the topic-associative style (Cazden, 1988:17). African American children who come to school speaking in a topic-associative style may be seen by many teachers as having less potential for learning. Teachers can be helped to view different cultural backgrounds as strengths to be built on, rather than as signs of “deficits.”
We began this chapter by stressing that the ultimate goal of learning is to have access to information for a wide set of purposes—that the learning will in some way transfer to other circumstances. In this sense, then, the ultimate goal of schooling is to help students transfer what they have learned in school to everyday settings of home, community, and workplace. Since transfer between tasks is a function of the similarity by transfer tasks and learning experiences, an important strategy for enhancing transfer from schools to other settings may be to better understand the nonschool environments in which students must function. Since these environments change rapidly, it is also important to explore ways to help students develop the characteristics of adaptive expertise (see Chapter 1).
The question of how people function in a number of practical settings has been examined by many scientists, including cognitive anthropologists,