Orality and Learning: A Key to the Achievement Gap? : The Harvesting Diversity Blog

Orality and Learning: A Key to the Achievement Gap?

by Patty Bates-Ballard on 03/08/11

Statistically, African American, Latino American, and American Indian students experience lower academic success than White American and Asian American students. There are many contributing factors to the achievement gap.

One significant factor in academic success is the degree to which a student;s culture aligns with mainstream educational culture. While mainstream American educational approaches center on writing, independence, competition, and abstract thinking, education in much of the rest of the world utilizes many of the learning techniques and tools of orality, or oral communication.

The degree to which a student;s home environment is influenced by elements of his or her culture;s traditional orality may be commensurate with the degree to which the student struggles with mainstream educational approaches.

All societies throughout the world first communicated orally. Orality, or thought and communication that is verbal rather than written, is the traditional human form of communication. The world has produced over 3,000 languages, but less than 100 have been written down. While familiar with writing, many societies still communicate today primarily through the voice. All societies retain aspects of their oral tradition (such as the American jury system), and many societies in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, the Arab world, and Europe retain significant orality.

Why does that matter? Our communication style, our understanding of education, and yes our entire worldview is impacted by whether we grow up with an emphasis on reading and writing or an emphasis on the spoken word.

Writing was developed around 6,000 years ago, and human memory has never been the same since. In his book Orality and Literacy, the widely esteemed researcher Walter J. Ong, Ph.D. explains that while promoting more abstract thought, writing has led to the underdevelopment of memory. Yet communication in oral cultures is structured to promote remembering. Eloquence and creative language, participation such as call and response, rhythm and movement, and verve and polarized discourse are some of the many tools that teachers with an oral worldview use to help their students learn and remember information.

In chirographic (writing-based) cultures, students look up information in reference books or on the web. They may rephrase content while copying it down, but often later forget it. In oral societies, teachers are the reference resource. So in oral cultures, there is no significant learning without a relationship with the teacher. Therefore, caring staff-student-parent relationships are another key to academic success for many children.

Teachers who come from an oral worldview, as well as those from a chirographic worldview who appreciate orality, know that spoken stories that provoke emotion are memorable. These teachers also know that students from oral-based cultures learn best when participating in groups. Perhaps most importantly of all, an oral worldview motivates learning through a practical focus that helps students understand how what they are learning relates to their own lives.

African American researchers like A. Wade Boykin, Lisa Delpit, and Deborah Ford, as well as Latino American researchers like Juan C. Guerra and Marcia Farr have documented how these characteristics appear in African American and Mexican American culture, and many have called on educators to utilize them more often to help bridge cultural learning gaps.

The Socha program offers a series of Culturally Compatible Education workshops that engage teachers as they explore these concepts and assist them in applying them to actual classroom scenarios and lessons. Please contact us for more information.

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