The Impact of Cultural Models on Education, Language and Identity (Part I)


According to James Gee (2012) in Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideologies in Discourse, a cultural model or figured world is defined as a “ picture of a simplified world that captures what is taken to be typical or normal” (p. 99). In other words, these are our created interpretations and representations of how we, and others, should behave, think, act, sound, look, etc. These models, when examined carefully, are found to be “made up of culturally derived ideas and practices that are embodied, enacted, or instituted in everyday life (Fryberg & Markus , 2007). Further, they become “so ingrained in our everyday lives that we often presume that other people share the same ideas and practices” (Fryberg & Rhys, 2007)) After time, these models become our norms and we relate to our experiences through the lenses formed as a result of them. It is important to note that “figured worlds are not static” because “as society changes, what people take as typical can and does change” (Gee, 2012, p. 99).  


After examining cultural models within my school, I realize that one of the lenses that we have created for ourselves as a community and operate from within, is that of self-advocacy through conversation.  We encourage students, on a daily basis, to seek out their teachers to talk.  We want them to visit and ask questions about their assignments and to conference about their ideas.  In fact, our physical environment is meant to support this culture of self-advocacy in that every teacher in our building has a desk in the “Resource Center.”


Resource Center

Next to each desk, is a chair, inviting students to sit and engage in conversation. Personally, I reinforce this figured world by constantly inviting my students to “see me in the resource center.”  I also included, in my course syllabus, the note that I will not discuss grades or assignments via email and reminded parents, during open house, that if their children are struggling or have questions about their work, they should encourage them to see me.


Mrs. Kailan’s Desk

This idea of teaching, and reinforcing, self-advocacy in children and adults is certainly tied to socioeconomic status, which to a large extent, determines how parents raise their children.  Gee (2012) discusses the work of Annette Lareau (2003) who found that typically, parents utilize one of two models when raising their children: natural growth and cultivation. Parents who subscribe to the natural growth model “cannot intervene as much…because they are busy working and surviving” and they “talk less to their children and use less book-like and adult language with them (p. 85).  Vastly different from the natural growth model is what Lareau called the cultivation model, which is “applied mostly, though not exclusively, by middle- and upper-middle-class families” (p. 84) Within this model, parents “talk a good deal to their children, especially about topics that do not just involve the here and now” (p. 84).  Further, they use a good deal of ‘book language’ and adult vocabulary” which ultimately allows children to “get lots of practice in developing arguments and explanations” (p. 84). As Dr. Tod Risley concludes in  Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, there is an exceptionally impressive correlation between the amount of talking done within a family unit, the child’s language development and his or her sense of identity.  Although there are some exceptions, the model to which our school community is most closely aligned is cultivation.

This relationship between socioeconomic status, self-advocacy and language development is further emphasized in Malcolm Gladwell’s (2008) Outliers: The Story of Success where he also references Lareau’s (2003) work to illustrate that “wealthier parents raised their kids one way, and the poorer parents raised their kids another way” (2008).  For example, before going to a doctor’s appointment, a mother, who is a wealthy professional, says to her son, “Alex, you should be thinking of questions you might want to ask the doctor…You can ask him anything you want. Don’t be shy. You can ask anything” (p.44). While in the office, the mother steps back and allows the child to ask his own questions, but the priming has been done before the appointment.  What I am seeing is that within our cultural model of self-advocacy, we have, consciously or not, created an educational setting that directly reflect the norms and practices of the community that we serve.mother and child

Image Sources:

Image 1Image 2, Images 3 & 4: Kailan, Image 5

Note about Form:

This week, I chose to write my response dealing with cultural models within my school setting.  At first, I thought about creating a Slide presentation and narrative my “presentation,” but I decided that so much of presenting deals with audience interaction, facial expressions, reactions, etc. that I needed to be able to “read” my audience if I were presenting in a formal setting.  Then, I thought about a podcast, but decided against it because it was pretty important to include visuals to show our figured world.  I did choose, however, to relate my thoughts about voice and identity in a podcast to reinforce the power of the sound of a human voice.


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