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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

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Researcher Critiques Assumptions Underlying the Idea of Black Cultural Learning Styles

According to one scholar, the notion of a Black Cultural Learning Style is seriously flawed. The scholar identifies five assumptions underlying this perspective and demonstrates why each of these assumptions is problematic.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Frisby, C. L. (1993). One giant step backward: Myths of black cultural learning styles.School Psychology Review, 22,535-557.

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

It seems intuitive that culture would affect the ways that we think and learn. However, one scholar says that the notion of a black cultural learning style is seriously flawed. The scholar identifies five assumptions underlying this perspective and demonstrates why each of these assumptions is problematic.

The Hypothesis of a Black Cultural Learning Style

Scholar Craig Frisby says that during the 1960s and 1970s there appeared to be some empirical support for cultural differences in learning characteristics. This research fueled the view that the long-standing achievement gap between white and black students in the U.S. might be due to different learning styles. Perhaps black kids were simply being taught under a foreign learning style. The effect of this "ideology" (as Frisby terms it) was to give strength to a perspective that black children need to be educated differently from white students.

The thinking behind this "Afro-centric" approach to education, says Frisby, was that the learning styles of black U.S. children had more in common with West-African culture than white or "European" culture. Researchers and educators with an Afro-centric orientation referred to this distinct way of learning as a Black Cultural Learning Style (BCLS).

The upshot of this view, says Frisby,was that some proponents of BCLS claimed that black children should be taught with different methods and educational content, perhaps even different teachers and schools.

But, says Frisby, before moving ahead with a radical reorganization of black children's education, shouldn't we evaluate the notion of BCLS more closely? After all, if the notion of a Black Cultural Learning Style is flawed, then moving ahead with an educational program based on this notion could do more harm than good.

Assumptions Underlying Black Cultural Learning Style are Flawed

Frisby argues that the assumptions underlying the Black Cultural Learning Style are flawed. He identifies five key assumptions underlying the notion and then critiques their logic or empirical support.

Assumption 1: Black and White Cultures are Fundamentally Incompatible

Frisby says that one of the problems in assessing the validity of this assumption is that the concept of culture is "flabby." That is, it can mean too many different things.

Frisby identifies two common meanings of "culture" underlying the BCLS literature.

Concept of culture



Cultural differences result from living on different continents: different continents of origin—Africa versus Europe—give rise to different cognitive styles

1. Uniformity assumption. The diversity within cultures is so massive that these differences are missed in between-culture comparisons. To compare "African" and "European" cognitive styles means to depict each in an overly simplistic (and, ultimately wrong) manner. The practice of using global adjectives to describe complex cultures is seriously flawed, says Frisby.

2. Ethnocentrism. Frisby points out that the interpretation of one culture is always colored by the interpreters' own cultural biases. Characterizations of different cultures are more a matter of how we perceive the cultures than objective portraits of the cultures. Frisby thinks that the portrayals of African culture tend to be idealized or sentimentalized portraits.

3. Acculturation is universal. All cultures change in contact with each other. They cannot remain wholly distinct or "water-tight." Long-term contact of African Americans with westernized U.S. culture has caused dramatic transformations in their own culture. Frisby says that from a global perspective, African Americans are thoroughly Westernized.

Frisby says that "in many respects, the 'culture' of contemporary African Americans shares more in common with their European-American counterparts than with traditional African culture" (p. 542).

Cultural differences are manifest in different "stylistic" racial and ethnic differences: differences in fashion, communication, religious worship, literature, music, etc.

Cultural "stylistic" differences of this sort are relatively superficial. The key question, says Frisby, is whether these differences are so profound that they can serve as a serious explanation for differences in overall school achievement.

Frisby says, "Despite the fanciful speculations of some writers no consistent or compelling body of empirical evidence exists to support the notion that these stylistic differences are important factors influencing performance on commonly accepted measure(s) of academic achievement" (p. 543).

Assumption 2: Black Culture Determines the Learning Style of Black Children

Frisby says that this assumption posits that a black student's learning style is an extension of stable characteristics of black "culture." However, says Frisby, this assumption is itself founded on two outdated assumptions that have been critiqued in culture and personality research since the 1950s.

  1. Causal assumption. In essence, this is circular reasoning. Differences between two groups are described by some unobservable construct such as "culture." Then, "magically," this construct becomes the cause of the differences.
  2. Continuity assumption. This assumption views adult personality as determined by early childhood experiences. Frisby says that BCLS proponents make use of this assumption by suggesting links between early childhood experiences and later school learning behaviors. He says that, to date, there have been no published longitudinal studies that closely examine the link between early childhood experiences and later learning styles. In the absence of this research, Frisby says, the application of this assumption to Black Cultural Learning Styles is simply unproven.

But, apart from these assumptions, isn't there empirical research supporting the importance of cultural factors for determining learning styles?

Frisby thinks not. While there are studies that find statistically significant differences between white and black students on a cognitive/learning style variable, Frisby says that there are five reasons why this research does not constitute strong support of a Black Cultural Learning Style.

  1. Selective reporting. Frisby says that proponents of BCLS only draw on studies that support their views, and not on studies that do not support them.
  2. No evidence from kinship studies. If culture determines learning style, then we would expect identical twins raised in the same environment to exhibit the same learning and cognitive styles. In fact, what kinship studies show is that biologically identical individuals raised in the same environment usually show different personality traits. In sum, Frisby says, if the same family environment for biologically identical children does not guarantee similar personality characteristics (and, therefore, learning styles), then it strains credulity to argue that membership in the same racial group of unrelated individuals will determine learning styles.
  3. Failure to control for prior black-white differences. Frisby says that few studies control for prior differences (in income level, IQ, etc.) between black and white students. One well-designed study that did examine learning style characteristics of second- and third-graders found that when IQ and mental age were controlled, socioeconomic status (SES) made a difference, but racial group membership did not.
  4. Methodological problems. Frisby says that studies that compare academic performance of black and white students on a variety of achievement measures are very easy to misinterpret because statistical transformations needed to compare the groups can be misleading. Additionally, even if the differences in student profiles were not arbitrary, there is a serious flaw in identifying a culture-specific characteristic that is shared by less than 50% of the members of the racial or ethnic group.
  5. Same differences are suggested for other groups. Frisby says that the same learning style differences that supposedly hold between black and white students have been suggested to hold between male and female, young and old, rich and poor, and white and Hispanic students. In short, the learning style differences (to the extent that there are any) may not be due to racial differences at all, but something else.
Assumption 3: Learning Style Assessment is Valid and Reliable

Frisby says that another problem that plagues learning styles research is the validity and reliability of instruments that purport to measure learning styles. He points out a number of concerns.

Validity or Reliability Problem


Construct validity for "cognitive style"

Are instruments that measure cognitive style measuring a unique characteristic, or are they really measuring something else (such as IQ)? Frisby notes that one study looking at different races examined achievement gap scores,five tests measuring three cognitive style variables, and two tests measuring nonverbal intelligence. They found that IQ did a better job than learning styles of predicting achievement as well as the effects of culture on achievement.

Construct validity for "learning style"

Do different measures of learning styles all measure the same thing? Frisby notes that there is a wide variety of learning style assessment models. Because the models are very different, they could be measuring radically different things and still claim to be measuring learning styles.

Criterion validity

Do learning styles tests discriminate between groups that we already know are different? Frisby says that many learning styles tests do not provide any information on criterion validity. In other words, even if a learning styles test did discriminate between the learning styles of groups of white and black students, that still would not tell us whether "white" or "black" culture was the cause.


Are learning styles tests going to accurately measure learning styles at different times or with different groups? Frisby says that a review of learning styles measures found low reliability (that is, the test given at one point might produce a different score from the test given to the same people at another time). The review found no learning styles instrument that showed adequate evidence of reliability.

Assumption 4: Teachers Must Match Their Teaching Style to Black Children's Learning Style

Frisby says that even if we assume that there are different learning styles, it is an open question how we should teach in response to those styles. If we take race out of the issue, Frisby says that learning styles theorists do not agree on the best way to approach classroom teaching. He describes three basic orientations.

  1. Match teaching styles to learning styles. Frisby says that proponents of this approach argue that we have a moral obligation to try to teach children in the styles from which they learn best.
  2. Teach students to have flexible learning styles. Situations in which learning occurs change, so encouraging a child to learn only under the most favorable conditions may have short-term benefits, but long-term problems.
  3. Change learning styles: some learning styles are detrimental to success. Some aspects of a child's learning style may need to be modified so that the student can be more productive.

So, says Frisby, even if black and white children exhibit different learning styles, it is a matter of policy, not moral obligation, to decide how to treat these differences.

Assumption 5: Unique Educational Content and Methods are Needed to Increase Black Achievement Relative to Whites

Frisby says that Afro-centered education focuses on two different approaches:

  1. What to teach. Emphasize black and African culture and holidays
  2. How to teach. Lessons should include a high level of motor activity, stimulation, vivacity. Teachers should be warm, use verbal interplay during instruction, use a rhythmic style of speech and distinctive intonation to build rapport with their students. Learning experiences should be group oriented and interpersonal. Teachers should also use role-playing and sociodramatic teaching strategies as well as individualized contracts, computer-assisted education, and one-on-one tutoring.

Frisby says that the question is not whether the above approaches will increase black achievement, but whether these methods specifically target black children's learning styles. The fact of the matter may be that they will work for any child, regardless of race. Without any evidence, it appears that the educational prescriptions for how to teach are little more than a call for best practices for all at-risk students.

But is there evidence that using BCLS methods increases black achievement?

Frisby says that as of 1993 there was no evidence that Afro-centric schools did a better job of raising achievement than other schools. Another way of coming at this problem, though, would be to look at high-performing black schools and ask whether they were using methods tailored to black cultural learning styles.

According to Frisby, a study of high-achieving black schools found that their success had nothing to do with tailoring educational methods to black learning styles.

The Bottom Line

Frisby does not believe that there is sufficient evidence to support the idea that the achievement gap is due to Black Cultural Learning Styles. Apart from the lack of evidence, Frisby finds the assumptions underlying the BCLS flawed.

Research Design:

Research Question

Is the idea of a Black Cultural Learning Style useful for understanding the black/white achievement gap?


Frisby reviews a wide range of research on black cultural learning styles. He offers a narrative critique of the assumptions and findings underlying the black cultural learning style perspective.

Funding Source

Not given.


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