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Achievement Gaps
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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Explanations

    1. Social Factors

Scholar Argues that Cultural Learning Styles Do Not Come in Black and White

Can we explain the black-white achievement gap as a result of different cultural learning styles? A researcher argues that we cannot. He says that the idea of a Black Cultural Learning Style is fundamentally flawed and harkens back to an old racist perspective on education.

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.

The achievement gap between black and white U.S. students has been documented for many years now.

The problem is that we are still trying to understand why this gap exists and what we can do to reduce it. Many explanations have been put forward—some better, some worse than others.

According to scholar Craig L. Frisby, the idea that black students achieve less academically than white students because they are taught according to culturally incompatible styles is one of the worst explanations.

Frisby says that the idea of a culturally distinct black learning style became fashionable in the 1980s as an explanation for the achievement gap. The idea is basically that something about African ancestry causes black children to learn differently from white (European descent) children, and the black children were being educated (or, miseducated) within the context of an educational system geared to white learning styles. In short, the achievement gap is not surprising because black children do not learn the same way white children do.

The solution, according to this perspective, is to teach black children in a style consistent with the characteristics of their culturally prescribed learning style.

What Is a Cognitive Style and a Learning Style?

Frisby says that in order to understand this argument, we first have to understand what is meant by a "cognitive style" and a "learning style."

Frisby defines a cognitive style as:

". . .stable attitudes, preferences, or habitual strategies determining a person's typical modes of perceiving, remembering, thinking and problem solving. In short, cognitive styles reflect individual differences in how information and experience is organized and processed."(p. 536)

A cognitive style, then, determines the ways in which a person thinks and feels about the world.

A learning style, says Frisby, is the cognitive style that a person uses when confronted with a learning task. A learning style indicates a certain predisposition to use a particular learning strategy, regardless of the specific learning task.

What Are the Characteristics of a Theorized Black Cultural Learning Style?

So just what are the characteristics of a Black Cultural Learning Style (BCLS)?

Frisby reviews the work of a number of writers and develops a list of characteristics that supposedly describe a black or African learning style as opposed to a white or European learning style.

African Culture

European Culture

Learns more easily from materials that have a human or social content.
Learns more easily from material that has impersonal, abstract, and inanimate content
Performs better when authority figures express confidence in their abilities.
Opinions of others do not greatly affect their performance.
Prefers cooperative learning situations.
Prefers competitive learning situations.
Behaviors appear impulsive.
Better impulse control. Attitude is more reflective.
Short attention span, shallow concentration, easily distracted, prefers movement.
Long attention span, able to concentrate deeply, not easily distracted, will listen attentively, sedentary.
The teacher is a problem.
The teacher is a source of solutions.
Not motivated to achievement-related goals.
Motivated to achieve.
Prefers fantasy and humor in optional reading or classroom illustrations.
Prefers realism in optional reading or classroom illustrations.
External locus of control.
Internal locus of control.
Passive: low confidence in ability to solve intellectual problems.
Active: high confidence in ability to solve intellectual problems.

No Substantial Support for BCLS

Frisby says that the notion of a black cultural learning style is based on five flawed assumptions:

Assumption 1: Black and white cultures are fundamentally incompatible.
Assumption 2: Black culture determines the learning style of black children.
Assumption 3: Learning style assessment is valid and reliable.
Assumption 4: Because black children cannot learn differently from their cultural learning style, teachers must match their teaching style to black children's learning style.
Assumption 5: There are educational content and methods "uniquely effective" for increasing black educational achievement relative to whites.

Frisby's review of the literature finds that there is little research to support these assumptions.

A Return to a Racist Perspective

According to Frisby, explaining the black-white achievement gap as a result of black cultural learning styles is not merely bad research and policy but constitutes a return to an age where segregation in education was justified on the basis of incommensurate racial "styles."

In his article, Frisby quotes two authors, one of whom is a proponent of BLCS, the other of whom is a nineteenth century "educator."

"To characterize Afro-Americans as culturally different from Euro-Americans is not graphic enough. To the extent that the Black experience reflects a traditional West African cultural ethos, the two frames of reference are noncommensurable. There are fundamental incompatibilities between them: they are not quite polar opposites, but they are almost dialectically related. . . . This incommensurability makes if difficult to put black cultural reality in the service of attainment in Euro-American cultural institutions, such as schools. The ideology that informs those institutions is a profound negation of the most central attributes of African culture." (Boykin 1986)
"The ground of distinction . . . is one of races, not of colors, merely. The distinction is one which the All-wise creator has seen fit to establish and it is founded deep in the physical, mental and moral natures of the two races. No legislation, no social customs, can efface this distinction. . . .We maintain that the true interests of both races require that they should be kept distinct. Amalgamation is degradation. We would urge our brethren of the African race, the duty of cultivating the genuine virtues peculiar to that race." (Crowell, Ingraham &Kimball 1846,34).

According to Frisby, it is precisely this "chilling similarity" that constitutes the most compelling argument for rejecting the notion of black cultural learning styles. In Frisby's words:

"It is high time that BCLS models be laid to rest. Failure to do so may result in the realization that, instead of making significant steps forward, we have indeed made one giant step backward." (p.552)

Other Works Referenced in the :

Boykin, A. W. (1986). The triple quandary and the schooling of Afro-American children. In U. Neisser (ed.)The school achievement of minority children: new perspectives(pp.57-92). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Crowell, W., Ingraham, J. W., & Kimball, D. (1846). Extracts from the majority report on the caste schools.The Liberator,16, 34.

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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