Education and sociocultural identification: Facilitating learning effects through congruence.
In most contemporary Western educational systems, sociocultural inequalities remain prominent. Nevertheless, the functionalist meritocratic perspective—which claims that by focusing on students’ own achievement, the educational system limits the privileges associated with ascription, such as wealth and family background—has further permeated the common sense in recent decades. This perspective has been severely criticized by interactionism and conflict theory, which show that biases within the educational system itself put certain student subgroups at a disadvantage. In other words, the effects of transmitted knowledge are no longer seen as universal, but as dependent on the degree of congruence between the contents and/or the medium of that knowledge and the audience’s sociocultural characteristics. The current thesis refers to this idea as the ‘cultural congruence hypothesis’ and zooms in on a specific form of cultural congruence: ‘educational congruence,’ or the match of students’ sociocultural identifications with curricular contents/media.
To remedy the bias within existing curricula, some teachers and researchers have since the 1960s started linking curricular contents to the personal experiences of minority students, including those from lower-class and/or ethnic minority backgrounds, and male students. The first aim of this thesis is therefore to examine the expectation that the degree of (in)congruence between curricular contents and students’ sociocultural identifications (de)stimulates their learning. An alternative suggestion by which to solve the incongruence experienced by certain student subgroups is to introduce entertaining digital media into the curriculum. Unlike contents-related educational congruence, such media are expected to be congruent with the personal lives of most students, as they share one salient sociocultural identification: their age. For ‘disadvantaged’ students especially, such congruent media may offer an opportunity to connect with the curriculum. This thesis’ second aim is thus to test whether introducing a low-threshold digital medium, congruent with students’ age group, into the curriculum produces greater beneficial learning effects for ‘disadvantaged’ students than for their ‘advantaged’ peers. Finally, students in current globalized societies are frequently expected to be not only ‘good students,’ but also ‘good citizens’ who appreciate and understand other cultures. A too congruent curriculum might hinder the latter objective, as students are kept too snugly within their ‘comfort zone’. This thesis’ final aim is hence to investigate whether students’ performance of the ‘good citizen’ role is facilitated more by intercultural curricular contents than by majority-only contents.
The above three aims are tested with two ‘culturally enriched’ experiments, which no longer simply ask whether their manipulations work, but rather for which cultural subgroups they are effective. They also consider the impact of how well curricular contents match students’ sociocultural self-identifications, rather than researcher-imposed identity labels. The first experiment tests the impact of (mis)matching course examples with students’ gender, one of the clearest sociocultural divisions in Flemish university settings. The second considers ethnicity-related educational congruence effects in Flemish secondary school classrooms within the ‘aso’ and ‘tso’ tracks.
The results confirm the educational congruence hypothesis: rather than limiting the effects of students’ sociocultural characteristics in a meritocratic fashion, the educational system reinforces certain sociocultural effects, depending on the curricular contents it chooses to incorporate. This is evident in (1) the (de)stimulating learning effects of the degree of (mis)match between gendered course examples and students’ gender self-identifications in a university sociology lecture, and (2) the degree of (mis)fit of ‘colorblind’ versus ‘intercultural’ texts with students’ ethnic self-identifications during secondary school Dutch literacy instruction. Secondly, the experiments found some evidence that YouTube clips and Twitter literary roleplay lessen the gap between ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ students’ performance of the ‘good student’ role, compared to more traditional curricular media. Finally, educational incongruence may also be useful. Letting self-identified Belgian students read a book that includes Moroccan-Belgian interactions—rather than only offering them a ‘white-Belgian-majority’ book that fits their ethnic identifications more closely—improves their attitudes toward Moroccans, though only if they had many classmates of Moroccan descent. The ‘Moroccan-Belgian’ book also improves the attitude toward Belgians of students who did not identify as Belgian, but only in classes with a limited number of classmates of Belgian descent. Moreover, the conclusion that the ‘Moroccan-Belgian’ book may facilitate students’ performance of the ‘good citizen’ role is further nuanced because the book also reduces the awareness of discrimination against Moroccan youngsters of (1) self-identified Belgian students in classes with many pupils of Moroccan descent and (2) students who do not feel Belgian in classes with few pupils of Moroccan descent.
The final chapter explores five suggestions for further research: the influence of the sociocultural context on educational congruence effects, the unresolved tension between an ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ measure of students’ sociocultural identifications, the intersectional character of educational congruence effects, the possibility that students’ sociocultural identifications were primed by the experimental design, and the need for longitudinal studies. The thesis concludes with a brief discussion of the difficulties that teachers face in applying educational congruence mechanisms in day-to-day classrooms.