How Teachers Can Use Anthropology in Classrooms

From my experience as a teacher in Jordan, my home country, I have come to see how education can bring out the strength that young people have within them. As a teacher in a small Jordanian town and later in the capital, Amman, I taught students from a variety of backgrounds—among them rural and town-settled Bedouin, Syrians, Palestinians and Iraqis. I came to see the need for education to make students feel confident and capable, whatever their background.

To achieve this, ideas taken from the social sciences in general, and from anthropology in particular, can be useful. I believe that these ideas can be adapted and put into practice to meet the educational needs of youth in the Arab region.

I see the teacher acting as a kind of ethnographic researcher, leading primary and secondary school students in the investigation of social issues that affect their lives using methods such as participant observation and interviews. Involvement of this kind would strengthen the teacher’s role in the school and in society, and introduce students and teachers to first-hand local knowledge. It would boost the role of teachers as agents of social change in their communities (and might even improve their chronically poor social status.)

For example, teachers could lead students in researching the history of their city or town, the tangible and intangible heritage and local customs. These results could then be built into the subject matter of English and Arabic language classes, or into relevant parts of history courses. Students in social-science courses might conduct investigations into the changing ways of life, economic activities and spending patterns of their own families, to examine them in relation to the environment and society as a whole, eventually linking all of these to questions of globalization and rapid technological change.

The Arab region has experienced tremendous social upheaval in recent years. Mass movements of refugees and migrant workers, population growth, the intermingling of previously disconnected communities, chaotic urbanization and a dramatic rise in class inequality have all caused disruptive change in Arab societies.

I believe more needs to be done to respond to these changes, in the reform of education and especially in how teachers are trained. In our region, little effort has been made to engage with changing social conditions in the classroom.

Since the 1950s, anthropology has raised awareness of overlooked communities, and education professionals have responded to this in their work by promoting social diversity and equity. In many countries, movements for civil rights, decolonization, the recognition of indigenous peoples and immigrant rights have contributed to a continuing discussion about inclusivity in education.

I would like to see a model of education in our region which combines and puts into practice two complementary ideas from anthropology. The two ideas are known to theorists as, respectively, “cultural continuity” and “cultural discontinuity.”

First, in her article “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” published in 1995, the American pedagogical theorist and educator Gloria Ladson Billings argued that diversity of languages and cultural ways among students can be used to help rather than to hinder their education. Writing in the American context, she advocated making schooling culturally relevant for students from minority groups, especially African-American students. In the same way, Luis Moll and others described the “funds of knowledge” they encountered in teaching the children of Mexican migrant workers in California schools. The term refers to the knowledge and skills that these children learned outside the classroom, at home and at work.

The second idea is to recognize the rapidly changing social realities of today’s students. Many individuals today find themselves disconnected from their native, home or national culture, heritage and language. Cultures and identities have become hybrid and fluid. By recognizing this, the teacher can help students find their way actively and consciously in the multitude of choices available to them.

Teachers can use these approaches to help students explore the social, cultural and political circumstances that shape their lives. They can lead them in understanding issues such as social, economic, environmental and historical changes and developments, as well as gender roles and languages and dialects, including those learned from local heritage and folklore.

Finally, using anthropological understandings of race, gender and class can give room for a more inclusive education that avoids cultural determinism and gives more attention to culture as a set of inquiries, skills and language. With this idea, teachers can consider ways to encourage students to be individually active and informed in response to social change and to crises such as wars, forced migrations and their long-lasting effects.

One could argue that this is particularly difficult due to the troubled history of education policy and the political climate in most Arab states. Education policy has been in the hands of elite groups that view education as a tool for achieving economic modernization. And governments have used education policy to force minority cultures and people on the economic periphery to assimilate with the culture of the majority. In the street and in social media we hear voices calling urgently for change.

While these suggestions are ambitious and demanding—and might constitute a further burden on teachers—attending to social and cultural issues in the way I have described may help students learn in a way that is in tune with the world they live in.

Afaf Al-Khoshman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Anthropology and Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University.


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