Lisa Delpit on Power and Pedagogy

Lisa Delpit is Executive Director of the Center for Urban Education and Innovation at Florida International University, in the United States. Her research and advocacy work focuses on the best ways to provide educational access for African-American students.

Delpit questions the effectiveness of some progressive approaches to pedagogy. Here, she discusses the difficulties students face who are not part of the ‘culture of power’:

A few years ago I worked on an analysis of two popular reading programs, Distar [Direct Instruction, an explicit program of teaching basic skills based on scripted lessons] and a progressive program that focused on higher-level critical thinking skills. In one of the first lessons of the progressive program, the children are introduced to the names of the letters m and e. In the same lesson they are then taught the sound made by each of the letters, how to write each of the letters, and that when the two are blended together they produce the word me.

As an experienced first-grade teacher, I am convinced that a child needs to be familiar with a significant number of these concepts to be able to assimilate so much new knowledge in one sitting. By contrast, Distar presents the same information in about forty lessons.

I would not argue for the pace of Distar lessons—such a slow pace would only bore most kids —but what happened in the other lesson is that it merely provided an opportunity for those who already knew the content to exhibit that they knew it, or at most perhaps to build one new concept onto what was already known. This meant that the child who did not come to school already primed with what was to be presented would be labeled as needing ‘remedial’ instruction from day one; indeed, this determination would be made before he or she was ever taught. In fact, Distar was ‘successful’ because it actually taught new information to children who had not already acquired it at home. Although the more progressive system was ideal for some children, for others it was a disaster.

I do not advocate a simplistic ‘basic skills’ approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background, but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents ‘uncaring’ when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, ‘But that’s the school’s job’. What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities …

I suggest that students must be taught the codes needed to participate fully in the mainstream of American life, not by being forced to attend to hollow, inane, decontextualized subskills, but rather within the context of meaningful communicative endeavors; that they must be allowed the resource of the teacher’s expert knowledge, while being helped to acknowledge their own ‘expertness’ as well; and that even while students are assisted in learning the culture of power, they; they must also be helped to learn about the arbitrariness of those codes and about the power relationships they represent.

I am also suggesting that appropriate education for poor children and children of color can only be devised in consultation with adults who share their culture. Black parents, teachers of color, and members of poor communities must be allowed to participate fully in the discussion of what kind of instruction is in their children’s best interest. Good liberal intentions are not enough.

Although the problem is not necessarily inherent in the method, in some instances adherents of process approaches to writing create situations in which students ultimately find themselves held accountable for knowing a set of rules about which no one has ever directly informed them … If such explicitness is not provided to students, what it feels like to people who are old enough to judge is that there are secrets being kept, that time is being wasted, that the teacher is abdicating his or her duty to teach. A doctoral student of my acquaintance was assigned to a writing class to hone his writing skills. The student was placed in the section led by a white professor who utilized a process approach, consisting primarily of having the students write essays and then assemble into groups to edit each other’s papers. That procedure infuriated this particular student. He had many angry encounters with the teacher about what she was doing. In his words:

‘I didn’t feel she was teaching us anything. She wanted us to correct each other’s papers and we were there to learn from her. She didn’t teach anything, absolutely nothing. Maybe they’re trying to learn what Black folks knew all the time. We understand how to improvise, how to express ourselves creatively. When I’m in a classroom, I’m not looking for that, I’m looking for structure, the more formal language. Now my buddy was in [a] Black teacher’s class. And that lady was very good. She went through and explained and defined each part of the structure. This [white] teacher didn’t get along with that black teacher. She said that she didn’t agree with her methods. But I don’t think that white teacher had any methods.’

When I told this gentleman that what the teacher was doing was called a process method of teaching writing, his response was, ‘Well, at least now I know that she thought she was doing something. I thought she was just a fool who couldn’t teach and didn’t want to try.’ This sense of being cheated can be so strong that the student may be completely turned off to the educational system …

In thinking through these issues, I have found what I believe to be a connecting and complex theme: what I have come to call ‘the culture of power.’ There are five aspects of power I would like to propose as given …

  1. Issues of power are enacted in classrooms. These issues include: the power of the teacher over the students; the power of the publishers of textbooks and of the developers of the curriculum to determine the view of the world presented; the power of the state in enforcing compulsory schooling; and the power of an individual or group to determine another’s intelligence or “normalcy.” Finally, if schooling prepares people for jobs, and the kind of job a person has determines her or his economic status and, therefore, power, then schooling is intimately related to that power.
  2. There are codes or rules for participating in power; that is, there is a ‘culture of power’. The codes or rules I’m speaking of relate to linguistic forms, communicative strategies, and presentation of self; that is, ways of talking, ways of writing, ways of dressing, and ways of interacting.
  3. The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power. This means that success in-institutions—schools, work places, and so on—is predicated upon acquisition of the culture of those who are in power. Children from middle-class homes tend to do better in school than those from non middle-class homes because the culture of the school is based on the culture of the upper and middle classes—of those in power. The upper and middle classes send their children to school with all the accoutrements of the culture of power; children from other kinds of families operate within perfectly wonderful and viable cultures but not cultures that carry the codes or rules of power.
  4. If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier. In my work within and between diverse cultures, I have come to conclude that members of any culture transmit information implicitly to co-members. However, when implicit codes are attempted across cultures, communication frequently breaks down. Each cultural group is left saying, Why don’t those people say what they mean? as well as, What’s wrong with them, why don’t they understand? …
  5. Those with power are frequently least aware of—or least willing to acknowledge—its existence. Those with less power are often most aware of its existence. For many who consider themselves members of liberal or radical camps, acknowledging personal power and admitting participation in the culture of power is distinctly uncomfortable. On the other hand, those who are less powerful in any situation are most likely to recognize the power variable most acutely.

Delpit, Lisa D. 1988. The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children. Harvard Educational Review 58:280–298. pp. 286, 296.


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