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Teaching and Learning

International Perspective

A curious paradox can be seen as one considers schooling and teaching across the many cultures of the world. On the one hand there is enormous variation among cultures–and within most cultures–in the ways in which people learn. At the same time there is a remarkable similarity across nations in the ways in which opportunities to learn are provided through formal schools and school systems.

Anthropologists, and educators who have taught in a variety of cultural settings, have long noted differences in the ways that children born into different cultural settings learn to learn. While there are variations within any cultural group–sometimes across a narrow range of difference, and sometimes across a wide range (such differences are frequently referred to as individual learning styles)–clearly observable modal differences among cultural groups have been well documented. Such differences are analyzed in the literature of European settler states, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, which contain references to differences in approaches to, and understanding of, learning between the European settler/colonizer groups and the original aboriginal inhabitants, and between settlers and more recently arrived immigrant groups from areas of the world other than Europe. These differences have also figured prominently in analyses of education in other colonial and postcolonial (or neocolonial) states around the world. Yet, with an increasing awareness of these considerable variations in learning, there has simultaneously spread throughout the world a standard model of schooling, which often does not take these differences into account, and thus often does considerable damage to the learning potential of children.

It is frequently forgotten that schooling, as it has come to be known, is only one of a vast array of social institutions that humans have invented to provide opportunities for young people to learn. It is, in fact, a human invention of relatively recent origin, at least on a mass scale. The broad-scale provision of education as an instrument of statecraft and state development was effectively "invented" in Prussia after, and as a result of, the Napoleonic invasion of that nation. It spread quickly throughout Europe and other relatively wealthy nations of the time, and more gradually across the world through colonial imposition and, in some cases, through cultural borrowing. But in the broad sweep of history it is a quite new social institution. In its fundamental forms (hence the term formal education) it was set by the experience, attitudes, and understanding of the mid-to late-nineteenth century elites in the then newly industrialized nations. As those basic forms have spread around the world they have hardly changed, even in the wealthiest nations, for well over a century. That standard model generally comprises, around the world, the following basic elements.

  • One hundred to several hundred children/youth assembled (often compulsorily for a period of years) in a building called a school, from approximately the age of six or seven up to somewhere between age eleven and sixteen.
  • Instruction lasts for three to six hours per day, five or six days per week.
  • Students are divided into groups of twenty to sixty individuals.
  • Students work with a single adult (a "certified" teacher) in a single room for (especially in the upper grades) discrete periods of forty to sixty minutes, each devoted to a separate subject.
  • Subjects are studied and learned in a group of young people of roughly the same age, with supporting learning materials, such as books, chalkboards, notebooks, workbooks and worksheets, and, increasingly, computers (and in technical areas such things as laboratories, workbenches, and practice sites).
  • There is a standard curriculum, set by an authority level much above the individual school (normally a central or provincial/state government), and which all students are expected to cover in an age-graded fashion.
  • Adults, assumed to be more knowledgeable, teach, and students receive instruction from them.
  • If they are to go any higher in the schooling system, students are expected and required to repeat back to the adults what they have been taught.
  • Teachers and/or a central examination system evaluate students' ability to repeat back to them what the students have been taught, and also provide formal recognized credentials for passing particular grades or levels.
  • Most or all of the financial support comes from national or regional governments, or other kinds of authority centers (e.g. church-related schools) well above the local community level.

There are a variety of explanations or theories regarding how and why this particular pattern of organizing and providing teaching for young people has become almost universally overlaid upon the wide diversity of ways in which young people learn to learn. Within this cross-national paradox, there is irony. While it has been clearly demonstrated that this standard model of teaching and schooling has frequently proven very dysfunctional for learning among children from cultural groups different from its place of origin, the accumulated literature from cognitive and learning psychology, anthropology, and comparative education has increasingly demonstrated that it is also inherently dysfunctional for children (and adults for that matter) from those very cultures of origin.

The system, in short, is inherently inefficient and ineffective. People of every age and culture simply do not learn well under these arrangements. These traditional, but now nearly universal, patterns of teaching and schooling are an artifact of the misconceptions of a different time and, for much of the world, a different place. But now that patterns are in place, it seems nearly impossible to get rid of them, and even the richest nations are able to alter them only slightly at great effort and cost, and usually only over very long periods of time.

In the closing decades of the twentieth century, however, a new pattern began to appear in developing nations where the European system has proven to be so often dysfunctional for learning. School systems have begun to appear that are breaking the forms of formal schooling in quite fundamental ways, and that are producing remarkable learning gains among extremely poor and marginalized children. As of 2002 more than 100 of these teaching/school programs have been documented, some involving tens or hundreds of schools, others tens of thousands of schools. Some common features of these alternative forms of schooling are these:

  • Child-centered rather than teacher-driven pedagogy
  • Active rather than passive learning
  • Multigraded classrooms with continuous progress learning
  • Peer-tutoring–older and/or faster learning children assist and "teach" younger and/or slower learning children
  • Carefully developed self-guided learning materials, which children, alone or in small groups, can work through themselves, at their own pace, with help from other students and teachers as necessary–the children are responsible for their own learning
  • Combinations of fully trained teachers, partially trained teachers, and community resource people–parents and other community members are heavily involved in the learning of the children, and in the management of the school
  • Active student involvement in the governance and management of the school
  • Free flows of children and adults between the school and the community
  • Community involvement includes attention to the nutrition and health needs of young children long before they reach school age
  • Locally adapted changes in the cycle of the school day or the school year
  • Ongoing monitoring/evaluation/feedback systems allowing the "system" to learn from its own experience, with constant modification of/experimentation with the methodology
  • Ongoing and very frequent in-service teacher development programs, with heavy use of peer mentoring

Early indications suggest that they are far more flexible and successful in adapting their teaching/schooling approaches to the variations among cultures in how people learn to learn. But little serious research has been done to try to understand how and why these new programs seem to work so well in promoting learning among very diverse groups. That is a challenge for the twenty-first century.


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FARRELL, JOSEPH P., and MFUM-MENSAH, O. 2002. "A Preliminary Analytical Framework for Comparative Analysis of Alternative Primary Education Programs in Developing Nations" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Comparative and International Educational Society, Orlando, Florida.

FULLER, BRUCE. 1991. Growing Up Modern: The Western State Builds Third World Schools. New York: Routledge.

HALL, EDWARD T. 1986. "Unstated Features of the Cultural Context of Learning." In Learning and Development: A Global Perspective, ed. A. Thomas and E. Ploman. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Press.

KNOWLES, MALCOMB. 1984. The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Houston: Gulf Publishing.

KOCHAN, ANNA. 2001. Community Educational Projects Database: An International List of Community Education Programs. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto Comparative International and Development Education Centre.

SCHIEFELBEIN, ERNESTO. 1991. In Search of the School of the 21st Century: Is Colombia's Escuela Nueva the Right Pathfinder? Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

TYACK, DAVID, and CUBAN, LAWRENCE. 1995. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

ZAALOUK, MALAK. 1995. The Children of the Nile: The Community Schools Project in Upper Egypt. Paris: United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund.


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