Difference Is Not Deficiency

Research on differences in cognitive style suggests
minority students could contribute far more than they do now -
if given the chance

One of the articles in The Learning Revolution (IC#27)
Originally published in Winter 1991 on page 30
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

Are minority students, who have often languished at the bottom of school achievement rosters, intellectually different? If we paid attention to those differences, would they do better? James Vasquez, an educational psychologist of Mexican descent, would say "definitely yes." He has been interpreting the literature on cognitive style difference as part of his own work in teacher education at the University of Washington.

The subject of ethnic difference is a sensitive one, but Vasquez believes it is important to confront the issue head on. Difference is difference, not deficiency; and changing teaching styles to conform with different thinking styles – instead of vice versa – would do much to redress decades of educational wrong-headedness. Contact James Vasquez at 122 Miller Hall DQ-12, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195.

Alan: What is "cognitive style"? And why is it important?

Jim: Most psychologists would define cognitive style as one’s preference for learning, in terms of perceiving stimuli, organizing information in the mind, and then retrieving it. It’s not to be confused with cognitive ability. It’s not how much skill you have mentally, but rather the ways you prefer to learn.

Why is it important? Because we’re kidding ourselves if we think preference and ability aren’t related. If a youngster is taught in a way that suits his or her preferences for learning, you can bet that youngster will grow intellectually. An abundance of studies shows that a match between teaching and learning style is good for learning.

Now those of us interested in minority education have one thing more to say. We believe that in general the mainstream child has had his or her learning style automatically attended to by teachers who are also mainstream, middle-class, White-culture people. Neither party may know a thing about cognitive styles, but there is a built-in match that is not found with culturally different, ethnic-minority students. We believe this is one reason for the attainment gap between mainstream and minority students.

Alan: What differences define cognitive style?

Jim: The most commonly researched dimension by far is known as field independence and field dependence. Field independence is defined in terms of preference for detail, sometimes called "differentiation." You might describe it in terms of the direction learning takes: field independent students prefer to start with the small and move to the general. We call that inductive learning, from the particular to the general.

For example, say you’re studying science. Rather than being given the general rule which governs a phenomenon, you prefer to start with the particulars: what happens when you hold metal over a flame? Why do some metals bend and not others? Well, you find reasons, and pretty soon you get to the general rule that certain types of metals are more responsive to heat.

The field dependent person prefers a global approach. Give them the rule first, the over-arching principle that governs – how metals react to heat, for example. Then, when they settle into the entire field – that is, they know the limits of what’s going to be taught, and they have the overview – then they are more comfortable with the particulars. This is deductive learning. It moves from the general to the particular.

There are a number of personality traits, as well as cognitive differences, that derive from these two styles. Field independent people tend more to be loners, to be competitive. Field dependent people are the reverse: they are quite inventive verbally and work well in groups. Children who are field dependent can be more receptive to the authority of an adult, and less individualistic and less self-evaluative than the field independent. Field independent people like mathematics and discrete, small-sized bits of information that they can put together. They deal more with abstractions, and they are very good, usually, at spatial manipulations.

Alan: What determines whether a person is one style or the other? And how can you tell?

Jim: Cognitive style appears to be a matter of learning, and not a built-in characteristic genetically – although I am aware of growing research on inheritability.

But very interestingly, the most highly correlated factor in the home, for children of these two types, is discipline. Make note, I’m saying it’s correlated; we don’t know that it’s the cause. But a strict, rather severe disciplinary atmosphere tends to be associated with field dependent kids. A more free, permissive home atmosphere is associated with field independent kids.

How do we measure it? The first instrument was an artificial room built so that you could not orient yourself to the upright by looking around you. Everything was tilted, and the individual who could set himself or herself upright was said to be "field independent." It literally meant independent of the field around you.

That test was cumbersome. Today the most common way to assess cognitive style is paper and pencil, using embedded figures tests. The field independent person can, within a very complex design, tell you if a certain smaller design is there or not. The field dependent person loses it and goes quickly to the field.

Alan: Their perception of the larger context overwhelms the particular. Can people have mixtures of these traits?

Jim: Definitely. In fact, that’s one of the things that happens with minorities, who may come to school much more field dependent. But an array of field independent teachers over the years forces them to learn in that way if they are going to do well. Some people have that flexibility, and they become what we might call "bicognitive." Others probably don’t have that flexibility, and maybe eventually drop out – and what our school system is doing is pushing them out.

But even for those who do have the flexibility, schools are not capitalizing on the strength that field dependent children bring. It’s forcing them rather to change into a more field independent mode. Some of us feel it’s a loss to society when we do not allow individuals to develop their cooperative instincts, their overview of things, their sense of globalism in perspective. My graduate students, for example, immediately see these traits as very important in the world today.

We owe much to the field independents in terms of technological advancement and development. But society needs both types, and we’ve been giving more of a break – and a reward – to the field independents.

Alan: Which type is more innovative?

Jim: We probably stifle innovation by fostering the development of field independence rather than field dependence. Field dependent kids have been found to be more productive in fantasy – making up endings to stories – than field independent kids. On that thin line of evidence (and I know of none that contradicts it), I would say that the potential for inventiveness may be greater among field dependents.

Also, field independent types are much more linear and predictable in their thinking. That could mean that they are a little more enclosed, because they are used to what we call "convergent thinking." In other words, "the question’s here, there’s only one answer …"

Alan: "... and I’m going to find it by traveling the royal road." And if you’re field dependent?

Jim: You may tend to be more divergent in your thinking.

Alan: You start off at the center, so you can go out to one of a number of destinations. Is it also fair to say that field independents prefer abstract thinking, while field dependents are more practical and concrete?

Jim: Yes. But there are always exceptions; many people who come from homes where you would predict field dependence may not be. Still, the tendencies are clear.

Alan: What about socioeconomic factors and relative economic advantage? How do they fit in?

Jim: There is a correlation, because anything that is more often associated with either mainstream or minority backgrounds is going to have that correlation. The question is, is it causal? Middle class people to tend to be more field independent, and lower class people tend to be more field dependent. But whether it’s social class level, or what type of home they come from in other ways – parental discipline, for example – is still a question to be answered.

Alan: Is this resurgent understanding about cognitive style being applied to classrooms?

Jim: Yes. Some researchers are doing everything they can to train teachers in these areas. The concepts are not difficult, but the clustering of traits is brand new to many of them. Teachers see faces and revive names in their minds as they’re hearing about this because it fits their experience.

Alan: "Ah, so Sally was a field dependent!"

Jim: You bet. So after helping them to understand the theory, the next step is to get into instructional strategies that give more attention to the preferred ways of learning of field dependent people – working in a group, working noncompetitively, hearing a lesson that always begins with an overview – so that the student immediately feels comfortable with the parameters of the lesson that’s to come, and can then deal with the details.

Traditional teacher education has not given teachers special preparation for minority students. Education faculty were not aware themselves of this literature. Or too many faculty thought, "This is the way I learn. Anybody else can learn in the same way." So they prepared teachers to go into the classroom assuming that everybody was middle class and White – in their learning styles, their values systems, and in every area of learning preference.

Alan: With not very positive effects, it appears. What vision do you have for our educational system, say, ten years in the future, when cognitive style difference might be fully integrated into the curricula and into the teachers’ understanding? How would schools look and feel different?

Jim: For one, we would have a more visibly heterogeneous society in the classroom, and each different group would be clearly making its contribution. The strength of the field dependent type would start coming to the fore, and teachers would have more of an idea when to teach something in a field dependent and when in a field independent manner, because of the presence of certain types of students in the classroom. It may also be that some content areas lend themselves more to teaching in one manner than the other.

Before I go further, I should say that what’s needed in the classroom is a balance. We want the strengths of field dependent kids to be attended to, but we also want to help them develop in the areas where field independent kids are strong already and vice versa. Let each type be encouraged to make their contribution to learning, to classroom discussion, to the identification of values. I think these two areas get into values rather quickly.

Alan: How so?

Jim: For example, field independent types do not value working together toward an end. In fact, some of them really dislike it. They feel slowed down, or they feel they can’t do it their way, or they just don’t want to learn from a peer – they’re loners. And they’ve done well as loners.

I think those types in our society need to know the value of working together, of submerging individualism for the sake of a group goal, which is what many field dependent students bring into the classroom by virtue of their background. They’ve had to have that value to survive in their community. Remember, the field dependent types tend to be minority. There are often few resources in their communities, so they know the value of sharing. And they are more sensitive to human need – not that the field independents are insensitive, just unaware.

Alan: Because they have less need to be sensitive to other people’s needs.

Jim: Exactly. You might say they don’t get the learning opportunity. They don’t hear the talk in their own family about great needs, and how they are going to be met.

Alan: What drew you into this research?

Jim: When I went to graduate school, people knew I was of Mexican background, and I was expected to be an expert in areas where I was not an expert at all – namely, minority issues. This experience is not uncommon for many minorities.

But I was glad to start directing my research interests, my studies, and my writing into these areas. For one thing, it was expected. For another, I wanted to know what I was talking about. I wanted to be able to explain why so few of my relatives went to college, and to my knowledge only one had ever graduated, and none had ever gotten a doctorate. And I come from a stock of large families – I have thousands of relatives in southern California.

It’s also an inherently fascinating area of research. And the reinforcement I have gotten from doing training in school districts, and working with many teachers throughout the country, has certainly been an encouragement to continue.

Alan: Do you experience yourself as field independent or field dependent?

Jim: In some ways, I am very much field dependent. But I have also learned to be quite field independent too – I think I’ve had to become somewhat bicognitive.

Alan: Do a lot of minorities develop that capacity in order to succeed?

Jim: Actually, those who go on for advanced degrees tend to diminish their field-dependent original nature for the sake of doing well, being like their professors, answering questions the way professors like. What’s rewarded grows. And it’s too bad. We are very possibly lacking a whole world of minority researchers who could have developed on their own strengths – and stayed that way.

Alan: Are you hopeful about the spread of this understanding into the classroom?

Jim: I wish I could give you a quick yes, but I can’t. I’m just one person. Of the many I touch in my classes, there are some who resist and say "This means nothing." But the great majority of students say things like, "I wish everybody could take this class," and "It’s been very meaningful," and they’re very reinforcing.

But there aren’t an awful lot people with an educational psychology background such as mine – and with a minority background – who have gone into this field and who can expound on this literature. If there were many more, I would be more hopeful.

Another reason I can’t give you a quick yes is that I have colleagues on the faculty here who are not at all impressed with this approach. It’s a "difference" approach – we view minority students not as lacking, but different. Another major view is the deficit approach, which says these minority students are clearly lacking and that is why they do poorly in school.

Alan: Do some people see what you’re doing as diminishing the chances for minorities in some way, by pointing at the wrong source of the problem?

Jim: What I more often hear is, "We tried that and it doesn’t work." Or, "The real problem is that minorities are not encouraged to be educated." Which is ironic, because among the Black and Hispanic communities education is prized more highly, I think, than in the White culture.

But I do hear things to the effect that difference theories miss the real problem, which is deficiency on the part of minority student, and that we have to change the student rather than the school. You see, my theories suggest "Change the school" – change our way of teaching, the nature of our textbooks, certainly change the testing that we administer to young people.

And there are educators who don’t want to be changed. There are actually White colleagues who think they made it on their own. They don’t understand that being White, having blue eyes, having college-educated parents – if this is the background you came from, you didn’t make it "on your own."

Alan: How do your minority students themselves respond to being identified as different?

Jim: When minority grad students hear, from me, the case I present for their being different but not inferior – the ways in which I feel they can differ in intellect, value systems, learning styles, and the potential contribution that is theirs to make if their differences were only acknowledged – they are all in favor of it. They may have shied away from wanting to think of themselves as different, because the uninformed person will think differences mean deficiencies.

I don’t believe that at all, and I don’t think the research shows that. That’s more the White-culture view of some people – that to be different from the "standard American" is to be deficient.

Alan: What needs to happen now?

Jim: Although the situation is bad now, it’s going to be far worse within a decade if we do not bring more minority teachers into education. We have virtually no minorities in the teacher training program here – and we can’t get them. Even when we practice affirmative action, they’re not coming to college to be teachers.

Society has got to realize the value of teachers and demand better pay for teachers at all levels. And we have got to help more faculty – and more than just the few minorities everybody looks to – to include some of these concepts in their teaching. I would hope for more of a college-wide responsibility to prepare teachers to do better by way of the minority students in their classrooms.

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