Individualism, collectivism, and attribution

That’s a very intellectual sounding title but there is an interesting idea there. First some quick background.  At our recent Teaching with a Cultural Eye institute (March 4-5), we hosted over 50 educators in school teams from six Bay Area districts as well as some researchers and administrators in a conversation about teaching and culture – how to have strong relationships between teachers and students, across sometimes massive cultural gaps, to better educate and empower students.

The institute moves from reflection on culture and your role as a teacher, down to the concepts and practice of formative assessment, but framed with a richer sense of students and teachers as people with culture, etc.  The two-day institute just scratched the surface of these rich topics, and participants were clearly charged up and talking about their students and ideas through lunch and after the end.

One portion of the agenda was particularly intriguing to me. Our senior director Lisa Lasky led a conversation about ways of schooling using a rubric that listed features of “dominant culture” (Western individualism) and “collectivist culture” (group orientation, collaborate to get work done, etc).  There were a lot of interesting responses to these cultural modes,  and several participants noted that “21st Century Skills” and the kinds of capacities that corporations seek now are more in the collectivist camp than the dominant culture camp. This is the kind of step back to look at the big picture discussion that we foster to help educators reflect on their big vision before we get into the nitty gritty.

So, attribution: I was reading around on collectivism and was reminded (assuming I studied this in college) that a basic concept of social psychology is attribution: how you explain events, especially people’s behavior.  Some research indicates that individualist cultures are more likely to attribute a person’s behavior to their character, whereas collectivist cultures are more likely to attribute it to their situation.  In fact, the “fundamental attribution error” is to default to the assumption that a person’s behavior, especially negative behavior (they crash into your car), is attributable to their character (careless jerk) rather than their situation (say, it was a Toyota with a sticky gas pedal).

This immediately brings to mind the distinction between blaming students and families for low academic performance (not valuing education, no ‘work ethic,’ etc) and a contextual or systemic view that sees behaviors as symptomatic of larger situations (alienation, segregation, racism) and is more likely to look to ways of changing the context.

And what do you know? A recent article made a similar connection between fundamental attribution error and teacher evaluation:  “…teaching performance is about teaching practice, not about fixed characteristics of the teacher, and practice is heavily influenced by the conditions under which it occurs, not just the characteristics of the teacher.”
See the article at Ed Week’s On Performance blog.

This entry was posted in Conferences & Events, Effective Teaching, Equity Pedagogy. Bookmark the permalink.

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