Jill Watson on Education, Success, and Avoiding Cognitive Imperialism

Posted by Lori Walsh on

I went to my daughter's school conferences this week. I stood in line behind families with translators in tow. How different is their child's expereince from my daughter's, I wondered. Those thoughts soon slipped from my mind and I focused, once again, on the standard academic measures of success as they apply to my own child.

She is up until midnight doing her homework, this super-student of mine, for the second consecutive night. By all measures, she is a successful student. But is the way we measure success actually good for her? Is it good for the physical health of students? Is it good for their souls?

Jill Watson works with children who tumble into our education system from various backgrounds. Some have escaped villages where school buildings were crushed into rubble. Some were not allowed to go to school. Many seek out elders for wisdom rather than seeking out libraries.

She asks insightful questions as part of her research: How can we help them suceed? What can we learn from them?

What do we learn from face-to-face conversation? What can we learn from elders in our classrooms and our workplaces? What can we learn from students who must wrestle the Western academic model, to be sure, but who have something to offer that model as well?

When we speak of assimilation to American culture, may we remember our history of "cognitive imperialism." And may we find a way forward that benefits us all.

The following is an edited version of this conversation. If you would like to listen to it in its entirety, click here

Lori Walsh:

Jill Watson is professor of English as an additional language and world language education at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. She comes to South Dakota through workshops for the South Dakota Department of Education this week in Watertown and Aberdeen. I caught up with Jill Watson on Friday for our conversation about bridging the gap between cultures, the potential role of elders in the classroom, and how to dismantle cognitive imperialism.

Jill Watson:

I was born and raised in Sioux Falls. Graduated from O'Gorman, attended Augustana, and graduated from University of South Dakota. I was very interested throughout high school and in college in foreign languages and I was as French major. I also learned German and Spanish and then as I got into that field more I became interested in the general issue of how people learn languages, what allows them to be most successful or what can impede their success in learning languages. What kind of teaching methods or strategies are most advantageous. That led me to the field of English as an additional language, which I've been practicing in for a good number of years.

I myself am a licensed ESL and French teacher in the State of Minnesota and taught in middle and high school for a number of years and really became impassioned, particularly about the group of students who are most challenged by academic tasks. With that I'm referring to students whose past experience has included limited access to any formal education, typically for one of two reasons. Either they're culture or their country, their civil society that they came from has been so disrupted that there's no education formally available to them and they were unable to participate, or perhaps to a limited extent, or for a second reason. That they come from a culture that is an oral culture and writing and reading and what we think of as schooling, school-type work and including academic language has not been a part of the tradition or the history of the people, of their ethnic group or their cultural group.

It's very, very ... It's humbling and I'm profoundly honored to work closely with members of the various communities that come to American education systems with very, very different backgrounds and are faced not only with learning English, which is a daunting task on its own, but also with learning the forms of western academic thinking that school embodies.

Lori Walsh:

When we talk about these students I'm really fascinated with who they are and where they're coming from. In my mind it could be a country that's disrupted by conflict or war and now you can't go to school anymore and now you've missed five years of it by the time you get to America. Or I'm also thinking about girls and education. Is there a gender component to some of this?

Jill Watson:

Absolutely. Those are excellent considerations under the broad categories I mentioned earlier. Yes. I could speak very excessively about who is in Minnesota and which populations contain significant numbers of SLIFE, which refers to Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education. That's the acronym we typically use, especially in this part of the country. But in South Dakota I'm still not familiar with your demographics there, too. There's various places and various routes that people could come where they would end up having limited formal education and in terms of national or language origin, some members of the Sudanese community, members of the Karen community, members of ... Many individuals who might speak Spanish, sometimes as a second language because they come from an indigenous community in the home country, there are ...

I know just across the border in Worthington, Minnesota for instance there's a very large Ecuadorian population and they speak Spanish but they are also ... A lot of them speak another indigenous language and all of them have had interrupted schooling for various reasons. As you point out the Karen people, for instance, the town of Huron has a very significant Karen population. It's not the only town in South Dakota but that is one case in point. A lot of the Karen people have experienced heinous ethnic cleansing and really have been targets of violence and that what brings them as refugees, legal refugees to the United States. But their culture has been an oral culture for hundreds of years and they've had some literacy via missionaries, but the significant practices in the culture do not surround literacy and are not infused with literacy and a lot of the students who have been in refugee camps before they come to the United States from Karen and also pretty much every to refugee group, they have had very limited access to school within the refugee camps.

As you point out lately, sometimes you have to pay to go to school and there isn't enough money to send people. The number of hours of instruction that is available during the weeks or during the term sometimes can be very limited. The materials available to teaches and students, very limited. Very many times, in the case ... I can think of many cases, there's a preference for sending boys to school rather than girls. I wouldn't say that's necessarily the case in Karen culture but in some other cultures that is a very strong tendency.

When a family has limited resources and school is hard to come by anyway, it would be ... It's very common to see that, for instance here in Minnesota we have a very large, vibrant Somali community and many times when a large family would come as new arrivals we would see the girls in the family have not received much schooling but the boys have.

That's not always the case but it's common enough to be a trend.

Lori Walsh:

Give me an idea about this, you mentioned this oral paradigm. How does that change somebody orientation to learning?

Jill Watson:

That is a very important question and one that I ... That's my research specialty area and I'm constantly reminded of the very great impact that coming of age, coming to maturation in an oral paradigm, the profound effect that that has on the way that you think and learn and view the world and what you value. It isn't just ... Sometimes people make the mistake of saying, "Oh yeah, orality, oral culture versus writing, literacy culture. That's just another skill to learn." But it's so much more than just another skill to learn because we know from so many different dimensions that human psychosocial development is powerfully influenced by the mode and practice of learning.

I've been devoted to understanding the learning orientations of oral culture or background for 15 years and I can tell you some of the highlights. These will be some of the areas that I'm going to be focusing on in my workshops with teachers in South Dakota coming up this next week.

There's a couple of things that emerge. One of them is that unlike western education, learning orientation and oral culture is very much related to the practical and relevant interests of the community. It's very low on what really counts in western schooling, which is definitions, abstract knowledge, abstract categories, and the way that we approach generally everything that's strongly influenced by the scientific tradition.

In oral cultures the knowledge that is important, valued, and transmitted is knowledge that relates to the well-being and the functioning of the community. All learning in oral cultures is collectivistically oriented, whereas in western schooling, which we can easily see in many examples, is very oriented towards the individual. It's individualistic in its presumptions and in its targets and goals and in its practices.

For instance, learning takes place ... When a student arrives from, let's say, refugee camp and comes from an oral cultural background and goes into a schooling situation, right away it's not just English that confronts them but also there's the practice of sitting in an individual desk facing the front and raising your hand to respond to teacher's questions, which you are supposed to know the answer to individually without looking with anyone else or working with anyone else. We place a very high value on the individual, the hallmark of individual learning.

For instance, the idea of copying and cheating and working with others is ... Those aren't anathema in oral culture. Working with others is the normal modus operandi in oral cultures. You would see a collectivist orientation. You would see that knowledge and learning always has a very practical focus, and you would also see, interestingly, that learning, embracing, and applying traditional knowledge transmitted by elders and practiced in your culture for ages, that is the focus of traditional oral education and learning in orality. Whereas in the western tradition, you might not think of this way typically, but we highly praise and we highly prize, both of them, when people innovate. When they rupture with the past. They come up with something totally new that no one has ever heard of.

There isn't a strong value placed on listening to the lessons and the teachings and the practices and the traditions transmitted by elders. Rather authority for knowledge in the western tradition comes from where? Just think about it. If you want to know the answer to something what do you do? Well, you look in a book or you look on the internet.

And you find out what some indexed, abstract source has to say about this general topic or this specific topic. In oral culture your first move is to talk to an elder or a member of the community. It's quite stark. There's many stark examples of what a cultural shift this is when you go from trusting grandfather or grandmother's wisdom to, we find knowledge from books. That's a profound paradigm shift.

Lori Walsh:

Let's start, and I know you could probably talk about this for a long time, but some of the highlights of what teachers can do then, what they have to do, to sort of welcome these students into a classroom. Help them survive and thrive in a new system and yet honor who they are and where they came from.

Jill Watson:

Well, okay, yeah. I can give you a couple of general areas that are really important and I want to emphasize before I do so that by no means should any of my remarks be taken to imply or to state that people coming from oral culture are somehow less intelligent or less worthy or need to be respected less because that is definitely not the case. How could we educate people in a way that shows respect for their background and helps build bridges towards the success in their new home, which is a western society which is the United States.

A couple things. There's a lot more that can be said here but let me give you the overview. One key piece is that it's important to accept and acknowledge the kinds of learning orientations that students bring. So they mediate learning through the oral mode and they would tend to prefer to work with others or to consult tradition or people in the community for knowledge and for advice and so forth. We need to acknowledge that and then incorporate those kinds of orientations into western-style lessons.

I'll give you a specific example. When a teacher is teaching you want students to read a, let's say, read a passage about invasive species that are taking over a certain lake or forest. Rather than just have them read a newspaper article about invasive species it's crucial to make it relevant and concrete. A best practice here would be, as you can imagine, show them pictures. Bring in some samples of those invasive species and talk about the real world implications of how those invasive species can harm other plants or cause problems, but not just to rely on the printed word but to have visuals, videos, and actual examples are even better. And even better, and I taught this lesson with a teacher for high school SLIFE here in Minnesota. Take them to a place where they can see the invasive species for themselves, because learning is field-based in oral cultures, which is something interestingly that SLIFE, oral cultures from around the world share with indigenous cultures of North America.

Part of my work is looking at the amazing convergence of, let's say, Dakota or Ojibwe educational practices and how similar those are to Karen and Somali traditional education practices in all the ways I'm describing.

One way is to include very specifically concrete visuals, real world applications. A second crucial piece for teachers to keep in mind and to practice in their classrooms is to use the oral mode intentionally in class to bridge to the written mode. Using my example of a newspaper article on invasive species, one really easy way to include the oral mode is to have the students read the article but also come up with a structured oral interaction format where students can talk about what they have read. That will be useful for all the students, general education students, but it will be absolutely crucial for the SLIFE from oral culture to be able to talk about what they read.

In fact this leads me to what I sometimes call Watson's law because I repeat it so often. Instruction that involves only reading, writing, and the teacher talking dooms SLIFE to fail. They need to mediate knowledge and orient knowledge through the oral mode. That is possible to do and in fact it's a trend in our country nationally not regarding English learners or SLIFE but regarding everybody to infuse more oral interaction into learning.

That's one piece. I would say that if those two considerations were present in teacher's minds that would go a long way toward lesson planning to meet the needs of SLIFE.

Lori Walsh:

Teachers are teaching now with this awareness of, and you alluded to it when you talk about the indigenous people of North America. Native American boarding schools and how education has been done with people with a different tradition right here in South Dakota and the horrors of that.

On one hand we're trying to help kids, like you said, bridge to a new society. Help them be successful in a certain academic culture, but in a different way and under the backdrop of really understanding where we have come from with dealing with cultures different from this kind of learning. That's a lot to take in and process for a teacher.

Jill Watson:

No, absolutely right. I work with teachers from all over all the time and I ... Nobody wants to engage in continued cognitive imperialism that underwrote the horrible era of Native American boarding school in trying to expunge how people learn, how they speak, and how they think and replace it with the western mode.

In fact, I would say that describes my passion and motivation and that of my colleagues who work in this field, that the idea is not just that we need to whip these SLIFE into shape and get them to read and write and function well in school. The idea is that there's a reciprocity inherent in this work. Oral cultural modes and learning have a whole lot other teach and contribute to this world that the hyper-literate world can benefit from. Then also pragmatically speaking, vice versa, because I wouldn't want to also be taken to suggest that we should refrain from teaching people to read and to function in academic modes in American culture. However, as you pointed out rightly, it's important that we don't ...

Let me rephrase. It's important ... It would be an excellent ongoing project is we were to view the gifts of orality as precisely that, as valuable gifts, to discern what they are and to incorporate them into educational experiences. That will not only benefit SLIFE, but it will benefit everybody.

Lori Wlash:

Give me an idea of what a student who was born to a South Dakota family, who's been in South Dakota for a few generations, bumping up against these kids who are newer Americans from different cultures and have these different ways of learning. What can those kids who have been here for a long time learn by sort of embracing some of these other ways of dealing with education, other forms of instruction?

Jill Watson:

Yeah. That's a really ... That's sort of a nascent area of our discipline is what would it look like to have a classroom where there's a deep reciprocity between literate and oral modes of thinking and living? One example that really struck me that I became aware of when I attended the Widening the Circle Conference at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, which is a group that specifically looks at the convergences between Ojibwe, Dakota, and Hmong culture in terms of educational practices.

What indigenous education could share with education in the western mode would be things like the Native American concept of three R's: respect, reciprocity, and responsibility. Respect for elders in specific. The idea that education needs to express responsibility to each other, to the earth, to our natural environment. A project that they shared within the concept of the curricular philosophy of the three R's was the idea of having educational projects that are deeply longitudinal and that have relevance and address cross-curricular, multi-thematic knowledge.

For instance, building a canoe. Growing the trees that it takes to build a canoe. Developing acumen with the tools. Developing enough scientific knowledge that you know when the tree can actually be felled to build the canoe, and then taking the canoe just at the right time in the calendar and working with your team to go out and harvest wild rice and bringing back the rice and building the fire that you use to dry the rice. Then having the dinner or the festival or the party where the rice is cooked. The example seems like, "Well, yeah. Big deal. Make a canoe. Go hunting or go gathering and cook." But the idea of this as an educational practice where you would have a large project that involves multiple disciplines and that students would work on it as a unifying theme over a longitudinal period of time, perhaps years, would be quite a challenge to the way that we have education configured now, but the benefits are quite astounding.

I have contemplated how this could ever work within American education structures.

I'm quite certain that it could. We already have some projects that are longitudinal, that people pursue, but to have them be connected specifically with traditional practices would lend a whole new element to that.

Another kind of practical way that we might embrace the gifts of orality in education would be something I've been working on for a while too, which is the idea of elders as fonts of knowledge. To include very specifically and intentionally in a structured way, to include the presence of elders in the school. I don't just mean Native American elders or immigrant elders, but elders means anyone who is older than I am. The Ojibwe word is ... No, yeah. The Ojibwe word is gichi aya'aa, and even the word for elder, gichi aya'aa, means, "Great Being."

The presence of having elders in your class, it already sets up what calls natural hermeneutics. That there's a respect built in. That knowledge comes from somewhere, not just disembodied works or internet. It's embodied in people and it's embodied in elders, so to have them come into the school and to tell stories, to talk about how to do something. To discuss moral dilemmas, you know, like the discipline of English at every grade, at every level, is always addressing dilemmas that someone faces.

Then how they address them. That could very much be done in an embodied way through the presence of elders. I think that would ... I think we could use more respect for elders in many ways in our American culture where we sort of fetishize youth and I think that would be another great gift of orality to our consciousness.



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