Anthropologists Consider Notions of 'Community' in Education

November 20, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO – If there’s one thing that unites an education “community,” it just might be the use of the word “community” – and, not surprisingly, “the notion of community is drawn upon frequently in educational research,” said Doris S. Warriner, of Arizona State University.

“However,” Warriner continued, “the concept of community is often used to convey common experiences” -- where significant diversity of experience in fact exists.

Warriner chaired a session Wednesday at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting on “The Problem with ‘Community’: Rethinking Participation, Contestation, and Imagination in Spaces of Teaching and Learning.” Among the guiding questions she offered up for consideration: “How useful is the notion of community for conceptualizing and investigating questions about participation, engagement, inclusion or marginalization?”

“In what ways do shared experiences, histories, practices, understandings or trajectories define a community?” And, “What alternatives are there for describing practices and processes that are shared but not unifying or community-building?”

Presenters considered complexities of "community" in a number of different educational settings, including among educators themselves, within networks of educators dedicated to educational reform, and also among adult English language learners. Mindi Rhoades, of Ohio State University, described her research of a free, university-run summer program designed to foster an interest in technology among middle and high school girls, as an antidote of sorts to the gender gap in computer science. Originally, Rhoades said, “I put the program down as an unqualified success.”

She subsequently realized she was seeing the Ohio State program, and its participants, too monolithically, in part because of the all-female atmosphere. “Women! Women in technology. They’re not men, they’re women!”

“You saw girls who looked similar on the surface but they came into it with really different histories and desires,” Rhoades said.

For instance, in breaking down the data, she found that the girls who were least satisfied with the program were those whose racial groups weren’t represented among the program’s mentors. At the same time, some of the girls who got the most out of it likewise didn’t have a mentor of the same race to look up to. As for the mentors, “Is it enough for them to be women, or do [girls] need to see a woman that looks like them, or do some of them need that?” Rhoades asked.

Also, while the program, on digital animation, focused on a more artistic approach to learning some computer science basics, “Not all women have a problem with the male, individual, objective, rational, STEM aspect of these things,” Rhoades said. (STEM is the common acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)

Meanwhile, another session Wednesday dealt with anthropological perspectives on online and hybrid “educational communities.” Wesley R. Shumar, of Drexel University, described an effort to inject the culture of an online math forum into teacher training programs at Drexel. The Math Forum is a long-standing Drexel initiative known for offering “Problems of the Week” that K-12 students solve, and explain how they solve. “They argue that people get better at math if they a) solve problems and b) talk about it,” said Shumar.

Originally, Shumar said, teacher education students served as online mentors to K-12 students in the Math Forum. However, Shumar said it quickly became clear that many students in math education courses aren’t very good at math (or even really “stink” at it), and likewise could benefit from the kind of can-do problem solving culture that the Math Forum encourages.

Shumar described the subsequent development of three online modules for math education classes: one mathematical thinking module that asks college students to do math problems and talk about them (like the K-12 students do), another that focuses on diagnosing what K-12 students were thinking as they solved their problems, and a third based on the original mentoring model. “Pre-service teachers, I think they’re actually willing to engage in this game of, ‘Let’s do math and let’s talk about it,’ but you first have to tell them what the game is,” Shumar said.

In a talk on teaching cultural anthropology in 3-D virtual worlds (like Second Life), S.A. Mousalimas, of the University of Maryland University College Europe, described the challenge not of replicating an online community’s values, but of counteracting or challenging them. Credibility, he said, is “the most important issue for me currently.”

“Virtual worlds were originally for role playing. Educators came in after that.”

The annual meeting of anthropologists continues in San Francisco through Sunday.

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