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The Anthropology of Teaching and Learning

Pelissier, C. (1991). The Anthropology of Teaching and Learning. Annual Review of Anthropology, 20, 75–95. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/stable/2155794

This post is just a lot of thinking out loud. There is no coherent argument found here. Consider yourself warned.

[This is all part of an argument that] the “focus on what-it-is-that-is being- done-here entails both a move away from ‘us-them’ dichotomies, as embodied in the notions of static cognitive properties, and towards greater emphasis on practice and activity. (p. 81)

QUESTION: What is the significance of this quotation for you?

The us-them dichotomies referred to here are the result of our tendency to 'other' people who are not like 'us' (western, white men). Some theorists earlier in the article referred to the evolution of cultures from 'primitive' to 'civilized' modes of thinking. Others wonder whether people who are not white western men think like those who are.

The quote above represents a move beyond the dichotomous thinking towards the ability of all people to learn by engaging in the cognitive skills required of whatever task is before them. People are not bound by some sort of built-in ability or inability to do math, rather, people who engage in mathematical skills can learn to master those skills, just like someone can learn to master a physical skills like riding a bicycle.

Norms of asking the teacher questions.
  • In Samoa, asking a lot of questions is to act above one’s station
  • For Pukapukans (part of Cook Islands off New Zealand) asking questions demonstrates one’s ignorance, and is therefore an act of losing face.

Contrast the above examples with Western capitalist norms – the student is expected to get the information from the teacher so that they can exploit it.

'We' often don't realize that our norms of behaviour in classrooms are not universal. I was in a conversation today about higher education in China (at least from the perspective of the white guy taking a course in China). My colleague's experience was that the prof for this particular course was a very famous prof, so everyone wanted to take his class. His class period consisted of him reading his written lecture to the class for about 30 minutes and then systematically calling on each student, beginning with the 'top' students and working to the weakest, and asking them something like 'What did I say about X?'. The expected 'correct' answer was the one that most closely matched his lecture word-for-word.

Similar to the Samoan example, where asking questions is rude, there is little room allowed for students to think and process critically when their cognitive efforts are directed solely to memorizing. For Pukapukans, the problem is the same despite a different rationale for not asking questions. I would be interested to learn if there is a culture of circumlocution where Pukapukan students engage in conversation with each other where they try to resolve their question without asking it directly, much like I do when I meet someone whose name I should know, but forget, and it would seem rude to ask (and I would lose face!).

In a western, capitalist classroom, questioning and challenging the prof is expected and rewarded (to an extent). International students are sometimes considered to be weaker academically than their western counterparts simply because the don't question viewpoints of those in authority. This can also work against a western prof who, as a good educator, wants to create a relaxed atmosphere for their students, and so dresses more casually, maybe sits on the edge of a desk while talking, tells personal anecdotes and generally humanizes their persona. But in the eyes of a student from another culture, this prof is abdicating their role as the authority in the classroom and is not worthy of respect as the expert in the room.

Summarizing thoughts

This was a challenging article to work through. As someone not trained as an anthropologist, it was difficult to connect some of the ideas with my own experience, especially in the earlier parts of the article. In the end though, the point became more clear. Pelissier outlined various ways in which schooling is polarized:

  • formal-informal
  • agency-structure
  • civilized-primitive
  • abstract-concrete

She cautions against seeing the world of learning in such black-white dichotomies, but instead to see learning as a gradual process of induction into a community. Lave and Wenger's (2003) idea of legitimate peripheral participation in a community of practice is salient in thinking about becoming a researcher. A small group of students working closely with a supervisor over a number of years is a perfect example of a gradual induction into the community of researchers.


Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (2003). Situtated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation (Rev.). Cambrige, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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