Culture certainly may have impelled the change in my students. Our understanding of “growing up” is deeply entwined with the passage through school. As my students ascend the school hierarchy, they accommodate themselves to changing models of a child their age. The archetypical first grader is intrinsically more sophisticated than a kindergartner and accordingly, they became more sophisticated. The presentation of a new self-concept facilitated change.
Neither culture’s deep impact on development nor the principality of self-concept in a child’s developmental tendencies are radical ideas in the educational community. Lev Vygotsky posited eighty years ago that cognitive development was an inherently socio-cultural phenomenon. He pointed out that culture, not biology, creates most of the tools we use to develop and the impulses that drive development. “Self-concept,” as far as I can tell, entered common educational parlance more recently, but nowadays research abounds on academic self-concept and how schools can influence it. The cultural construction of childhood and education may dictate a developmental course.
However, I’ve come to appreciate the beguiling simplicity of the change in my students. Who deserves credit for their growth? Not me, not school, not biology. “Culture”? That’s a useless answer and a cop out on my part. They do. Each of them has set new expectations for themselves and risen to meet them. School, culture and I only contributed through suggesting standards. Development might be fluid, but children govern themselves autonomously enough to consciously adjust to the structure of school, to reconsider their self-image and to create new ambitions. Despite spending most of my day in the classroom, I run abreast of dividing my critical thought about educational theory (to which I have only moderate exposure) from that about the needs of my students. I hope this is a common pitfall for fledgling teachers. The students’ needs are immediate; theory abstruse and ever changing, both are new and the two demand different sorts of consideration. Yet, ultimately, children’s decisions and goals have the biggest impact on how they grow. Theory, of course, only serves them if it helps us provide guidance in shaping and actuating those decisions.
In the first period of first grade, we set down to work on weekend news, a weekly routine continued from kindergarten. The kids’ handwriting was tidy, their accounts thoughtful. They spelled sight-words correctly and each wrote several sentences. Some of their best writing to date – even from students who struggled with writing last year – completely self-motivated. They intended to realize their standard for a first grader. With a confounding array of theories and concepts to inform my practice, all of which are thrilling at this point in my career, I keep reminding myself what really has the biggest influence on my students’ development: my students.