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Dirk Hofäcker
Edward Tolhurst
Christiane Schnell
Helena Hirvonen

Thesis Spotlights – Education and Sociocultural Identification: Facilitating Learning Effects through Congruence

Issue 42: 1968 - 50 Years On Wed 28 Nov 2018 0

Margot Belet, PhD, Belgium

Email: margotbelet [at]
Institution: Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO), Centre for Sociological Research, KU Leuven, Belgium
Time: 1 October 2013 – 24 April 2018
Supervisors: Prof. Dr. Rudi Laermans; co-supervisors: Prof. Dr. Sarah Bracke, Prof. Dr. Dick Houtman
Funding: PhD Fellowship of the Research Foundation - Flanders [grant numbers 11N3114N, 11N3116N]

In contemporary Western educational systems, sociocultural inequalities remain prominent. Nevertheless, the functionalist meritocratic perspective – which claims that by focusing on students’ own achievement, education limits ascribed privileges like wealth and family background – persists. This has been severely criticised by interactionism and conflict theory, which unveil how educational biases disadvantage certain student subgroups. The effects of transmitted knowledge are thus not universal, but dependent on the degree of congruence between that knowledge and the audience’s sociocultural characteristics. The current thesis zooms in on ‘educational congruence’: the match of students’ sociocultural identifications with curricular contents/media.

To remedy biases within existing curricula, teachers and researchers have, since the 1960s, started linking curricular content to the personal experiences of minority students, including lower-class, ethnic-minority, and male students. The first aim of this thesis is, therefore, to examine the expectation that the degree of (in)congruence between curricular contents and students’ sociocultural identifications (de)stimulates their learning.

An alternative solution to the incongruence experienced by certain student subgroups is to introduce entertaining digital media into the curriculum. These are expected to be congruent with most students’ lives, due to their shared age. Such media may especially further ‘disadvantaged’ students’ connection to the curriculum. This thesis’ second aim is thus to test whether low-threshold digital course media produce a greater learning boost for ‘disadvantaged’ than for ‘advantaged’ students.

Finally, students in globalised societies are also expected to be ‘good citizens’ who appreciate and understand other cultures. A too congruent curriculum might hinder that, as students are kept snugly within their comfort zone. This thesis’ final aim is hence to investigate whether students’ ‘good citizenship’ is facilitated more by intercultural than by majority-only contents.

The above three aims are tested with two ‘culturally enriched’ experiments. The first examines the impact of (mis)matching course examples with Flemish university students’ gender. The second considers ethnicity-related educational congruence in Flemish secondary school classrooms.
The results confirm that education reinforces certain sociocultural effects, depending on the curricular contents. This is evident in (1) the (de)stimulating learning effects of the degree of (mis)match between gendered course examples and students’ gender self-identifications in a sociology lecture, and (2) the degree of (mis)fit of ‘colourblind’ versus ‘intercultural’ texts with students’ ethnic self-identifications during Dutch literacy instruction.
Secondly, the experiments found tentative evidence that, compared to more traditional curricular media, YouTube clips and Twitter literary roleplay lessen the learning gap between ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ students.
Finally, educational incongruence may also be useful. Letting self-identified Belgian students read a book about ‘Moroccan-Belgian’ interactions – rather than only offering them a ‘white-Belgian-majority’ book – improves their attitudes toward Moroccans, though only if they have many classmates of Moroccan descent. The ‘Moroccan-Belgian’ book also improves the attitude toward Belgians of students who do not identify as Belgian, but only in classes with few classmates of Belgian descent.

The thesis concludes with detailed suggestions for further research, including the influence of the sociocultural context on educational congruence effects, and the unresolved tension between an ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ measure of students’ sociocultural identifications.