Transforming Communalism from a Cultural Dimension to a Learning Context for African American Learners

Sean T. Coleman Coordinator of Human Development Program Department of Psychology, Counseling and Human Development University of District of Columbia Washington, D.C.



            This study served to explore the endorsement of cultural orientation and home socialization factors of African American children, suggesting that these factors should be used as cultural and learning capital in African American students’ educational environments. A communalism instrument on the presence of communalism in the home, preference for communal behaviors and beliefs, and preference for cooperative learning environments was administered to 105 African American third and fourth grade students from low income backgrounds. Questionnaire results suggested that participants’ home orientation and socialization were more communal than individualistic; participants preferred participation in communal rather than individualistic activities. They preferred cooperative over individualistic learning contexts. Correlational findings suggested that the more students perceived communalism at home, the greater the endorsement of communal behaviors, beliefs (r=.55, p<.01), and cooperative learning (r=.26, p<.01).  Higher endorsement of communal behaviors and beliefs was positively correlated with greater preference for cooperative learning settings (r=.54, p<.01). The findings of this study support the use of culturally sensitive pedagogy for African American students. 

Keywords: Culture, African American, Cultural Assets, Cultural Capital, African American Learners, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy


          Socialization experiences mold our preferences for behaviors, beliefs, and inclinations to learn in contexts congruent to home socialization environment (Banks et al, 2007; Lee, 2013).  African American students are no exception in this regard.  Thus, Boykin and associates (1986, 1994a, 1994b, 2000, 2005, 2009, 2011) submit that the educational system requires African American children to acquire values and beliefs incongruent with African American home socialization and orientation. Therefore, African American students face cultural conflict between their own values and those of school. Consequently, African American students often enter into a state of frustration and disengagement from the schooling process. In turn, this ultimately may lead to low academic performance (Boykin & Noguera, 2011). Many researchers assert that African Americans’ cognitive competencies are linked to Afro-cultural home and community contexts. These contexts refer to environments rich in African American centered cultural values.  Thus, African Americans’ cognitive abilities, first, are acquired within an Afro-cultural context. Within this context, African American children become accustomed to the corresponding behavioral expressions of African American cultural worldviews. Consequently, African Americans become more receptive to environments that afford opportunities for the manifestation of Afro-cultural expressions. As such, Afro-cultural conducive environments provide opportunity for African Americans to exercise central cognitive operations and emerging cognitive skills. As explicit competencies may be sparked by some contexts and not others (Boykin, 1994), Boykin (1986) held that African American culture was linked to nine interrelated dimensions of the Afro-cultural experience that emanate from the traditional West African belief system (Boykin 1986; 1994; 2000). It is important to acknowledge that African Americans vary in their representation of each of the nine cultural dimensions. That is, African Americans do not exhibit these cultural dimensions to the same levels; and such variations may occur among people in general, among people within particular contexts, and among people’s expression of the various dimensions themselves. Each dimension is defined below: (1) Spirituality, which denotes an approach to life as being vitalistic rather than mechanistic with convictions that nonmaterial forces influence people’s everyday lives; (2) Harmony, or the belief that man and nature are harmoniously conjoined; (3) Movement Expression, which places an emphasis on music, dance and rhythmic movement; (4) Psychological Verve or the especial receptiveness to relatively high levels of sensate stimulation; (5) Affect or an emphasis on emotions and feelings coupled with a special sensitivity to emotional expressiveness; (6) Communalism, which denotes a commitment to social connectedness where social bonds transcend individual privileges; (7) Expressive Individualism, which connotes the cultivation of a distinctive personality and a proclivity for spontaneity in behavior; (8) Orality or a preference for oral/aural modalities of communications; and (9) Social Time Perspective or an orientation in which time is treated as passing through a social space rather than a material one. 

          The present study focuses on communalism. For communalism, the fundamental focus is on sharing and interdependence as the “point” of collaboration per se.  Consequently, the “we-ness” of the group enterprise is itself the driving force. The communalism cultural theme or dimension includes four sub-dimensions: (1) social orientation in which the individual is oriented toward social relations and holds each social interaction as valuable experience; (2) group duty in which the person believes  the needs of the group supersede the needs of the individual; (3) identity in which the person has a sense of belonging and selfhood based on group membership; and (4) sharing in which exchange and mutual support are understood to be intrinsically rewarding in that they signify that participants contributed to the group (Boykin, 1986). Boykin proposed that using communalism in the context of pedagogy allows the behavioral and psychological manifestations of factors such as sharing and interdependence to be promoted.

            Although African Americans demonstrate non-monolithic levels of communal endorsement (Boykin, 1986; 1994a; Boykin and Ellison, 1995), Boykin and associates have found that the cultural theme is salient in the socialization experiences of low-income African American students.  For example, Boykin et al. (2005) found that upper elementary level African American students reported a high preference for and practices of communal behaviors in their own home moreso than mainstream behaviors such as individualism and competition.  Further, the reports from the students suggested that communalism was a theme that was also highly endorsed by the parents of the students.  Tyler et al. (2008) also determined the salience of communal tendencies among low-income African American parents through an examination of their reported home socialization activities.  Here, it was found that parents encouraged their children to learn and work in ways that were distinctly consistent with the communalism cultural construct.

            It may be argued that the salience of the communal theme in the home socialization activities of low-income African Americans may influence their preference for contexts outside the home environment that are rich with and amenable to communal behaviors and activities.  Research has found that for low-income African American elementary and secondary students, there is a strong preference for the communal theme in academic settings.  For instance, Marryshow et al. (2005) determined that junior high and high school African American students, demonstrated a high endorsement towards academic achievement that promoted communal behaviors and practices.  Additionally, Boykin et al. (2005) found that, among low-income African-American upper elementary level students, there was an inclination towards communal behaviors in academic settings.  Furthermore, Hurley et al. (2009) observed low-income African American elementary level students while completing mathematics estimation tasks. Observations revealed that students demonstrated higher levels of involvement, effective communication, participation, and task enjoyment in the communal conditions compared to both group and individual competition conditions.  

            These findings illustrate that low-income African American students tend to be socialized in and prefer contexts that are associated with cultural orientations premised in an Afro-cultural ethos.  One of these cultural orientations is communalism.  Considering the demonstrated prevalence of the communal theme in the lives of this population, it is tenable that contexts in which  communalism is exhibited, are also sites where the cognitive skills of African American learners flourish.  As a result, the incorporation of preferred cultural themes, such as communalism in classroom settings of low-income African American students, could allow for the fostering of cognitive competencies and, ultimately, the enhancement of academic performance. 

            The purpose of this study is to explore African American children’s presence and preference for the communal theme, to be used as a resource to further enhance African American academic achievement. As we continue to move farther into the 21st century, it is also important to determine consistency of the presence and endorsement of cultural themes, communalism specifically in this study, and their potential use as learning capital in schools.



            Participants in this study consisted of 105 African American students in the third and fourth grades.  The sample included 52 females and 53 males. All the students were from low-income socio-economic backgrounds as determined by participation in their school’s free and reduced lunch program. Each student attended public schools in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area.


            The Home Communal Measure (HCM) evaluates the level of a student's endorsement of communal beliefs and activities occurring in the home environment (Boykin & Pippin, 1997). The HCM contains 20 items, which are divided into four subscales representing the four dimensions of the communalism construct (fundamental interdependence, group duty, sharing, and group-identity). The scale items are rated along a four-point continuum ranging from 1 "Not At All Like Me" to 4, "Very Much Like Me". Obtaining the mean of the 20 responses derives the overall HCM score. The HCM has a Cronbach alpha reliability coefficient of .91 (Boykin & Bailey, 2000).

            The Personal Beliefs and Behaviors Measure—revised (PBBM-r) was designed to measure a student's preference for communal attitudes and behaviors (Boykin & Pippin, 1997). Two scenario-based versions of the PBBM-r have been constructed: one depicting female characters and the other depicting male characters. The PBBM-r contains 20 different scenarios divided equally into four subscales representing the four communal dimensions. Students rate their similarity to the scenario's character using a four-point Likert scale ranging from 1 "Not at all like me" to 4, "Very much like me." The overall PBBM-r score is derived from the mean of the 20 responses. The PBBM-r has a Cronbach alpha reliability coefficient of .91 (Boykin & Bailey, 2000).

            The Learning Context Questionnaire-modified (LCQ-m) is a 22-item sentence-structure measure of general cooperative, individual, or competitive orientation (Johnson & Norem-Hebeisen, 1979).  The competitive items were not scored for this study.  The gender-neutral statements are answered on a four-point Likert scale ranging from completely false to completely true. The scale contains items such as “I do better when I work alone” (individual orientation) or “It’s a good idea for students to help each other learn” (cooperative  orientation). These items are designed to elicit responses that indicate a person’s learning orientation preference. The LCQ-m has a Cronbach alpha reliability of .88 for the cooperative subscale and .80 for the individual subscale (Boykin & Bailey, 1998).            


            This study represents a segment of a larger study in which students engaged in lessons that compared culturally sensitive pedagogy to traditional teaching strategies. To this end, the instruments were administered during the larger study while students prepared to learn mathematics in their respective homeroom classrooms. The instruments were administered across three days with a different instrument administration for each day or session. Students’ homeroom teachers remained present in the classroom during instrument administrations. Each instrument was administered in students’ homeroom classrooms, and graduate research assistants served as facilitators and administered the instruments to the students in a whole class format. The research assistants were African American females in their mid-twenties. Counterbalancing was employed whereby the order of instrument administration was varied across participants. Whole classes shared the order of instrument administration, thus, completed the same questionnaires simultaneously.  First, the facilitators disseminated the questionnaire or measure, and the students silently followed along as the facilitators orally read the instructions. Next, the facilitators read each question and answer option. Students were instructed to complete the instrument as the answer options were being read. 



          Cronbach’s internal alpha reliability analyses were performed to determine the internal consistency of the HCM, PBBM, and LCQ.  The HCM obtained an internal reliability coefficient of .82. The PBBM rendered an internal reliability coefficient of .83.

          The LCQ-cooperative subscale obtained an internal alpha reliability coefficient of .79. For the LCQ-individual subscale, the internal alpha reliability coefficient was .80.

            Descriptive statistics were obtained for the  each variable (presence of home communalism, preference for communal behaviors and beliefs, preference for cooperative learning environments, and preference for individualistic learning contexts) to determine the level of endorsement for communalism and individualism, respectively, as determined by each scale’s mid-point. Each scale’s mid-point was 2.50. The means ranged from 2.27 to 3.25, with preference for individual learning contexts yielding the lowest mean and endorsement for cooperative learning environments obtaining the highest mean. The results show that the participants endorsed communalism past the mid-point for the HCM, PBBM, and LCQ-cooperative/communal; and endorsed individualism below the mid-point for the LCQ-Individualistic (See Table 1).

            Correlations were performed among measures to examine the extent of the relationship between the variables. Table 2 shows that several significant relationships obtained. A positive correlation emerged for the HCM and PBBM (r=.55, p<.01 ). This finding suggested that the higher students rated their perception of the level of communal beliefs and practices endorsed by family members in the home environment the higher was their rating on endorsement of communal behaviors and beliefs. Additionally, the HCM correlated positively with the LCQ-Cooperative (r=.26, p<.01).  This finding indicated that the higher students rated their perceived communalism in the home the greater endorsement for cooperative learning contexts.  The PBBM and LCQ-Cooperative produced a positive correlation (r=.54, p<.01). This result suggested that the higher the endorsement of communal behaviors and beliefs, the higher the endorsement for cooperative learning contexts. Both the PBBM (r=-.27, p<.01) and LCQ-Cooperative (r=-.46, p<.01) were negatively correlated with the LCQ-Individualistic. These results suggest that the more preference for communal behaviors and beliefs as well as cooperative learning contexts, the less preference for individualistic learning environments.




Table 1.

Means and Standard Deviations on the HCM, PBBM, LCQ-C, and LCQ-I



















Table 2.

Correlations Between the HCM, PBBM, LCQ-C, and LCQ-I





























            Students bring to school behaviors and beliefs that they acquired through tacit learning at home, and these beliefs and preferences are based on one’s culture (Boykin, 1986; Boykin, 1994b; Boykin, 2000; Boykin and Ellison, 1995). This study’s results are consistent with the possibility that students prefer to learn using cultural contexts and assets that have been acquired outside of school.  Subsequently, this work continues to capture the notion that students’ cultural capital directly relates to students’ exposure to and experiences with the cultural phenomenology of their own households and out-of-classroom socialization (Marryshow et al., 2005; Boykin et al., 2005; Hurley et al., 2009).  Several decades ago, Boykin’s Triple Quandary framework suggested that home socialization experiences of African American students should inform the pedagogical practices and teaching strategies that they are exposed to in elementary grade level classrooms (Boykin, 1986).  Many African American families expose their children to high salience of communalism and communal practices in their households and this tends to promote higher levels of communal preference among students.  Yet, many schools are highly individualistic (Strogilos et al., 2012) which is not culturally congruent with communal preferences of many African American learners.  This cultural incongruence places too many African American students at a disadvantage for optimal learning by dismissing these students’ cultural assets.  Cultural assets held by children can be capitalized on in academic environments by expanding the range of cultural themes available in learning contexts beyond those associated with mainstream cultural ethos. This would allow African Americans to succeed more in schooling institutions. Several researchers make such claims. Boykin and associates go further with research that supports the notion that African American children achieve high standards while participating under culturally sensitive pedagogy (Boykin et al., 2003; Boykin et al., 2004; Dill & Boykin, 2000; Hurley, et al., 2009). Gloria Ladson-Billings (1990, 2011) suggested that culturally relevant pedagogy empowers students intellectually, socially, and emotionally. Michelle Foster and associates (2003) forwarded that thinking, beliefs, and values of teachers may impact teaching styles to effect instruction with culturally sensitive pedagogy. Carol Lee (2005) explored cognitive development of African American children as “cultural modeling” influences academic achievement.  These scholars and more suggest that African American culture is not good or bad. However, it proves to be rich with integrity that facilitates cognitive functioning and development to levels of academic promise.



            Future research efforts should look to assess home cultural phenomenology using a multi-method and multi-stakeholder approach. Concerning this multi-method approach, qualitative assessment in the home may provide additional information on home communal presence. Further, focus group interviews may shed additional light on the nuances of communal endorsement per various contexts or subject matter.  Although the study examined children’s preference and endorsement of communalism, classroom observations,  parent and teacher questionnaires, and stakeholder interviews may afford a triangulation of the phenomenon. In addition, the education field would benefit from examining direct relationships to communal learning contexts and student learning and performance. Research should also explore the facilitative effects of other Afro-cultural themes (e.g., movement expression and psychological verve) in the same vein as the communalism cultural dimension.     Finally, future communal and other Afro-cultural related research should include middle class African American students, as we look to level the playing field for all students.




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