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Interview: Luis Moll

Excerpts from an interview with Luis Moll, Professor, Department of Language, Reading, and Culture, College of Education, University of Arizona

Recorded July, 2002

Discussion of culture and the concept of "funds of knowledge"

Why does culture matter?  You have to think of it in the sense of, of teaching and learning, especially within something, an artificially created setting like a school. It's always a cultural occurrence. It's always a cultural happening, because human beings are doing it. And we are social and we're cultural through and through. It all has to do with the broader issue of pedagogy, and how do we create conditions for learning, and for development for, students. And culture's at the heart of that, I think.


The concept of funds of knowledge is from anthropology. Actually, Carlos Valez and James Greenburg, two colleagues here in anthropology, coined the term on the basis of their analysis of household functioning, especially the economic activities of households and how they make ends meet. And they found that, instead of exchanging capital for labor as we would on their formal relationships, that many household members exchange other types of funds which they labeled funds of knowledge. And we all do this through the usual exchanges that constitute our household life. So, for example, I need somebody to fix my car. I don't know anything about auto mechanics, so I call you – who happen to have some experience with it, because you worked in a garage for ten years before you switched jobs. And I invite you over to the house to have some dinner, and then I tell you, "Listen, by the way I'm having some problems with my car. Do you mind, taking a look at it?"  And usually on the basis of that relationship, you'll say, "Sure, I'll take a look at it."  And later on, I'm an expert at refrigeration and you're having problems with your refrigeration at home, and you remember that you helped me with the car, and you call me, and I go to your house and give you a hand. Now, those sorts of social relationships and those sorts of exchanges, exchange other types of funds. They're not the formal relationship of capital for labor. They exchange funds of knowledge. So that all households accumulate a tremendous amount of knowledge based on the productive activities of the household members, on their schooling experiences, and on other life experiences. And we find that households generate this knowledge and this knowledge is used strategically in terms of becoming a fund for exchange with others. So that the educational implications of the concept, of this anthropological concept is that we were able to share the concept with teachers and then develop ways of visiting local households, and meeting with parents, and meeting with the children with the idea of documenting the knowledge base that exists in the house. And the primary way that we start doing this is by documenting the labor history, because a lot of the knowledge that we possess within a household comes from the history of work of the household members. So that we were able then to collaborate with teachers in developing both theory and methods in how to approach the household and how to conceptualize it in terms of, not necessarily the problems that they may have, or the level of income, or the labor that they do, but in terms of the knowledge that may exist in that home. So it creates a perception of the home that is defined by the knowledge base of the households. So when one thinks of the home, one thinks of the resources that may be potentially available in that home, especially the knowledge that may be available there that we can then take advantage of for teaching and learning within the classroom. So the concept of funds of knowledge refers to the accumulated bodies of knowledge that reside within any household. And our task in documenting this knowledge is to create the relationships with parents and with children so that they tell us about the knowledge that they have. And then the work of the teachers is to reflect upon this knowledge and to figure out how to use it pedagogically – how to take advantage of it for purposes of instruction.


So, when you start doing this research on funds of knowledge, you start thinking about everything in relation to funds of knowledge. So when you see a group of kids, you see the kids of course, they're individual kids. But they all belong to particular social networks – family social networks, kin, friends. And all those social networks are ways of connecting to knowledge, either again, to knowledge from work, or knowledge from schooling, or knowledge from life. So they all represent potential social networks that one can utilize to gain access to knowledge for use within classroom practice. But notice that you start then defining the home setting of the kids and the family conditions of the kids in positive ways. In terms of the resources and the wherewithal and the knowledge that they've accumulated through life and how we can use that knowledge as opposed to defining the households in constraining ways. "Oh, they haven't had much schooling, therefore how can they be helpful to us as teachers?  Oh, they may not have had much schooling, but they've had many other life experiences that may be quite valuable and it's my responsibility to find out a little bit about it."  And if I can involve the kids in the inquiry of documenting the knowledge base that exists in their communities, then even better, because it provides them, provides the children as well, with both theory and methods in how to document this knowledge.


[Discussion of the segment in "The Classroom Mosaic" featuring William Dean and Jeff Gilbert at East Palo Alto High School]

Yeah, there are a variety of ways that teachers can organize activities to tap into funds of knowledge. For example, one of my favorite ways is when teachers develop theme cycles with literature and then strategically connect what's in the stories to the experiences and the knowledge that the kids or their families may have. And so you remember in one of the video segments that they were reading a story and connecting it to the experiences and analyzing it in terms of not only the text that they're reading, but the text of their lives and the lives of others.

In the East Palo Alto school, they were doing a very nice job of relating the analysis of text and talking about text, learning how to talk about text while building on the students' experiences and their families' experiences as additional content to help them develop those strategies of talking about text.


The consequences vary, depending on the teachers and the sorts of activities that they create for the kids. But what we're after is to create some consciousness – for the teachers and the children – to learn how to use the everyday experiences that are available to them as resources for thinking – to develop a theoretical vocabulary. You'll recall in the East Palo Alto school, the teacher was helping the kids develop a particular or special vocabulary, as part of their inquiry. Likewise, to develop a theoretical vocabulary to identify knowledge, to talk about cultural experiences and how to make sense of them, and to deliberately start relating the academic knowledge that they must acquire in the classroom to other sorts of knowledge that is available to them as well, creating that link, those connections, those mediated connections, we call them in our research between academic knowledge and other funds of knowledge available within the kids' environment.


I tend to see the connection between the home culture and the classroom culture as beneficial. It's not that every lesson that the teacher organizes must have a connection to the household. And it is not that everything that the teacher introduces must have immediate relevance for the children. I don't think the teachers in East Palo Alto or in Detroit were necessarily after that. But it is that we're trying to create strategic connections. That is, to make it clear to themselves as teachers, to the children as learners, that there is a worthwhile resource, an intellectual resource, as well as a cultural resource that is an abundant resource in their environment, and that includes their families and their experiences. So that it is worthwhile to create those things, to personalize instruction, the way that they were doing it, and they were doing a very good job of it, in order to hook the kids into the content, to lure them into the activity, and to engage them in this form of learning as inquiry that was found in both classrooms. So it's not that everything you do must have a home connection, but man, it's a powerful resource to have those connections with households and with parents. And, I think our pedagogy must take that into account, as opposed to closing the door to any possibilities of creating connections that take you beyond the classroom walls.


Is there a difference between culturally responsive teaching and good teaching?  Ah, they're probably related. I see the concept of culturally responsive teacher in the following way – where the teacher tries to become knowledgeable of the social history of the children, of the resources that may be available in what the families do. And, it becomes yet another tool in their teaching kit, and a very important one, because it is one that can facilitate these connections, these personal connections between curriculum and students. But it's also this constant awareness that we're involved in a cultural activity when we're doing teaching, and that it behooves us then to expand a little bit the resources that we're using for instruction – to go beyond the classroom walls and figure out what else is out there that I can use within my professional tool kit to help the kids learn and help the kids develop. So, can you do good teaching without being culturally responsive?  Perhaps, but it has limitations because sooner or later you're going to encounter content that the kids won't engage, and then the tendency is to blame the kids as opposed to doing as the teacher in the Detroit school was doing – as well as in East Palo Alto – to figure out, "Wait a minute, what do I have to do to engage the kids, and what is available to me in terms of the social relationship with parents or others that can, that I can use to engage the kids in these intellectual activities."


[Looking at the family memoirs segment in "The Classroom Mosaic"]

That was a very interesting classroom in which they were doing the family memoirs, and the parents were coming in to contribute to the lessons. There are a couple of observations there that related to the work that we've done. One is that to bring parents into the classrooms to contribute, you have to create a relationship to facilitate that participation. And it is through the creation of social relationships that we're able to generate such partnerships with parents around schooling. But this doesn't occur overnight, right?  The teaches have to cultivate these relationships with the idea that the parents become a resource to help them with the academic teaching and the academic learning that must go on. But notice that the parent was coming into the class not to erase the blackboard, not to help the kids, to help the teacher clean up the room – that the parents were coming into that classroom to contribute intellectually to the agenda of the classroom. And that's a very interesting definition because you are defining parents as intellectually capable and worthwhile, that they have the knowledge, the wherewithal to come and contribute to the content of the lessons, so they can become intellectual partners with the teachers and the kids in achieving the goals of schooling.


Discussion of cultural differences within the classroom

Cultural differences can, of course, have an influence on how teaching and learning takes place within the classroom. And one can think of numerous examples of ways of interacting that the children may be used to at home, or with their families or with their friends. And those ways of interacting are not privileged within the classroom, so there might be some difficulty in the child learning what is expected of me, in terms of how to interact within this setting. But, all children experience a mismatch to some extent between ways of interacting in the home and ways of interacting in the classroom. What's important, I think, is for the teachers to be conscious that there are a variety of ways that the children may be used to interacting that may or may not include what she's expecting or he is expecting in the classroom, and not to create a formidable barrier out of those discrepancies in ways of interacting. It is relatively straightforward for the children to be socializing, to how it's done in the classroom and what the teacher's expecting of me in ways of interacting in the classroom. So, yes, we should be aware of these different ways of interacting that may be culturally based. But, let's also be reasonable in thinking that, hey, kids learn pretty quickly. We may not penalize them for their ways of their interacting – let me try to understand how they're interacting. And at the same time, let me teach them what I expect of them, in terms of interactions that count within the classroom. So it's not as much a barrier, but of the teacher being conscious that all of our ways of interacting are culturally based, and I might have to make some adjustments in the classroom to make sure I accommodate the kids, just as the kids are accommodating to what I expect them to do as well – this mutual accommodation.


Discussion of culture and stereotyping

 We worry a lot about notions of culture that convey a certain static sense. We usually refer to those as normative models of culture. And most people are used to talking about culture in these ways. Like, for example, when we say, "Well you know, the French are like this, but the British are like that. Or, Mexicans are like this, or Cubans are like that."  And we're all used to talking about culture in these normative ways. But that easily leads to rather stereotypic ways of thinking about culture and cultural practices.

We prefer to think of culture in much more concrete ways, in much more material ways – what we sometimes refer to as cultural practice understanding, or what anthropologists call perceptual notions of culture – where the idea is to concentrate on the practices and the processes, how people engage life. Tim Engle, the British anthropologist, puts it this way, and I like the way he puts it – he puts it,"It's not as much how people live in cultures, but it is how people live culturally – that is, how they use their strategies for life, their learning, their experiences, their social relationships, to engage life." So when we do our research with teachers, that's what we're interested in – how do the people that we're studying, whatever their cultural background, how do they engage life?  What can we learn from them?  What knowledge and wherewithal do they have, do they possess?  How can we document that?  And how can we make it useful for teachers and kids within, within the schools. So we're constantly checking ourselves that we're not falling into this trap we could call it, of considering culture in rather stereotypic, static ways, but to keep in mind this enormous heterogeneity within any cultural group – so that to think of these normative models is really quite deceptive, and that we have to consider the dynamic, and the variety, and the diversity of experiences that occur within groups, not to mention across cultural groups.


Discussion of Moll's work connecting schools and families

Well, the way that we've gone about attempting to create these connections between teachers and parents has been through the household visits. Now, these are not just any old household visits. Many teachers have experiences with household visits, but they're usually motivated by a particular problem – "Mrs. Smith I need to meet with you because Johnny is being, uh, disruptive in class."  I ask virtually any parent, "What is the first thing that crosses your mind when you get a phone call from the teacher?"  They say, "Oh my goodness, here's a problem. I wonder what he or she has done now?"  Right?  What we're trying to do in the research that we've conducted is to redefine that – for the teachers to make household visit, but not just for the sake of the visit, but with a theoretical agenda of documenting the knowledge base of the household, documenting the social and work experiences of the family. But to do that, in order to be able to have parents trust you enough to tell you about their lives and about their experiences, you have to first create a relationship. And we create relationships by exchanging information. We call it ethnographic interviews where it's a mix between a conversation, a friendly conversation and with, a guided conversation, though, because it's a part of an interview, because you have an agenda, right, a research agenda when you enter the home that you make public to the families as you enter, so that, through that conversation you start creating the relationship. So, for example, in the training that we do with the teachers, we tell them, "Reveal a little something about yourself as well, so that it becomes a mutual exchange of information, as opposed to a survey, with the families. But what the teachers get out of these interviews is not simply the documentation of knowledge, but it is the formation of social relationships with the families. We make repeated visits. We help the teachers develop case studies of families, and we make a minimum of three visits per family, and this is how it goes. The first visit is quite formal, everything is in its place. The second visit becomes a little bit more informal and you're expected – the relationship is forming. And by the third visit, you're being invited for dinner or you're being invited to participate in a family activity. And so you have all these clues that a social relationship is forming and with it certain responsibilities for the teacher. But it is through those relationships that then you can strategically start creating your theory and your practice and how to make connections with families or with other significant people in the communities for the purposes of schooling.


Discussion of the background on Moll's work

When we started the research on funds of knowledge it was a collaborative effort between anthropologists at the university and those of us in education. From the beginning of our work we tried to create a link between this concept of funds of knowledge, it's an anthropological concept, and the Vygotskian cultural-historical approach. Now, Vygotsky proposed that thinking is socially and culturally constituted, and in great part it occurs through the resources that we acquire to help us develop our thinking. We acquire tools such as literacy and mathematics and we use other resources, such as our social relationships, and ways of discourse, ways of interacting, to help develop how we think and what we think. So we thought that the concept of funds of knowledge – thinking of knowledge and the family's knowledge as a cultural resource would fit right into yet another one of those resources for thinking that are available for human beings – in this instance, for teachers and students within schools. So we have an indirect link to Vygotsky's ideas – taking his social and cultural perspective and then trying to figure out how does the funds of knowledge mediate what teachers and kids are able to do within the classrooms. That's one connection. The second connection is that we purposely create a setting for teachers that serves as a mediating structure. In here we're using the concept of mediation in the Vygotskian sense of the term. And it's a place where teachers will get together after school with us and with other colleagues in order to think. And that's really a luxury in most schools for the teachers to have time to think, especially with others. We call it a mediating structure because that study group that we form with teachers is the place where we bring the documentation and the experiences that we have in our household visits. We bring it there for analysis and reflection. And as we're in those study groups, it's where we also do some planning on how we can use this stuff from the households for classroom teaching. And it is also where we reflect upon practice, upon the teacher's practice within that collaborative study group setting. So it mediates the connection between the homes and the home visits and the classroom practices. So that we felt it created a triangle – household, classrooms and then study group settings where the teachers get a chance to think about these issues with other colleagues.


Discussion of ways to support culturally responsive teaching

There are several ways that schools can support what we're calling culturally responsive teaching. But a primary way is by creating time and space for the teachers to think with each other.  Teaching is a very hectic profession. I like to tell teachers that if we take their schedule, their work schedule and we apply it to the university, we would paralyze the university, because there would be no time for doing it, to do anything else. No time for research, no time for reading, no time for discussion with colleagues, no time for writing, for thinking. So that one of the ways that administrators can contribute is to create the time and space, a setting, once a week, twice a week where teachers can meet with their colleagues and think about what is it that they're doing. And then part of the agenda within those settings can be, how can we take full advantage of the resources in the local community, the resources found in local households, and the social relationships that we created, and the people that we know. Or to create those links, right, between cultural experiences and teaching and learning in the classroom.

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