At the end of my first year at John Hopkins University’s School of Education researching K-12 experiences of South Asian Americans, I found myself reflecting on how much I had grown to really care about my research topic. This feeling was strengthened every time someone asked me about my work, and then when hearing my response, asked:
But why are you researching Indian kids? (the silent addendum to that question being, aren’t there kids with bigger problems?).
When I would hear this question, I felt more assured I had chosen the right path, because even though most (not all) South Asian American students may tend to do well, they, like all students, still need and deserve help and support from their teachers. And, this attitude of there are bigger problems means that South Asian American students might not be getting that help, since it’s an attitude that plenty of well-meaning teachers may also hold. If teachers believe that these kids don’t need any extra help (when in reality, many of them really do), then something needs to change. To start with, we need more research on these students.
There is a lack of distinction made between different kinds of Asians in existing literature, and a particular dearth of existing literature on South Asian American students. This means teachers can’t really understand these students’ cultures, and thus can’t provide culturally responsive instruction to these students.
Worse, they may not even try to — since many teachers believe the model minority stereotype about Asian students, they might be especially likely to overlook their South Asian American students’ needs, figuring they don’t need extra help or support. But that attitude makes no sense; South Asian American kids, like all other kids, need, what multicultural teaching expert Zaretta Hammond calls, culturally responsive support in school to reach their maximum potential. And according to the pilot studies in my own dissertation research, there’s evidence that teachers tend to lack cultural literacy related to supporting their South Asian American students, which means they can’t provide that kind of support to those students.
The Need to Distinguish Among Asians
In schools, various Asian subgroups are often perceived as one homogenous culture (see this 1998 study). But “Asian” is a broad and diverse category with tons of cultures, religions, languages, values, and ethnicities (Asia includes people from Southeast Asian island nations, as well as some people from Russia and countries in the Middle East — that’s a lot of types of people).
Asian includes subgroups exhibiting high levels of variation, so there is a need for future research to explicitly study various Asian cultures separately. To that end, because India is its own (huge) country with its own culture (and many distinct and varied cultures within that larger culture), there is a need to explicitly study students of various South Asian origins separately from other Asian cultures.
The Need for Cultural Responsiveness
Culturally responsive teaching refers to “using the cultural characteristics, experiences and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching more effectively” (see page 106 of Geneva Gay’s 2010 article on culturally responsive teaching theory, research, and practice – PDF). Cultural proficiency allows teachers to build better socio-emotional relationships with their students to better support their learning, and even to be more effective in teaching in culturally diverse classroom environments.
To be effective, self-advocacy instruction must be delivered in a culturally responsive way, since students from different cultures may have different learning needs and preferences. According to multicultural teaching expert Sonia Nieto, teachers must have knowledge and understanding of their students’ backgrounds and cultures, and must be able to incorporate them into their curriculum and pedagogy in order to be effective. And, they must be able to recognize students’ “cultural displays of learning and meaning making” to adjust their teaching to that student; to promote students’ information processing, teachers must “respond positively and constructively with teaching moves that use cultural knowledge as a scaffold to connect what the student knows to new concepts and content” (p.15, Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain).
And obviously, to allow teachers to provide this sort of culturally responsive teaching to their South Asian American students, we first need further research on understanding them and their culture.
The Problem of the Model Minority Stereotype
Since teachers know there are a variety of problems in education, there can be a natural tendency to mentally rank problems by their relative importance. As a teacher acquaintance who inquired about my research area informed me:
But my Indian kids don’t need help. They have, like, 100% in my class and they always seem to know the answer. So why would I spend time helping them when I have kids who need more help?
This kind of attitude is not unreasonable — after all, don’t Asian kids statistically tend to do well compared with peers from other social groups? But this mentality is, unfortunately, a kind of logical fallacy (remember: a problem isn’t less worthy of addressing just because there is some other, larger problem), and worse, it’s misguided, because many South Asian American students actually do need more support than they are getting.
For one thing, not all South Asian (or other Asian) students even fit the model minority stereotype, and being held to the model minority standard when you don’t fit it is extremely harmful. For another, even if some South Asian American students are high performers, like all students, they still need culturally responsive support in order to succeed.
Why Research on South Asian American Students Matters
Building a framework and professional development model for understanding South Asian American students’ culture and needs could help teachers improve their cultural proficiency and responsiveness. It would allow them to overcome stereotypes, and better understand South Asian American students’ culture and needs, thus allowing them to provide these students with necessary support.
Further, beginning to develop a framework for understanding South Asian American kids’ cultures would contribute to the currently scarce literature on them, and help addressing the lack of distinction made in current literature on Asian American students.
Most importantly, research on these students would eventually help them receive any support and instruction they could need, thus allowing them to meet their true academic potential. This should be the ethical goal of all good teachers. And this is the answer to “why research South Asian American students,” and why I’m motivated to see my research through.
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The original version of this essay appeared on www.isaase.org, authored by Dr. Punita Chhabra Rice. She is a researcher and writer focusing on the experiences of South Asian American students and also the founder of ISAASE, an organization aimed at improving South Asian American students’ experiences through research, outreach, and promoting teacher cultural proficiency. Find her on Twitter @punitarice.