UCLA Ed lecturer is recognized by the American Anthropological Association for comparative work on teaching and learning in France and West Africa.
Katie Anderson-Levitt, a lecturer in the division of Social Research Methodology (SRM) at UCLA Ed & IS, has been honored with the George and Louise Spindler Award by the American Anthropological Association’s Council on Anthropology and Education (CAE). The organization’s highest honor, the Spindler Award is given annually to a scholar who has made distinguished and inspirational contributions to educational anthropology. Anderson- Levitt was recognized at the organization’s Annual Meeting in November.
While teaching in the department of anthropology at Stanford University, Anderson-Levitt studied the teaching and learning aspects of reading in elementary schools in France and Guinea, West Africa, using her skills as an anthropologist.
“In the 1970s, as they are today, everyone was talking about kids who weren’t succeeding in school,” she says. “Prior to that, there was a lot of deficit theory in the 1960s. So anthropologists and some sociologists were saying, ‘Wait – kids are smart, so let’s try to understand it from a cultural difference perspective instead of a deficit.’ With everyone focused on failure, I thought it would help to study what teachers thought of as ordinary success in learning to read.”
Anderson-Levitt says that her research in France enabled her “to make visible all the things that people take for granted. For instance, French kids in the first grade are handed fine point Bic pens. They are learning to write in cursive between tiny lines. When I told American teachers, they said it was impossible. But teachers in France told me that six-year-olds are incapable of writing capital letters. That just illustrates that it has a lot to do with what your preconceptions are. Not to mention that the French school system had been set up so that kids were in school every day, all day, from the age of three, so they had been practicing.
“We have a notion in the United States that there’s one best way to teach – one best practice,” she says. “But maybe there’s more than one good practice. Because when I was there in the 1970s and 1980s, they were using different methods to teach reading in France, and most kids were learning just as most kids learn in the United States. So the comparative aspect was interesting.”
Twenty years after her initial study of reading education in France, Anderson-Levitt was approached by the World Bank as an ethnographer of education to help lead a study of girls’ schooling in Guinea, West Africa. She returned to Guinea four years later to examine the country’s reading instruction practices, as well as the ministry of education and teacher training.
While Guinea adopted the French system and methods of education, Anderson-Levitt says that Germany, Japan, and a number of other nations were in country, with their various forms of aid turning into “a cultural war.”
“[Guineans] were juggling all this advice, which they had to accept in order to get loans and grants to float their budget,” she says. “The ministry of education had U.S. and U.N. advisors: USAID, UNICEF, and the Peace Corps. Our study turned into looking at what implementation of so-called best practices look like on the ground in a particular setting.”
Anderson-Levitt says that first world nations have a lot to learn when it comes to helping developing countries with reforms that are culturally compatible.
“I don’t think we’ve learned that lesson,” she says. “We’re still out there saying, ‘Wait, we’ve got the answer – everyone should do it this way.’”
“Basically, the message is that yes, there is a kind of standard discourse of what looks like best practice that spreads throughout the world. But the realities on the ground are varied because social structures and economies are different, and because in each nation, [educators’] interpretation of what counts as ‘best practices’ is different. But the talk about what good teaching is, even among parents and non-teachers, is the same: teaching needs to be student-centered.”
Before arriving at UCLA in 2011, Anderson-Levitt served as dean and interim dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters at the University of Michigan – Dearborn from 2003 to 2010. In addition to these posts, she taught as a professor of anthropology from 1996-2010.
Anderson-Levitt served as the editor of Anthropology and Education Quarterly, the journal of the Council on Anthropology and Education of the AAA from 1994 to 2000. She is currently a co-editor of Comparative Education Review. She earned her bachelor’s degree in social science with an emphasis in international relations from the University of Southern California and her Ph.D. from Stanford University.