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Module 8: Cultural Differences

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Cultural Differences in Attitudes and Beliefs

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In addition to differences in language and in practices related to language, cultural groups tend to differ in various other attitudes and beliefs. Complete descriptions of the details of the differences have filled entire books and encyclopaedias (see, for example, Birx, 2005).

For teachers, however, one of the most important differences centres on personal beliefs about identity–the sense of self or of “who you are”. A number of other cultural beliefs and practices can be understood as resulting from how members of a culture think about personal identity.

Example:
In white, middle-class American culture, the self tends to be thought of as unique and independent—a unitary, living source of decisions, choices, and actions that stands (or should eventually stand) by itself (Greenfield, et al., 2003; Rogoff, 2003).

This view of the self is assumed by educators, for example, when students are expected to take responsibility for their own successes or failures, or when students are evaluated individually rather than as a group or team.

As teachers, most of us subscribe to the idea that all students are unique, and therefore take steps to individualise or differentiate instruction. Across a variety of circumstances, teachers tend to believe in an independent self.

Yet many non-white cultures tend to believe in something closer to an interdependent self, or a belief that it is relationships and responsibilities, and not uniqueness and autonomy, that defines a person (Greenfield, 1994; Greenfield, et al., 2003).

From this perspective the most worthy person is not the one who is unusual or who stands out in a crowd. Such a person might actually be regarded as lonely or isolated. The worthy person is instead the one who gets along well with family and friends, and who meets obligations to them reliably and skilfully.

At some level, of course, we all value interpersonal skill and to this extent think of ourselves as interdependent. And individuals within any given society will vary in their attitudes about personal identity.

The cultural difference between individual and interdependent self is one of average tendency or emphasis, with many non-white cultures emphasising interdependence significantly more than white middle-class society does, on average, and more than many schools in particular.

There can be consequences of the difference in how the students respond to school.
Here are some of the possibilities—though keep in mind that there are also differences among students as individuals, whatever their background. The following are tendencies, not simple predictions:

• Preference for activities that are cooperative rather than competitive
• Avoidance of standing out publicly
• Interpersonal time versus clock time

1. Preference for activities that are cooperative rather than competitive: Many activities in school are competitive, even when teachers try to de-emphasise the competition. Once past the first year or second
year of school, students often become attentive to who receives the highest marks on an assignment, for example, or who is the best athlete at various sports or whose contributions to class discussion the most verbal recognition from the teacher (Johnson & Johnson, 1998).

Suppose, in addition, that a teacher deliberately organises important activities or assignments competitively (as in “Let’s see who finishes the math sheet first.”). Classroom life can then become explicitly competitive, and the competitive atmosphere can interfere with cultivating supportive relationships among students or between students and the teacher (Cohen, 2004).

For students who give priority to these relationships, competition can seem confusing at best and threatening at worst. What sort of sharing or helping with answers, the student may ask, is truly legitimate? If the teacher answers this question more narrowly than does the student, then what the student views as cooperative sharing may be seen by the teacher as laziness, “freeloading”, or even cheating.

2. Avoidance of standing out publicly: Even when teachers avoid obvious forms of competition, we may still interact frequently with students one at a time while allowing or inviting many others to observe the conversation.

An especially common pattern for such conversations is sometimes called the IRE cycle, an abbreviation for the teacher initiating, a student responding, and the teacher then evaluating the response (Mehan, 1979). What is sometimes taken for granted is how often IRE cycles are witnessed publicly, and how much the publicity can be stressful or embarrassing for students who do not value standing out in a group but who do value belonging to the group. The embarrassment can be especially acute if they feel unsure about whether they have correct knowledge or skill to display.

To keep such students from “clamming up” completely, therefore, teachers should consider limiting IRE cycles to times when they are truly productive. IRE conversations may often work best when talking with a student privately, or when confirming knowledge that the student is likely to be able to display competently already, or when “choral” speaking (responding together in unison) is appropriate.

3. Interpersonal time versus clock time: In order to function, all schools rely on fairly precise units of time as measured on clocks. Teachers typically allot a fixed number of minutes to one lesson or class, another fixed number of minutes for the next, another for recess or lunch time, and so on. In more ways than one, therefore, being on time becomes especially valued in schools, as it is in many parts of society.

Punctuality is not always conducive, however, to strong personal relationships, which develop best when individuals do not end joint activities unilaterally or arbitrarily, but allow activities to “finish themselves”, so to speak—to finish naturally. If personal relationships are a broad, important priority for a student, therefore, it may take effort and practice by the student to learn the extent to which schools and teachers expect punctuality.

Punctuality includes the obvious, like showing up for school when school is actually scheduled to begin. But it also includes subtleties, like starting and finishing tasks when the teacher tells students to do so, or answering a question promptly at the time it is asked rather than sometime later when discussion has already moved on.

Oppositional cultural identity
In some cases, dominant cultural attitudes can oppress or alienate particular students to the point where they feel they have no choice but to put themselves on the margins of mainstream activity. Such students may develop an oppositional cultural identity, meaning that they define themselves not by who they are, but by how they differ from or oppose mainstream culture (Ogbu & Davis, 2003; Carter, 2006).

Instead of aspiring to do well in school, for example, or to get along well with teachers, the students may aspire not to do well and not to be liked by teachers.

Obviously this sort of attitude poses problems for teachers who try to motivate the students and it also poses problems for the students' long-term success in life. Oppositional identity is especially likely in so-called involuntary minorities—groups that emigrated to or joined a society against their will and who may have been given few resources with which to participate in society.

Example:
In the United States, African-Americans and American Indians may have been involuntary minorities originally, although many present-day individuals from these groups may now feel very much a part of American culture. As cultural groups, however, their experiences have been quite different than so-called voluntary minorities—groups that chose to emigrate to a society in order to create better lives for themselves. The latter groups are more likely to work actively to fit in to their newfound culture. Learning to fit in to a new culture is a challenging task itself, but on the whole it is an easier task for teachers to work with than oppositional motivation.