George Lucas Educational Foundation

Being Mindful of Cultural Differences

Being Mindful of Cultural Differences

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When teaching a diverse group of students, whether they are English language learners or English speakers but have a different cultural background, it’s important to be mindful of the cultural differences in students’ behaviour. Recognizing and being able to distinguish these cultural differences allows the teacher to form a safe environment for all students. It’s important to recognize and understand these differences to be able to implement culturally responsive teaching and pedagogical practices in the classroom to ensure the success of every student.

Here are some of the cultural differences that you might notice in student behaviour

Eye contact: Many teachers notice that some of their students, especially English language learners, do not make direct eye contact with the teacher. In Western culture, this may be a sign that the person is not paying attention to the speaker. However, in many cultures, making a direct eye contact with the teacher (or any other person of authority) is a sign of disrespect. Many students are taught by their parents and family to not make such eye contact, as it’s also a sign of someone looking to challenge you.

Asking questions: This can be applied to personality traits, i.e. some shy students do not ask questions. However, in some cultures students learn that asking the teacher questions might imply that the teacher did not teach well, and therefore is impolite. Moreover, in some cultures asking questions can be seen as a way to challenge the teacher, and that is always discouraged and frowned upon.

Student may smile during an intense discussion: Some students may smile during intense discussions or reprimanding. The student may have been taught to react in this way so as not to offend the teacher/person of authority in the discussion.

The student does not display active listening skills or is inattentive: In some cultures students are taught using hands on methods through modelling and observation. Therefore, students might not be familiar with using active listening in the classroom to understand concepts and instructions.

Student refuses to engage in debates/discussions: There may be students who refuse to participate or contribute to a debate and/or lively discussion that occurs in class. In a few cultures, debating or engaging in discussions with different point of views, can be seen to challenge the participants in the discussion. Many cultures teach students that challenging teachers and/or authority figures is disrespectful. In other cultures, students do not recognize discussions/debates to be a different learning strategy, and therefore ignore the activity when it occurs.

Learning how to accommodate these behaviours is probably the teacher’s hardest job. However, providing the safe space for these student behaviours would allow teachers to implement the necessary pedagogical practices to help students excel and succeed in the classroom. When the teacher is able to connect with her student, her student succeeds. Building a relationship with the student is often the first step into being able to know them—to understand their behaviour in the classroom and how it connects to their learning. Being mindful of students’ backgrounds and cultural differences tells students that it’s okay for them to be who they are, while still having the support of their teachers and classmates. What we're really looking for is creating awareness and support by discussing these cultural behaviour differences. What are some cultural differences in behaviour that you've encountered, and most importantly, what are some strategies that you used to accomodate students displaying those behaviours?

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Thank you for this! I find that many of the behaviors you describe here come up when I'm talking with teachers about their issues with teaching students who are recent immigrants. Having this to offer up front will really help them to see their students through a less restrictive lens!

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Thanks Laura, I am so glad you found it useful. During conversations, teachers with immigrant and ELLs often do mention these issues too. I think discussing them and creating awareness amongst teachers can help to alleviate some undue tension between student and teacher.

Christina N. Smith's picture
Christina N. Smith
Literary catalyst inspiring a love for reading in children as a means to promote their self-growth & emotional intelligence

Wow! I'm sharing this on Twitter right now~ :-)

In my opinion, being aware of cultural differences does not end with kids in a primary school classroom. Awareness is essential all throughout adulthood.

You said it all right here, Rusul:

"Being mindful of students' backgrounds and cultural differences tells students that it's okay for them to be who they are, while still having the support of their teachers and classmates."

It IS okay for us all to be who we are. Thank you for sharing who you are with us Rusul.

Continued Success

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Thank you so much for your thoughts Christina. I totally agree that awareness of cultural differences is important for all levels, and I do hope that teachers create a safe environment by accommodating students' cultural behaviours in the classroom.

Kamprey's picture

This information is so important. Recognizing cultural differences plays a critical role in student relationships, as well as, adult relationships in a learning community. Not only are there cultural differences from country to country, there are so many that exist within our learning environments.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Thanks so much for reading and commenting Kamprey, you're very right, cultural differences not only vary from country to country, but they also exist within the classroom, community, neighbourhoods, industries and so much more. It's a complex system of behaviors that we always need to take into account.

auryt_j's picture

You have raised some really valuable points Rusul. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is the belief of many educators that 'they' have come to 'our' country and so if 'they' want to succeed need to learn 'our' ways. The only way a relationship can be established is by recognizing The recognition that both cultures have validity and are worthy of appreciation and understanding.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Thank you, I agree teachers' expectation of students to assimilate can be very hurtful, and makes the process of getting adapted to a new cultural even more difficult than it already is. I think it helps if the teachers become acquainted with the students' cultural background, this helps to build a bit of empathy between the teacher and the student.

Globally Grounded's picture
Globally Grounded
Culturally Responsive Educator. Global Mobility Specialist. Speaker. Mum to two Third Culture Kids

Thank you Rusul for putting this topic out there. I work with globally mobile students - those who have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside of their passport culture. These students often feel like they belong everywhere and nowhere. Many have lived in numerous countries so have a cultural heritage that spans the globe.
My own children have recently repatriated after living in Asia for the majority of their elementary schooling. They look Australian and sound Australian when they speak but their cultural identity is made up of the cultures in which they have lived. Championing Culturally Responsive Pedagogy has been (and continues to be) a challenge amidst the myriad of other topics teachers need to be across.
Developing a trusting relationship between teacher and student is fundamental to creating a pedagogy and a classroom environment where student's cultural identity are viewed as an asset not a barrier. Articles such as yours are so important in my line of work. Of course, the same principles apply in the work environment and society as a whole.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Thank you for your kind words and for reading, I agree cultural identity should be viewed as an asset not a barrier. and culturally responsive practices should be implemented in not only education but health care, government services and most industries.

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