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You Are Here: Home » Education » Teachers need to know these nuances in today’s multicultural classrooms

By Sandy LopezSpecial to CSMS MagazineCultures vary in their tendency to encourage people to be unique and independent or conforming and interdependent.  Hofstede outlines and compares five dimensions of intercultural characteristics. They are: individualism versus collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, power distance, masculinity versus femininity, and long-term versus short term orientation to time.  Cultures differ in the extent to which individual autonomy is regarded favorably or unfavorably.  Thus, cultures vary in their tendency to encourage people to be unique and independent or conforming and interdependent (Lustig, M. W. & Koester, J., 2006).            It is hard for students from different cultures to adapt to school, communities, neighborhoods and social environments easily.  There are so many cultural differences in traditions, behavior, language, speech, and personal views. This makes it almost impossible to for an ESOL teacher to capture and address each culture value at the same time.  That is why it is so important that the teacher familiarize with his students and their families in order to receive a better insight to any variances he should be aware of. Each of the five cultural dimensions outlined by Hofstede addresses a different but significant part of intercultural views.               In the individualist cultures, the autonomy of the individual is paramount.  Key words used to invoke this cultural pattern include independence, privacy, self, and the all-important I.  Decisions are based on what is good for the individual, not for the group, because the person is the primary source of motivation.  Huge cultural differences can be explained by differences on the individualism-collectivism dimension.  Similarly, people from individualistic cultures are more likely to use confrontational strategies than those from collectivistic cultures when it comes to dealing with interpersonal problems. Those with collectivistic orientation are likely to use avoidance, third-party intermediaries, or other face-saving techniques (Lustig, M. W. & Koester, J., 2006).            A second concern of all cultures is how they will adapt to changes and cope with uncertainties.  The future will always be unknown in some respects.  At one extreme, on the uncertainty-avoidance dimension are cultures that have a high tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity and low on uncertainty avoidance. They believe in minimizing the number of rules and rituals that govern social conduct and human behavior in accepting and encouraging dissent among cultural members, in tolerating people who behave in ways considered socially deviant, and in taking risks and trying new things.    Members of uncertainty-avoidance cultures have a powerful need to create a world that is less certain and predictable, and they do so by inventing rules and rituals to constrain human behaviors.  They tend to be worried about the future, have high levels of anxiety, and are highly resistant to change.  They regard the uncertainties of life as a continuous threat that must be overcome.  Differences in level of uncertainty avoidance can result in unexpected problems in intercultural communication (Lustig, M. W. & Koester, J., 2006).            A third concern of all cultures and a problem for which they all must find a solution is the issue of human inequality.  Depending on the culture, some people might be regarded as superior to others because of their wealth, age gender, education, physical strength, birth order, personal achievements, family background, occupation, or a wide variety of other characteristics.  The consequences of the degree of power distance that a culture prefers are evident in family customs, the relationships between students and teachers, organizational practices, and in other areas of social life. Even the language systems in some cultures emphasize distinctions based on a social hierarchy.  Chinese and Korean languages, for instance have separate terms for older brother, oldest brother, younger sister, youngest sister, and so on.  Many languages like Spanish, French, German, Japanese and others have both formal (polite) and informal versions that people use in specific circumstances.  Children raised in high power-distance cultures are expected to obey their parents without challenging or questioning them, whereas children raised in low power-distance cultures put less value on obedience and are taught to seek reasons or justifications for their parents’ actions.            Similarly, students in high power-distance cultures are expected to comply with the wishes and requests of their teachers, and conformity is regarded very favorably.  As a consequence, the curriculum in these cultures is likely to involve a great deal of rote learning, and students are discouraged from asking questions because questions might pose a threat to the teacher’s authority.  In low power-distance cultures, students regard their independence as very important, and they are less likely to conform to the expectations of teachers or other authorities.  The educational system itself reinforces this value by teaching students to ask questions, to solve problems creatively and uniquely, and to challenge the evidence leading to conclusions (Lustig, M. W. & Koester, J., 2006).A fourth concern of all cultures, and for which they must all find solutions, pertains to the extent to which they prefer achievement and assertiveness or nurturance and social support.  Hofstede refers to these variations as the masculinity-femininity dimensions, though an alternative label is achievement-nurturance.  This indicates the degree to which a culture values such behaviors as assertiveness and the acquisition of wealth or caring for others and the quality of life.  Members of highly masculine cultures believe that men should be assertive and women should be nurturing.  Sex roles and sexual inequality are regarded as beneficial.  The reverse is true for members of highly feminine cultures: men are far less interested in achievement, sex roles are far more fluid, and equality between the sexes is the norm.  Teachers in masculine cultures praise their best students, and these masculine cultures strive to be competitive, visible, successful, and vocationally oriented.  In feminine cultures, teachers rarely praise individual achievements and academic performance because social accommodation is more highly regarded.  Male students try to cooperate with one another and develop a sense of solidarity; they try to behave modestly and properly; they select subjects because they are intrinsically interesting rather than vocationally rewarding; and friendliness is much more important than brilliance (Lustig, M. W. & Koester, J., 2006).A fifth concern of all cultures relates to its orientation to time.  The time-orientation dimension refers to a person’s point of reference about life and work.  Cultures that promote a long-term orientation toward life admire persistence, thriftiness, humility, a sense of shame, and status differences within interpersonal relationships.  Linguistic and social distinctions between elder and younger sibling are common, deferred gratification of needs is widely accepted, and family life is guided by shared tasks.  Conversely, cultures with short-term orientation toward changing events have a deep appreciation for tradition, personal steadiness and stability, maintaining “face” of self and others, balance or reciprocity when greeting others, giving and receiving gifts and favors, and an expectation of quick results following one’s actions (Lustig, M. W. & Koester, J., 2006).Increasingly, we are becoming aware of cultural bias in our society. This may be bias based not only on culture or race, but also on social class, religion, or physical and mental abilities. One of the goals of high quality programs is to help children become sensitive to issues of bias and to develop anti-bias skills.  All children experience cultural diversity because our world is diverse. The key question is whether this diversity is perceived as positive or negative. Think about who the “other” is as you work toward opening windows to diversity and balance.  If our classroom is naturally diverse racially and culturally, for example, you will not have to worry about providing opportunities for interactions between diverse groups of children. You will focus instead on how to promote positive interactions between the children.  But if the classroom has little cultural diversity, build first on the differences that are there.            Start with boys and girls, for example. As you help children recognize and respect the cultures of others, pay careful attention to how this “other” is generally perceived by the community you serve. The balance of diversity you bring into this classroom is what will be different, based on the context of the children who are there.  If the classroom or community is not diverse, or if you don’t have personal experience with cultural diversity, make sure any image of diversity you bring is accurate and non-stereotypical. Portraying Native Americans in traditional costumes tells children little about Native Americans of today and can foster stereotypes. Providing accurate images may mean more work for the teacher, but it is important because of the subtle messages that children will receive.      Be open to hearing other points of view. Reflecting on your own childhood, and on the lessons you learned, may help you imagine how a message is perceived by a child today. Families and teachers must work together to sort through these issues.            The classroom environment is made up of students who are ethnically and culturally diverse.  Because of the rising number of multicultural students in the classroom, the curriculum has to be adaptable to accommodate learning strategies for all.  We must arrange our classroom with prompts, interest centers, and books in a way not to show bias.  We must continue to encourage parents and other cultural representatives into the classrooms.  We must respect and appreciate cultural diversity.  Following a close review of intercultural principles and values, a teacher of ESOL students must show cognitive understanding of the diverse traditions of each child in his/her classroom.  He/She can no longer take for granted that the child will “catch up” without doing further investigation. Monitoring the cultural values and the differences of each child under their care is the key to bringing these children to the path of academic success.Also see Race really mattersIt’s hard to get rid of instilled prejudicesNote: Sandy Lopez heads a multicultural firm in suburban Palm Beach. She wrote this piece exclusively for CSMS Magazine.


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