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Culture and Learning: Cultural characteristics that can impact the Teacher-Learner Connection – By Leona Johnson, Ph.D.

“We don’t’ see things as they are. We see things as we are.” – Anais Nin

Leona Johnson, Ph.D.

Current research suggests that culture strongly influences students’ learning patterns, communication styles, perceptions, and behavior. Cultural forces in the learning experience can potentially affect the teacher-learner connection in the classroom. These key areas of differences provide a lense through which teachers in culturally diverse classrooms can consciously examine the behaviors of students and themselves. Some of the aspects of culture that can create disconnects between the teacher and learner and society are discussed below. Embedded in this discussion are descriptions of how specific cultures view the world and interact with people.

Cultures tend to vary along a number of dimensions. The following are among those in which different views and behaviors can lead to misunderstanding and tension: 1) Individualism vs. Collectivism, 2) Action vs. Being, 3) Communication Styles, and 4) Power Imbalances (Ziegahn 2001, online as cited in Johnson & Protheroe, 2003).

Individualism vs. Collectivism. Individualistic cultures generally value the self-reliance, equality, and autonomy of the individual, whereas collectivist cultures tend to value group effort and harmony. For example, mainstream U.S. cultures are often fragmented over the balance between rewarding individual effort and competition versus recognizing and fostering teamwork and cooperation.

Action vs. Being. U. S. culture generally tends to value action, efficiency, getting to the “bottom line,” potentially downplaying social interactions at the interest of achieving goals. Taking the time to discuss complex issues and to appreciate the moment may be more important to persons coming from a more holistic cultural orientation.

Communication Styles. How we communicate is as often as important as what we communicate. Depending partially on cultural variables such as ethnicity, gender, and race, individuals may have a reference for sending direct or indirect, attached or detached, procedural or personal messages or possibly be more confrontational in communicating.

Power Imbalances. In addition to the different values and communication styles that contribute to cultural diversity, cultures are sometimes stratified by inequities in terms of access to political and economic power. Thus a culture’s advantage or disadvantage depends on its position vis-à-vis other cultural groups.

Seldom do we recognize the fact that our sense of self is shaped in very subtle ways by the culture in which we are raised (Adler & Proctor, 2007). From a pragmatist perspective, teachers may not be able to anticipate cultural conflicts or have knowledge of every cultural subtlety in a changing school environment. Given this – it is important that we be familiar with potential disconnects that can occur in the teacher-learner connection and society.

While the cultural forces that impact learning may be beyond our control or immediate personal experiences, awareness of these dimensions can go a long way in bridging the gap between cultures in the classroom and society.

Adler, R. B. & Proctor, R. F. (2007). Looking Out: Looking In, 12th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Johnson, L. M. (2003). What we know: About culture and learning. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service (ERS), pp.16-17.


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