Cultural Differences in the Classroom

Culture is the system of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that constitute the distinctive way of life of a people. Although sometimes the term is also used to refer specifically to the artistic, intellectual and other “high-brow” aspects of life, I use it here more broadly to refer to everything that characterizes a way of life—baseball games as well as symphony concerts, and McDonald’s as well as expensive restaurants. In this broad sense, culture is nearly synonymous with ethnicity, which refers to the common language, history, and future experienced by a group within society. Culture has elements that are obvious, like unique holidays or customs, but also features that are subtle or easy for outsiders to overlook, like beliefs about the nature of intelligence or about the proper way to tell a story. When a classroom draws students from many cultures or ethnic groups, therefore, the students bring to it considerable diversity. Teachers need to understand that diversity—understand how students’ habitual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors differ from each other, and especially how they differ from the teacher’s.

But this kind of understanding can get complicated. To organize the topic, therefore, I will discuss aspects of cultural diversity according to how directly they relate to language differences compared to differences in other social and psychological features of culture. The distinction is convenient, but it is also a bit arbitrary because, as you will see, the features of a culture overlap and influence each other.

Bilingualism: Language Differences in the Classroom

Although monolingual speakers often do not realize it, the majority of children around the world are bilingual, meaning that they understand and use two languages (Meyers-Scotton, 2005). Even in the United States, which is a relatively monolingual society, more than 47 million people speak a language other than English at home, and about 10 million of these people were children or youths in public schools (United States Department of Commerce, 2003). The large majority of bilingual students (75 percent) are Hispanic, but the rest represent more than a hundred different language groups from around the world. In larger communities throughout the United States, it is therefore common for a single classroom to contain students from several language backgrounds at once.

In classrooms as in other social settings, bilingualism exists in different forms and degrees. At one extreme are students who speak both English and another language fluently; at the other extreme are those who speak only limited versions of both languages. In between are students who speak their home (or heritage) language much better than English, as well as others who have partially lost their heritage language in the process of learning English (Tse, 2001). Commonly, too, a student may speak a language satisfactorily but be challenged by reading or writing it—though even this pattern has individual exceptions. Whatever the case, each bilingual student poses unique challenges to teachers.

Balanced or Fluent Bilingualism

The student who speaks both languages fluently has a definite cognitive advantage. As you might suspect and as research has confirmed, a fully fluent bilingual student is in a better position than usual to express concepts or ideas in more than one way, and to be aware of doing so (Jimenez, et al. 1995; Francis, 2006). The question: “What if a dog were called a cat?” is less likely to confuse even a very young bilingual child. Nor will the follow-up question: “Could the ‘cat’ meow?” confuse them. Such skill in reflecting on language is a form of metacognition, which is defined as using language as an object of thought. Metacognition can be helpful for a variety of academic purposes, such as writing stories and essays, or interpreting complex text materials.

Unbalanced Bilingualism

Unfortunately, the bilingualism of many students is “unbalanced” in the sense that they are either still learning English, or else they have lost some earlier ability to use their original, heritage language—or occasionally a bit of both. The first sort of student—sometimes called an English language learner (ELL) or limited English learner (LEL)—has received the greatest attention and concern from educators, since English is the dominant language of instruction and skill and obviously helps prepare a student for life in American society. ELL students essentially present teachers with this dilemma: how to respect the original language and culture of the student while also helping the student to join more fully in the mainstream—i.e. English-speaking—culture? Programs to address this question have ranged from total immersion in English from a young age (the “sink or swim” approach) to phasing in English over a period of several years (sometimes called an additive approach to bilingual education). In general, evaluations of bilingual programs have favored the more additive approaches (Beykont, 2002). Both languages are developed and supported, and students ideally become able to use either language permanently, though often for different situations or purposes. A student may end up using English in the classroom or at work, for example, but continue using Spanish at home or with friends, even though he or she is perfectly capable of speaking English with them.

Language Loss

What about the other kind of imbalance, in which a student is acquiring English but losing ability with the student’s home or heritage language? This sort of bilingualism is quite common in the United States and other nations with immigrant populations (Tse, 2001). Imagine this situation: First-generation immigrants arrive, and they soon learn just enough English to manage their work and daily needs, but continue using their original language at home with family and friends from their former country. Their children, however, experience strong expectations and pressure to learn and use English, and this circumstance dilutes the children’s experience with the heritage language. By the time the children become adults, they are likely to speak and write English better than their heritage language, and may even be unable or unwilling to use the heritage language with their own children (the grandchildren of the original immigrants).

This situation might not at first seem like a problem for which we, as teachers, need to take responsibility, since the children immigrants, as students, are acquiring the dominant language of instruction. In fact, however, things are not that simple. Research finds that language loss limits students’ ability to learn English as well or as quickly as they otherwise can do. Having a large vocabulary in a first language, for example, has been shown to save time in learning vocabulary in a second language (Hansen, Umeda & McKinney, 2002). But students can only realize the savings if their first language is preserved. Preserving the first language is also important if a student has impaired skill in all languages and therefore needs intervention or help from a speech-language specialist. Research has found, in such cases, that the specialist can be more effective if the specialist speaks and uses the first language as well as English (Kohnert, et al., 2005). Generally, though also more indirectly, minimizing language loss helps all bilingual students’ education because preservation tends to enrich students’ and parents’ ability to communicate with each other. With two languages to work with, parents can stay “in the loop” better about their children’s educations and support the teacher’s work—for example, by assisting more effectively with homework (Ebert, 2005).

Note that in the early years of schooling, language loss can be minimized to some extent by the additive or parallel-track bilingual programs that I mentioned above. For a few years, though not forever, young students are encouraged to use both of their languages. In high school, in addition, some conventional foreign language classes— notably in Spanish—can be adjusted to include and support students who are already native speakers of the language alongside students who are learning it for the first time (Tse, 2001). But for heritage languages not normally offered as “foreign” languages in school, of course, this approach will not work. Such languages are especially at risk for being lost.

Cultural Differences in Language Use

Cultures and ethnic groups differ not only in languages but also in how languages are used. Since some of the patterns differ from those typical of modern classrooms, they can create misunderstandings between teachers and students (Cazden, 2001; Rogers, et al., 2005). Consider these examples: In some cultures, it is considered polite or even intelligent not to speak unless you have something truly important to say. “Chitchat,” or talk that simply affirms a personal tie between people, is considered immature or intrusive (Minami, 2002). In a classroom, this habit can make it easier for a child to learn not to interrupt others, but it can also make the child seem unfriendly.

  • Eye contact varies by culture. In many African American and Latin American communities, it is considered appropriate and respectful for a child not to look directly at an adult who is speaking to them (Torres-Guzman, 1998). In classrooms, however, teachers often expect a lot of eye contact (as in “I want all eyes on me!”) and may be tempted to construe a lack of eye contact as a sign of indifference or disrespect.
  • Social distance varies by culture. In some cultures, it is common to stand relatively close when having a conversation; in others, it is more customary to stand relatively far apart (Beaulieu, 2004). Problems may happen when a teacher and student prefer different social distances. A student who expects a closer distance than does the teacher may seem overly familiar or intrusive, whereas one who expects a longer distance may seem overly formal or hesitant.
  • Wait time varies by culture. Wait time is the gap between the end of one person’s comment or question and the next person’s reply or answer. In some cultures, the wait time is relatively long—as long as three or four seconds (Tharp & Gallimore, 1989). In others it is a “negative” gap, meaning that it is acceptable, even expected, for a person to interrupt before the end of the previous comment. In classrooms the wait time is customarily about one second; after that, the teacher is likely to move on to another question or to another student. A student who habitually expects a wait time longer than one second may seem hesitant, and not be given many chances to speak. A student who expects a “negative” wait time, on the other hand, may seem overeager or even rude.
  • In most non-Anglo cultures, questions are intended to gain information, and it is assumed that a person asking the question truly does not have the information requested (Rogoff, 2003). In most classrooms, however, teachers regularly ask test questions, which are questions to which the teacher already knows the answer and that simply assess whether a student knows the answer as well (Macbeth, 2003). The question: “How much is 2 + 2?” for example, is a test question. If the student is not aware of this purpose, he or she may become confused, or think that the teacher is surprisingly ignorant! Worse yet, the student may feel that the teacher is trying deliberately to shame the student by revealing the student’s ignorance or incompetence to others.

Cultural Differences in Attitudes and Beliefs

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 encyclopedias (see, for example, Birx, 2005). For teachers, however, one of the most important differences centers 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.

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 individualize 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 skillfully. 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 emphasizing 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: Many activities in school are competitive, even when teachers try to de-emphasize 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 organizes 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.
  • Avoidance of standing out publicly: Even when we, as 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.
  • 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 lunchtime, 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 the discussion has already moved on. Oppositional cultural identity

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, 2005). 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, 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. In the United States, for example, 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 society in order to create better lives for themselves. The latter groups are more likely to work actively to fit into their newfound culture. Learning to fit into 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.

Accommodating Cultural Diversity in Practice

As the comments in the previous section imply, accommodating cultural diversity involves more than adding cultural content to the curriculum—more than celebrating Mexican holidays in an American social studies class, for example, and more than discussing the history of slavery of African-Americans. These are useful actions, but they are only a starting point for truly multicultural education (Banks, 2009). In addition, it is important to engage students in exploring the culturally-based assumptions of whatever subject they are studying. In studying the “Westward Movement” (the settlement of the American West), for example, it is important to point out that this movement was “westward” only from the point of view of the white Americans living in the eastern United States. To the indigenous American Indians, the “west” was the center of their world; to the Mexicans, it was “north”; to the Asian laborers living in California, it was “east.”

James Banks has proposed five features of a fully multicultural educational program (2009). The first two of these were mentioned in the paragraph above, but not the next three:

  • Integrating cultural content into the curriculum wherever possible.
  • Stimulating knowledge construction to help students understand cultural assumptions.
  • Flexible teaching strategies that give all students access and success with learning. If some students prefer to learn cooperatively rather than independently, for example, then teachers should make provisions for cooperative learning activities.
  • Encourage prejudice reduction among all students. This can and should happen even in classes that do not seem culturally diverse on the surface. Such classes always have diversity, even if it is not visible immediately: students’ families will vary in their financial circumstances, students themselves will vary in their gender preferences, and students will vary in their attitudes about religion, politics, and many other issues.
  • Encourage the entire school to be aware of cultural diversity and its effects. What is the racial composition of the school staff? What are their attitudes? What school policies favor particular students unfairly?

Of all of these strategies, the most important is the third: being flexible about the choice of teaching strategies. By allowing for various styles of learning, teachers can accommodate a wide range of students, whatever their cultural backgrounds and whatever cultural background the teacher herself may have. And flexibility has an added advantage: by honoring students’ individuality, it avoids the danger of stereotyping students’ learning needs on the basis of their cultural background.