3 Ways to Honor Cultural Differences in Your Classroom

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Our classrooms are changing. Now more than ever, educators are responsible for educating students born in other nations who speak different languages and carry various cultural values and traditions. Trends in immigration and birth rates indicate that soon there will be no majority racial or ethnic group in the United States, no one group that makes up more than fifty percent of the total population, according to the Center for Public Education.

Along with the changing demographics in the classroom, cultural neuroscience, a groundbreaking field that uses brain-imaging technology to study how environment and beliefs can shape mental function, is on the rise. 

For example, research by Nalini Ambady, (Stanford University, 2011) found that the Chinese language is made up of images and writing, so areas of the brain that respond to vision and movement are used when solving math problems. While English is a sound-based language, so areas in the brain linked to language processing and verbal information may be more involved.  This understanding can help us better differentiate for the learning styles of varied cultures which impacts our instruction. 

The effects of cultural differences in the classroom can be confusing if we are unaware of how different cultural value systems drive different student behaviors. 

Here are three simple ways to understand and honor your student’s cultural mindsets and needs in the classroom.

1. Understand individualistic vs. collective cultural mindsets.Individualistic cultures value self control, accomplishment, new experiences, self-direction and encourage independence while collectivist cultures value goodwill, story, traditions, and emphasize collaboration and interdependence. Students will be on a continuum of these values depending on how they identify with their culture.  It’s important for us to understand these two cultural mindsets and to be transparent in teaching our students to see the value inherent in both.  Be sure to let your students know that you will be using a balance of collectivist and individualistic learning strategies to prepare them for the “real” world in which both are needed. 

2. Assess students to find out their cultural values. Give your students the individualist versus collectivist survey from our Transformative Teaching book.  Reflect on the surveys and use them to guide the your understanding of your students and the need to include both collectivist and individualist strategies into your instruction, activities, and group formations. 

3. Offer opportunities for individual and collaborative learning in the classroom. Now that we know about the two cultural mindsets, we can design our classroom practices to include a blend of both types of activities.  

  • Honor collectivist thinking by including core work groups who think and learn and reflect together. Build in strategies like Think/Pair/Share, Learning Circles, Choral Chanting, and Chat Chums or Talk Partners.
  • Strategies for developing individualistic thinking include self-monitoring tracking sheets or checklists, taking individual notes, reading alone, and self-assessing.

Check out our book, Transformative Teaching, for more inspiration and support as we honor collectivist and individualist values in the classroom. 

Being intentional and transparent with our students about how differences in cultural values impacts learning can help students understand themselves and their cultural needs as learners and to honor those who have different needs than they do.  Look out for our next issue, where we will explore conflict resolution practices for helping students.