12 Ch. 12 Education


Ch. 12: Education

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, readers should:

  • Understand the role of culture in education.
  • Understand the expectations that different cultural groups have about education.
  • Understand how cultural identities are formed through the educational process.
  • Explain how different role expectations can influence communication within the educational context.
  • Explain how power differences can influence communication within the educational context.
  • Be able to describe various social issues are reflected in education.


Key Vocabulary

  • enculturation

  • acculturation

  • colonial period

  • colonial education system

  • teaching styles

  • student-centered

  • teacher-centered

  • teacher’s role

  • learning style


“Along with ensuring that the basic physical needs of the child are met, a society must see to it that the children learn the way of life of the society.  Rather than expecting each new child to rediscover for himself or herself all the accumulated knowledge of the past, a society must have an organized way of passing on its cultural heritage from one generation to the next.  The result is some form of educational system in every society.”                                                                   (Ferraro & Briody, 2017)


Did you know?

Twenty-five percent of the population in China with the highest IQs and 28 percent in India are greater than the total population of North America.  Think about it—China and India have more honor students than most if not all, countries.

(Fisch & McLeod, 2010)


All cultures have some form of an education system, but it is no means universal.  The features of any given system can vary widely from culture-to-culture.  Common variations include the formality or informality of the system, the emphasis on memorization or experiential knowledge, general education versus specific occupational education, and whether the educational system is open to all or a select few.  How cultures deal with these issues can have a profound effect on how individuals see the world and process information.

What is the purpose of an education?

All educational systems strive to produce effective citizens capable of participating in, and contributing to, their societies.  Education is not simply driven by the simple desire to teach and learn.  Education is enculturationEnculturation is the process by which people acquire the values, norms, and worldviews of their cultural group.  An example of enculturation could be watching family members go grocery shopping.  You learn which stores you typically go to, which foods you usually each, how to pick good products, and what foods are used to make your favorite dishes.

Acculturation is the process where people from one culture adopt the process of another culture which is not their own.  Acculturation begins when two cultures meet.  Acculturation is not necessary for survival, but is basically adopted because the dominant culture has influence over the other.  Acculturation is often seen in those far from their home cultures such as refugees and migrants.

There is no universal curriculum that all students in all cultures follow.  History plays an important role in student experiences of education as well as the educational systems created within a culture.  During the era of great national expansion known as the colonial period, the colonizers educational systems were imported into the conquered or assimilated nations.  Western-style education systems, originally under the auspices of the colonial education system, can be controversial even today.  Colonial education systems—rightly or wrongly–have been accused of being tools by capitalists to exploit the underdeveloped world to keep people in subjection (Basu, 1989).

Whether a culture has a colonial educational history or not, currently education is widely perceived to be an important avenue for advancement within a society.  In an era when it is estimated that a weeks’ worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century, most cultures place high value on their education systems (Scott, ret. 8/4/19).

Challenges in the Intercultural Educational Context

The effects of education reverberate across generations, because once languages, customs, traditions, and religions are lost, it is difficult to recover them.  Education, then, is very influential in maintaining or altering cultural communities.

Individualism and Collectivism

Underlying the many differences between cultures, and the educational systems that have emerged from them, is individualism and collectivism.  Collectivism is marked by structured relationships where individual needs are subservient to the group.  Solidarity, harmony, and equal distribution of rewards among students is expected.  Modesty is valued, norms are set by the average student, and failure is seen as unfortunate but not dire.  Success is seen as something linked to family, classmates, and society as a whole (Rubenstein, 2001; Dimmick & Walker, 2005; Watkins, 2000).

Conversely, individualism is marked by loose relationships and ties that are forged according to self-interest.  Status and grades are based on individual success.  Competition is encouraged, norms are set by the best students, and failure is perceived as fairly significant (Rubenstein, 2001; Dimmick & Walker, 2005; Watkins, 2000).

These basic values impact everything from the atmosphere in the classroom, teaching styles, and attitudes about dishonesty and plagiarism.  In collectivistic classrooms, for instance, education is seen as a tool for strengthening the country rather than for the betterment of an individual.  This fundamental premise has implications for the teacher-student relationship where working together is not cheating, but rather a happy by-product of good relations.  The collectivistic mentality may also account for the absence of sorting students by ability, and the lack of teasing of less gifted students.  Fast learners are expected to help slow learners (Rubenstein, 2001).

In individualistic classrooms, education is seen as a tool for getting ahead.  Students are responsible for their own learning.  Academic progress is measured through individual assessment and reported as individual grades.  The learning relationship is primarily between the teacher and the student, not the classmate group.  If a student needs help, they ask the teacher questions.  Students are taught to be more engaged in discussions and arguments.  Schools encourage students to become independent thinkers (Faitar, 2006)).  An academic task has value in and of itself so getting one’s work done is important.  Relationships with other students is secondary.  In certain situations, helping others could be cheating (Rosenberg, Westling, & McLeskey, 2010).

Even concepts of intelligence are culture-based.  Individualistic cultures have a tendency to think of intelligence as a “gift” and relatively fixed, although somewhat impacted by environmental influences.  Collectivistic cultures view intelligence as something that can be improved by hard work rather than a lack of ability (Henderson, 1990; Watkins, 2000).

Teaching and Learning Styles

Much of our communication behavior and our expectations for the educational process are deeply embedded parts of our culture. What happens in the classroom is primarily reflective of the values of the dominant culture (Evertson & Randolph, 1995; Hofstede, 1980, 2005).  For example, “what teachers consider to be ‘discipline problems’ are determined by their own culture, filtered through personal values and teaching style” (Johns & Espinoza, 1996).  For this reason, “teachers from non-dominant cultural groups have often learned to suppress their intuitive cultural knowledge in favor of the ‘best practices’ that they learned in school” (Hollins, 2008; Lipka, 1998; Trumbull et al., 2001).

Teachers generally use one of the two types of teaching styles:  teacher-centered or student-centered (Prosser & Trigwell, 2010).  Encouraging students to become independent thinkers, focusing on individual needs, being assertive and expressing opinions, criticism as a strategy for improvement, and trying to bring about conceptual change in students’ understanding of the world are all considered-student-centered strategies (Faitar, 2006).  Knowledge that is always transferred from an expert to a learner, with conformity and group needs as a focus, are considered more teacher-centered strategies (Staub & Stern, 2002).  Students used to teacher-centered instruction may be puzzled, or even offended, by the more informal student-centered approach.  They may perceive the teacher as being poorly prepared or lazy (McGroaty & Scott, 1993).

In individualistic settings, the teacher’s role in the classroom is to share ideas, and provide practice time to develop further knowledge and/or skills.  In collectivistic settings, the teacher is viewed as a moral guide, and friend or parent figure with valuable knowledge that it is a student’s duty to learn (Husen & Postlethwaite, 1991).  Researchers Cortazzi & Jinn (1998) compared British and Chinese student/teacher relationships and noted that in Britain good students obeyed and paid attention to the teacher, but in China, students and teachers assumed that all students would behave in this way.  Consequently, Chinese teachers spend little time and effort on discipline.  In Norway and Russia, students often spend their first 5 or 6 years of school with the same teacher (Cogan et al., 2001).

The ways that student learn in different cultures is called learning styles.  For many individualistic students, the use of repetition in the classroom is a test of memory.  Understanding results from sudden insight, but for many collectivistic students, repetition helps to deepen or develop an understanding.  Memorizing and understanding are interlocking processes, not separate activities.

How students communicate is also part of the learning styleIn the US, direct eye contact is interpreted as a sign of interest and honesty.  The lack of eye contact is a sign of dishonesty or lack of interest so teachers adjust their styles accordingly.  Looking a teacher in the eye in many Asian countries would the height of disrespect.

Group work is also approached differently in different places.  In the US, the class is often split into pairs, or small groups to work on a task or to discuss a topic.  Watkins calls this “simultaneous pupil talk.  In a Chinese classroom, you would more likely view “sequential pupil talk” where two students at a time stand and engage in dialogue while the others listen and think.

The ideas of testing and evaluation also vary widely from culture to culture.  Students in many countries are accustomed to very rigorous high stakes testing.  Multiple choice tests, common in the US, are rare outside of the US.

What are your assumptions?

·         Instructors should set time aside for lecture?

·         Instructors should let students discuss the material?

·         Students should be allowed to say what they want about the material?

·         Students should be allowed to ask questions?

·         Students should be assigned readings at the beginning of the term, and only take one exam at the end of the term?

·         Students are assigned a structured list of readings and assignments are created along the way?

·         Grading should be done “on a curve?”

·         Everyone should be allowed to flunk the class?


Grading and Power

Cultures can have very different expectations about grades and the grading process.  There may always be power distance issues in the communication between instructors and students, but these differences will be greater or lesser depending on the culture.  Notions of what constitutes being “fair” or “unfair” are cultural embedded as well.

Grading systems are far from universal, making the understanding of what a grade means opaque at best.  In the Chinese University system, grades are often based on one final examination.  There are no other grades so plagiarism is rarely considered a problem.  In the Japanese University system, final grades are based on the mid-term and final.  There are no regulations about plagiarism in Japan or Nepal.  Students do not need to attend classes in the Nepal University system; they can choose to directly sit for the national exam.  Attendance and plagiarism are very important in the university system in India, but students can negotiate with their professors for grades.  The Iranian university system also enforces consequences for plagiarism, but considers gift giving an opportunity for extra credit  (Smith et al., 2013).

How do you feel about grades?

·         What are your assumptions?

·          How important are grades?

·         Should grades be public or private information?

·         What do grades communicate to others?


Communication, Education, and Cultural Identity

We would prefer to think that education provides equal opportunities for all students, but that simply is not true.  Many teachers may not have received the kind of training necessary to incorporate materials into the curriculum that reflect the diversity of students in their classrooms nor their learning preferences.  While educational institutions can be places of international, interracial, and intercultural contact, these contacts do not necessarily lead to increased intercultural competence.  Students “who see culture as a barrier tend to deny, resist, or minimize differences” while “those who see culture as a resource tend to accept and appreciate difference” (Martin & Nakayama, 2011).


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Intercultural Communication for the Community College Copyright © 2019 by Karen Krumrey-Fulks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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