ERIC Identifier: ED459325
Publication Date: 2001-00-00
Author: Ziegahn, Linda
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Considering Culture in the Selection of Teaching Approaches for
Adults. ERIC Digest.
Adult educators are increasingly committed to designing learning that takes
into account cultural differences. We are discovering that "valuing" diversity
is not enough to enable educators from the dominant culture, particularly
European Americans living in the United States, to recognize difference and know
how to change instruction so that learners who have felt marginalized feel
visible and valued. This Digest examines the different dimensions of culture
that are relevant to the adult learning context, speaking primarily to the case
of the United States, including both the personal cultures of learners and
educators, and the culture of the larger social political environment. It
explores how cultural values permeate instruction and looks at several
approaches that take culture into account.
WHAT IS CULTURE, ANYWAY?
The simplest definition of culture
includes those values, beliefs, and practices shared by a group of people.
Social scientists and anthropologists vary on theirdefinitions of what comprises
a culture, subculture, or microculture, but for practical purposes, the notion
of sharing a common worldview is often enough for individuals who find
themselves moving between multiple cultures. Culture can be subtle, and what is
considered cultural can evolve over time. For example, gender, religion,
disability, sexual orientation, and age might not have been considered
dimensions of culture 25 years ago. But today we study gender communication
differences, the influence of religious views on decisions and behaviors, and
the assumptions that can or cannot be made depending upon a person's physical
ability, sexual orientation, or age. Educators need to be mindful that they
cannot assume they know the cultural background of their students; even the
seemingly homogenous classroom necessitates an expectation and active
exploration of multiculturalism. Culture is an attribute of individuals, of
small groups, of organizations, and of nations; a single person can belong to a
multiplicity of cultures, any one of which may be important at any given time
(Brislin 1993). For example, the most salient dimension of culture for a
50-year-old woman named Emma enrolled in a course to learn a new software
program may be age, as she observes the ease with which her 22-year-old
classmates negotiate the intricacies of the program. When Emma participates in a
racial dialogue experience, she is very aware that her ethnic/racial identity as
a European American is preeminent. And if Emma were Deaf, considering a graduate
degree, it would be critical for her to find a program that actively facilitated
her use of American Sign Language interpreters. Instruction in any one of these
situations would be more relevant to Emma if her instructors were aware of how
specific aspects of culture, such as age, ethnicity and race, or deafness,
suggested different teaching methods (Heimlich and Norland 1994).
KEY AREAS OF CULTURAL DIFFERENCE
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:
Individualism and Collectivism. Individualistic cultures generally value the
self-reliance, equality, and autonomy of the individual, whereas collectivist
cultures tend to value group effort and harmony and knowing one's place within
society. For example, mainstream U.S. workplace cultures are often fragmented
over the balance between rewarding individual effort and competition versus
recognizing and fostering teamwork and cooperation.
Monochronic and Polychronic Time. "M-time" is tangible and can be "saved, spent,
wasted, lost, made up...and run out" (Hall 1983, p. 43). Personal interaction
can be sacrificed to scheduling and efficiency. "P-time," however, stresses
involvement of people and completion of transactions rather than preset
Egalitarianism versus Hierarchy. Believing in fairness and equal opportunities
for everyone is critical in more individualistic cultures that often equate
hierarchy with rigidity, even if equality is more of a societal ideal than a
reality. Conversely, hierarchy may be valued in more collectivist cultures as a
means of acknowledging innate differences and inequalities and of facilitating
communication through the recognition of various social levels through titles
Action versus "Being" Orientation. U.S. culture generally tends to value action,
efficiency, getting to "the bottom line," often downplaying social interactions
in the interests of achieving goals. Taking time to discuss and understand
complex issues and to appreciate the moment may be more important to people
coming from a more holistic cultural orientation than the perception of
precipitously moving to action steps.
Change and Tradition. "Change" has become the mantra of dominant U.S. society,
which looks toward the future and resists an historical perspective. Those
coming from cultures that value the lessons of history view the past as an
important guide to the present and the future.
Certain variables cut across differences in values. Communication style is
the expression of various cultural values; power differences stem from the
historic position of particular cultures within sociopolitical systems.
Communication Styles. How we communicate is often as important as what we
communicate. Depending partially on cultural variables such as nationality,
ethnicity, gender, and race (among others), individuals may have a reference for
both sending and receiving messages in styles that are linear or circular,
direct or indirect, attached or detached, procedural or personal, and more
confrontational in either intellectual or relational terms.
Power Imbalances. In addition to the differences in values and communication
styles that contribute to cultural diversity, cultures are stratified by
inequities in terms of access to political and economic power. Thus, a culture's
relative advantage or disadvantage depends on its position vis-a-vis other
WHY INSTRUCTIONAL APPROACHES ARE NOT NEUTRAL
the selection of teaching strategies is a recognition that (1) the cultural
dimensions described here provide the basis for learners' behavior and
responses, and (2) as cultural beings, our teaching is always based on cultural
values, regardless of our awareness of their influence (Heimlich and Norland
1994). For example, more individualistic cultures, such as those found in North
America, tend to reward teachers and learners for class activities that stress
individual initiative and expression, whereas more collectivist cultures tend to
value those collectivist efforts which reinforce social connections and norms.
For U.S. adult education, this means that the "default" teaching methods might
include an individual learner's presentation of a project in front of the class
or leadership in large-group discussion. Although these activities are valued in
a culture that promotes individual assertion and initiative, they may be
perplexing for a learner coming from a culture where the question of who speaks
from a position of leadership or power is highly dependent upon age, gender, or
status as a student. For example, Chinese adult students may find the learner's
role to be highly dependent upon their lower status in the classroom, where
questioning a teacher would be viewed as questioning competence (Pratt et al.
1998). Similarly, in Blackfeet communication, elders are viewed as those best
equipped for public speaking because they are most socially interconnected.
Speaking publicly, especially for younger adults, risks severing communal
relations (Carbaugh 1998).
Methods and activities that culminate in products, a consequence of the value
placed on action and results, also appear regularly in U.S. adult ducation.
Learners coming from environments where time is dedicated more to the
exploration of ideas rather than a goal,however, may not feel the need to come
to closure on learning, especially if such "timely" termination preempts lively
learning processes. Hispanic learners, for example, may learn better with
nonformal education approaches linked to community life (Jeria 1999), rather
than methods embedded in the more rigid temporal dimensions associated with U.S.
It is important to recognize that, although some concepts of adult education
taught in the United States seem at first glance to reify core national values,
there may be considerable leeway in how methods associated with these concepts
emerge. As an example, self-directed learning is generally described as a
process in which people take primary initiative for planning, carrying out, and
evaluating their own learning experiences (Merriam and Caffarella 1999). On the
surface, such a construct appears thoroughly grounded in individualist cultural
values like individual initiative and agency. However, recent theorists
elaborating on self-direction have suggested greater roles for mentors and
coaches (Grow 1994) and a recognition that autonomy in learning does not
preclude a valuing of interdependence, depending on the learning context (Nah
2000). A method born of one culture may be adaptable to another when relevant
cultural differences are considered.
APPROACHES THAT ALLOW ALTERNATIVE VOICES
How can teachers
help learners appreciate the diversity inherent in any classroom? Followingare a
few examples of culturally sensitive learning approaches that have the potential
to foster inclusion.
The social construction of knowledge might be fostered through collaborative
group learning, which emphasizes the process of listening to and respecting
others, understanding alternative views, challenging and questioning others,
negotiating ideas, and caring for group participants (Imel and Tisdell 1996).
The communicative focus and socially constructed nature of collaborative
learning are illustrated through the experiences of African American students,
as one example, where self-expression, connection with the instructor, and the
need to equalize the learning environment are all valued (Hecht et al. 1993;
Imel and Tisdell 1996; Sheared 1999).
Teachers may want to provide structured guidance through learning
experiences, a strategy that may be particularly useful for learners from
cultures where hierarchy and expertise of the teacher are highly valued.
Mentorships may serve as a bridge for culturally different students seeking
comfort with dominant-culture teaching methods, especially if the
teaching-learning interactions take place outside of class (Carbaugh 1998; Liang
and McQueen 2000; Pratt et al. 1998).
The learning of disempowered groups may be better served through an
assessment vehicle that allows their concrete stories and cosmologies to be
related. Portfolios, collections of extended essays and documentation that
describe learning in relation to college-level criteria (Michelson 1997), allow
an alternative to learning assessed solely through abstract principles.
Students from other cultures may appreciate computer-assisted learning media,
which allow them to share stories around personal and group cultural identities
in an environment that may be perceived as more open and relaxed than the
face-to-face classroom context (Coombs 1993). The online medium, which serves a
variety of different purposes and audiences, is also helpful to non-English
speakers seeking privacy and time to prepare away from real-time compressed
communication (Liang and McQueen 2000).
Although there are some general categories of difference between cultures,
there are many ways that instruction can be designed or redesigned to become
more culturally sensitive. Adult educators can start to become more sensitive to
cultural difference in the classroom by first examining the cultural values that
underlie their preferred methods of teaching. Diversifying teaching methods
should be a dynamic, interactive process with learners that enriches all of
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