Why Cultural Understanding Matters in the Classroom

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You can’t help but notice the wonderful cultural diversity of 21st century classrooms. Enriching each class with a melange of languages, traditions and worldviews, this diversity is something to be celebrated, not vilified, as has so often been postulated recently. Yet despite all the rewards of this diversity, when teachers don’t fully understand the way cultural differences impact learning, problems quickly ensue. For instance, consider the following scenarios:

  • Tang is struggling in your class despite his fluency with the language. You later discover that he misunderstood a couple of basic concepts but was unwilling to ask questions.
  • Consuelo is hardworking and well-behaved, but she has a habit of never looking at you when you speak to her.
  • Arjun is a great student who loses points in his physical ed class every day, ultimately failing the class for refusing to dress for class and participate. Instead, he wants to sit in a corner of the gym, reading or doing school work.
  • Mei scores high on tests and works wonderfully in groups. However, when she has to present a project on her own, she’s barely audible and does little justice to her well-researched and well-written work.

Examples like these are common. But here’s what teachers need to know: Tang’s Vietnamese culture eschews children asking questions of adults, considering that rude behavior; Consuelo’s Latino culture views children who look directly at adults as disrespectful; Arjun’s Indian parents have emphasized the importance of academics over “play”; and Mei’s Chinese culture esteems working in collaboration with others far more highly than individual achievement. Each of these students is acting perfectly in accordance with his or her culture, which may be out of step with American teachers’ expectations.

So what’s the answer? Try implementing the following:

  • Respect cultural differences while creating a common classroom culture.
  • When you note behaviors or attitudes that seem inconsistent with the student’s best interest, consider that a cultural difference may be the reason rather than a deliberate attempt to subvert your structure or norms.
  • Work around the cultural differences in ways that allow students to retain their culture and still be successful in your class. For instance, specifically tell Tang that you want and appreciate his questions, and choose not to be offended when Maria doesn’t look up when you speak.
  • Realize that it’s incumbent on you to find a way to reach and teach that child, not for the child to find a way to “fit in.”

It’s really all a matter of understanding and empathy on the teacher’s part, remembering to see the whole child not just the student. Cultural differences can broaden other students’ worldviews and expand their perspectives. Likewise, teachers must ensure that those differences don’t become hindrances to individual students’ success and advancement nor used in ways that diminish their self-worth.

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