On Being Mindful of Cultural Differences

Micky Biddison, 2015.

This post was originally published on Edutopia.

When teaching a diverse group of students, whether they are English language learners or English speakers but have a different cultural background, it’s important to be mindful of the cultural differences in students’ behaviour. Recognizing and being able to distinguish these cultural differences allows the teacher to form a safe environment for all students. It’s important to recognize and understand these differences to be able to implement culturally responsive teaching and pedagogical practices in the classroom to ensure the success of every student.

Here are some of the cultural differences that you might notice in student behaviour

Eye Contact Many teachers notice that some of their students, especially English language learners, do not make direct eye contact with the teacher. In Western culture, this may be a sign that the person is not paying attention to the speaker. However, in many cultures, making a direct eye contact with the teacher (or any other person of authority) is a sign of disrespect. Many students are taught by their parents and family to not make such eye contact, as it’s also a sign of someone looking to challenge you.

Asking Questions This can be applied to personality traits, i.e. some shy students do not ask questions. However, in some cultures students learn that asking the teacher questions might imply that the teacher did not teach well, and therefore is impolite. Moreover, in some cultures asking questions can be seen as a way to challenge the teacher, and that is always discouraged and frowned upon.

Student may smile during an intense discussion Some students may smile during intense discussions or reprimanding. The student may have been taught to react in this way so as not to offend the teacher/person of authority in the discussion.

The student does not display active listening skills or is inattentive In some cultures students are taught using hands on methods through modelling and observation. Therefore, students might not be familiar with using active listening in the classroom to understand concepts and instructions.

Student refuses to engage in debates/discussions There may be students who refuse to participate or contribute to a debate and/or lively discussion that occurs in class. In a few cultures, debating or engaging in discussions with different point of views, can be seen to challenge the participants in the discussion. Many cultures teach students that challenging teachers and/or authority figures is disrespectful. In other cultures, students do not recognize discussions/debates to be a different learning strategy, and therefore ignore the activity when it occurs.

Learning how to accommodate these behaviours is probably the teacher’s hardest job. However, providing the safe space for these student behaviours would allow teachers to implement the necessary pedagogical practices to help students excel and succeed in the classroom. When the teacher is able to connect with her student, her student succeeds. Building a relationship with the student is often the first step into being able to know them—to understand their behaviour in the classroom and how it connects to their learning. Being mindful of students’ backgrounds and cultural differences tells students that it’s okay for them to be who they are, while still having the support of their teachers and classmates.

What we’re really looking for is creating awareness and support by discussing these cultural behaviour differences. What are some cultural differences in behaviour that you’ve encountered, and most importantly, what are some strategies that you used to accommodate students displaying those behaviours?

4 thoughts on “On Being Mindful of Cultural Differences

  1. Love your article! It is so important to know our students so we can positively engage with them and provide the love and support every student needs to be successful. Thank you for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve seen nearly all these behaviors in my teaching. One strategy I use in my English classes at the high school level is small group discussion for class readings. I will have an independent activity for all students to be working on as I call groups of 4-6 students at a time to have a brief discussion with me. We circle up our chairs and discuss 3-4 questions from the reading. Instead of speaking in front of the whole class, students have a smaller audience of peers. I’ve found the quieter students are more likely to speak up and also ask questions. It requires more planning, but the student response has been very positive and I get much more useful formative assessment feedback.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So many well considered points here. Another one that I experienced was students calling me “teacher” akin to using a term like “doctor” of “judge” with respect for the profession. I was surprised when other teachers had thought it meant the students forget their names! In many cultures the title “teacher” is an honorarium; I am grateful to my students for reminding me of this 🙂


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