This is in direct response to an interview I listened to on a podcast recently, but it’s a misconception I’ve come across a few times. For the record, the podcast is usually great, and even this episode was in general good, which is why I’m not naming it or the speakers. It just happens that this interview came at a time when I am taking an interest in the subject matter, and I feel a need to address what I see as an error in interpretation.
The background of the interview—and the banner under which I have generally encountered the claim—was Culturally Responsive Teaching. This is an approach that attempts to take the different ethnic and cultural backgrounds of diverse classrooms into consideration when determining instructional approaches so that all students have the same opportunities to learn and develop. Needless to say, this is a noble cause.
The one point that I took issue with was when the speaker talked about the importance of recognising, understanding and incorporating collectivist culture into classroom activities. First things first, I completely endorse the intention. It is always important to try to make room for diverse cultures in a classroom, and it is becoming increasingly important as the world becomes more fluid in terms of immigration and cross cultural interaction. Unfortunately, though, there were some fundamental errors in the interpretation and the application of collectivist culture, which can summed up with one assertion:
Group work is NOT collectivism.
On several occasions, I have heard people talk about incorporating principles of collectivism into their instruction by using more group work. This belies some fairly fundamental misconceptions about both collectivist and individualist cultures. Individualist cultures are NOT encapsulated by individuals always working alone, just as collectivist cultures are NOT epitomised by people always working in groups. It is not about the arrangement of people in a given activity but rather the value that is assigned to the arrangement.
In a collectivist culture, the individual’s identity is assimilated entirely into the group, with the identity of the group being prioritised over the identity of the individual. Conversely, in an individualist culture, the individual’s identity is elevated above the group, with the group identity being secondary to the identities of the individuals within it.
What does this mean in general?
When members of an individualist culture work in a group, this does not mean that they are engaging in collectivism. When individualists work in a group, their individual identities still reign. This means that who they are is more important than what they do. They tend to take a sense of individual pride in the things that they achieve on their own steam; they are likely to determine their contribution to the group based on their individual strengths and preferences; they are likely to expect credit for how they contributed towards the group’s achievements. In this scenario, there is more likely to be tension between the individual and his assigned duties as well as amongst members of the group, particularly between two individuals who both feel deserving of leadership roles.
When members of a collectivist culture work as a group, their individual identities effectively fade into the background as the group identity takes on a more concrete form than we would see in an individualist culture. Here, the members of the group act on behalf of the group; what they do and how they integrate is more important than who they are. They tend to feel good when the group achieves, and they tend to be most interested in making the group achieve rather than garnering personal glory; they are more likely to accept whatever roles they are assigned, more or less unquestioningly regardless of what they feel are their strengths or weaknesses; they are not likely to seek credit for their personal contributions and, in fact, are more likely to downplay their individual achievements, focusing instead on how they could have done better. In this scenario, there is less likely to be tension amongst members of the group, and members are likely to follow an assigned leader without friction.
What does this mean in the classroom?
The first thing that needs to be understood is that collectivism and individualism are not activities, they are states. Members of both cultures engage in group work and collaboration, but their underlying cultural differences mean that they do so differently.
The second thing that needs to be understood is that, while we can work on approaches and strategies to help members of these two cultures work together more effectively and benefit more equally in a learning environment, we cannot and should not expect members of either one to take on the cultural identity of the other.
Collectivist students in individualist classrooms
If you teach in a largely individualist population and you have some students from a collectivist background, you should find ways to integrate them into the class without trying to make them become individualists; and similarly, you should find ways to encourage your individualist students to welcome their collectivist counterparts into the fold without encouraging them to become collectivist.
Another misconception that comes along with this is an assumption that students from a background of collectivism will assimilate easily into their new environment because they take naturally to groups. However, in reality, people from collectivist cultures often feel very out of place in individualist cultures because they are astutely aware of the differences between a group in one culture and a group in another—the differences I talked about above, for example. Therefore, even when they are placed in a group, they can feel very much alone because the whole dynamic is different from what they are familiar with.
If we truly want to integrate our collectivist students into our individualist classrooms, there are a few things we must consider and do. Primarily, understanding the points in the previous section will allow you as a teacher to better monitor group work in a multi-cultural classroom to ensure that everyone is benefiting equally. Be careful not to let your individualist students dominate, and be careful not to let your collectivist students give less than their best.
Recognise that students from a collectivist culture will often work best when there is a clear group goal and they have a clear role within the group. This can be achieved by assigning a group leader. However, you should also not rely on this all of the time, since it might fail to push the newcomers to fulfil their individual potential, and it will also fail to prepare them for the demands of living and working in an individualist culture.
As teachers in this scenario, we have to be careful not too undermine or attempt to extinguish the students’ culture or origin, but we must also be realistic in recognising that the student needs to learn to integrate and compete successfully in the new environment, which, like it or not, will require some degree of taking an individualist approach if not fully assuming the values and identity.
As such, get to know the students and make an effort to bring out their individual personalities. Work with them to identify their personal interests and their strengths and weaknesses. Congratulate them for their effort and achievements and help them see the benefits of recognising these individual achievements, namely, success and progress within society and on the academic and professional landscapes.
Expect them to shy away from praise at first, and expect them to avoid talking about their achievements. Build self-assessment into your learning to help them monitor their own progress and identify their milestones. Through this process, help them identify their strengths and then help them leverage these strengths when working with others. When appropriate, give them leadership roles.
All of this will help them get along in an individualist environment, but it can be done without actually forcing them to accept and assume individualist values.
Individualist teachers in collectivist environments
This scenario is my own. I am a teacher from England now living and working in Indonesia. Almost all of the features of collectivism that I mentioned above are observable in most of my classrooms. Honestly, it took me quite a while to truly understand some of the differences I was seeing from this particular perspective of individualism vs. collectivism. In the earliest days of my teaching here, I just had a vague recognition that “Indonesians are different from Brits”. Over time, I identified more precisely what some of these differences where, but it is only really recently that I have started to think in these specific cultural terms, and the new understanding has been hugely helpful.
In this scenario, the challenge is not getting students from different backgrounds to work together effectively, since all of the students come from the same background. The only person who does not is the teacher. This can—and indeed did in my case—result in the teacher trying to achieve things in the classroom that are at odds with the cultural background of the students and seeing those attempts fail miserably.
In particular, some things I have tried and seen fail are having students work in collaborative groups where they must coordinate their individual strengths to achieve a goal; having students work individually and then compare their answers; having students evaluate one another’s work; having students express their individual opinions in front of the class; and more.
All of these activities failed to take the students’ collectivist backgrounds into account. Students struggle to stand up in front of their peers and highlight how they differ. It is of much more value to be alike than the be different, which is almost entirely opposite from the values within my own culture. It is also difficult for students in a group to assert themselves and express their individual preferences or desires. It is also difficult for students to critique one another or suggest in any way that oneself is better than another.
Failing to recognise and understand these roots of the failures I experienced meant that I kept experiencing the same difficulties time and time again, and that I often created distance between my students and myself by inadvertently undermining their trust or putting them in uncomfortable situations.
Now that I do understand these factors a little better, I am much better equipped to planning effective lessons for my students. However, this does not mean that I simply avoid all of these scenarios. As an expat, I feel that it is immensely important for me to respect the culture that I have chosen to inhabit and to value my students in that light; but as a teacher, I also feel that it is just as important to educate my students on the different ways of being within the world. I believe that there is great value to be had in them learning about the vastly different world view that comes with my culture, both from the perspective of basic cross-cultural education but also from the perspective or preparing students to strive within the increasing global world.
As such, I take time over a course of learning to introduce these values to my students. I gradually identify individual personalities amongst my classes and highlight strengths subtly and carefully. As a language teacher, I introduce phrases for criticising constructively or for making assertions politely and expressing opinions and arguments respectfully. I assign projects and group activities that have multiple stages where students are expected to work separately, together and collaboratively, implementing different dynamics at each stage.
Social, Cultural or Developmental?
I feel the need to mention this final point, only briefly, because the interview that I referenced at the beginning referred to “neurological evidence” on several occasions.
In general, when I hear someone other than a neurologist use neurological evidence, I am skeptical. Yes, that is judging books by covers, and of course sometimes I am wrong and thus pleasantly surprised. However, the general fact is that we just do not have a good enough understanding of the brain on a neurological level to apply it to practices and methodologies.
Talking about how methods and approaches in education affects different students neurologically suggests that the differences between these students are developmental. In reality, of course, these differences are social constructs enforced by cultural norms. Two students from different cultures do not have different brains, they have just been conditioned by different sets of norms and have internalised different mental models of the world.
As such, if you ran fMRI experiments with two students from different cultural backgrounds and found, for example, that smiling at them gave different neurological results, we shouldn’t conclude that their brains are different; instead we should simply recognise that the symbol of smiling had been assigned different values within their respective cultures. The smile itself is just a symbol, the meaning behind it is what we are reacting to when we respond emotionally.
Teaching here in Indonesia, I see evidence of this all the time. My individualist background causes me far less trouble when I am teaching younger students, for example. This is because young people go through exactly the same cognitive process of recognising themselves as individuals and developing preferences and personalities. The difference is no tin their brains but in how their peers and elders react. Over time, the values that are enforced around the individuals shape their behaviours. This is of course the case for all people, wherever they are in the world.
At our core, we’re all the same, and we’re all different. It just depends how our cultures value those aspects.
What is your experience with these factors? Are you a teacher dealing with these differences? Are you a students living amongst a culture that is different from your own? Share your views in the comments. And don't forget to like and subscribe!