Building Bridges - page 2

A mother mouse and a baby mouse are walking along when suddenly a cat attacks them. 

The mother mouse goes, "BARK!" and the cat runs away.

"See?" says the mother mouse to her baby. "Now do you see why it's important to learn a foreign language?"


Cultural Differences in Education   

Teachers who daily deal with multicultural classes know that the challenge goes beyond language. Routine educational methods applied successfully to students may come into bewildering conflict with immigrant students whose cultural background involves other ways of knowing and behaving.  For example, a student may resist offering the right answer after another student has answered incorrectly, in order not to embarrass that person in front of the class. A student raised to value consensus may find decisions made by majority rule inconsiderate or even unfair, instead of simply democratic.

For educators wanting to help children make the transition to a new cultural environment, the challenge is first to identify, and then find ways to bridge, cultural differences that have a profound influence on learning. 

Some cultures stress self-reliance and personal achievement; these are individualistic cultures.  Others focus more on developing and sustaining a stable, mutually dependent group; these are collectivist cultures. 

According to Kim (1987)[6], "in socially oriented [collectivistic] societies, the cost of interdependence is experienced as suppression of individual development, while in individualistically oriented cultures, the cost of independence is experienced as alienation".  The ability to relate these orientations to curricular demands, schoolwork, and expectations are a major challenge.

  Table 2: Salient Features of Individualism and Collectivism

(Representative of prevailing U.S. culture)

(Representative of many immigrant cultures)

1. Fostering independence and individual achievement

1. Fostering interdependence and group success

2. Promoting self-expression, individual thinking, personal choice?

2. Promoting adherence to norms, respect for authority/elders, group consensus

3. Associated with egalitarian relationships and flexibility in roles (e.g., upward mobility)

3. Associated with stable, hierarchical roles (dependent on gender, family background, age)?

4. Understanding the physical world as knowable apart from its meaning for human life

4. Understanding the physical world in the context of its meaning for human life

5. Associated with private property, individual ownership

5. Associated with shared property, group ownership

  Table based on website report

Like individuals and groups, schools have cultures, too. These usually mirror the culture of the dominant society. Often children and their parents find it difficult to learn English as a second language, and refugees from troubled homelands often bring emotional burdens. But it needs to be recognised that it may be equally if not more difficult to learn to understand and interpret a new culture. This can be just as true for children born in the country when they are exposed to cultural values at home that differ significantly from those at school.

Identifying the cultural source of any classroom conflict will go a long way towards finding the most effective solution 

                Table 3: Sources of potential home/school conflict



1.Child as individual

1. Child as part of the group

2. Independence

2. Helpfulness

3. Praise (to promote self-esteem)

3. Criticism (to "normalise" behaviour)

4. Cognitive skills

4. Social skills

5. Oral expression

5. Listening to authority

6. Parent's role includes teaching

6. Parent's role includes socializing

7. Personal property

7. Sharing

Table based on website report

One of the major concerns of multi-cultural class teachers is to identify the dilemma of children who are conflicted between the expectations of home and those of school.  If this dilemma is not properly and constructively addressed, it can result in alienation, either from parents or from school.  Solutions need not be difficult, but cannot be attempted unless the situation is identified.

Table 3 pinpoints the areas of conflict, described hereunder with some suggested strategies.

Independence versus helpfulness:

An example could be parents helping their children by tying their shoelaces for them.  Teachers might deem this inappropriate because it seems to perpetuate dependence.

Another example has been given [7] of mothers accompanying their children to school to help them eat a subsidised school breakfast, and bringing their younger children with them.  A condition of the subsidy was that the meals should be provided to the schoolchildren only.  This particular school had a large population of immigrant students from a culture that valued sharing as opposed to personal property.  Of concern to teachers and administrators also was the belief that the mothers’ actions were inhibiting the children’s development of independence.

This situation is an example of both the Independence versus Helpfulness syndrome and that of Sharing versus Personal Property, and the mothers had considerable difficulty in understanding the perspective of the school.

A suggested strategy was to have the school explain to the parents why they could not accompany their children to breakfast and, at the same time, finding opportunities to invite whole families to the school to share a meal or other experiences.


Praise versus Criticism  


Parents with a strongly collectivistic orientation are likely to be unhappy if they believe their children are being inordinately praised.   Praise tends to segregate a child, whereas criticism is perceived as bringing the child in line with the group. Children from relatively collectivistic cultures may be uncomfortable with public praise, as they have grown up believing no one member should be singled out, since doing so tends to diminish the others.


The experience in the US school system is that discomfort with public praise does not automatically fade with age. It can continue through college and university.


A useful strategy is for teachers to praise students in groups or as a whole class, rather than individually in front of others. They can also stress how an individual child’s performance contributes to the success of the class. Praise can also be balanced with suggestions for improvement.


Cognitive Skill versus Social Development

Collectivistic parents may regard social or moral development as an essential adjunct of cognitive skill.  They may be unable or unprepared to distinguish between the relevance of traditional western schooling as distinct from social development.  Japanese education, for example, is based on a belief that there are "a variety of social skills that have to come first before you can focus fruitfully . . . on the intellectual development of the child" (LeVine 1991)[8]    An immigrant to the USA from Latin America expressed the belief that “. . . it would be impossible to get to the university if one doesn’t have good behaviour, if one isn’t taught to respect others" (Goldenberg & Gallimore)[9].


In discussing a child’s performance in class with a parent, a strategy the teacher could could adopt would be to tell the parent how the child interacts in the classroom. After talking about the social skills, the teacher could move on to discussion of the child’s academic performance. Teachers should respond to a parent’s concerns before dealing with individual achievement.


Oral Expression Versus Respect for Authority

Individualistic parents tend to encourage their children to ask questions, to  "speak up," and "tell the teacher what you need." However, parents from collectivistic backgrounds may be confused or even disturbed by the emphasis placed on self-expression in western societies.  They believe a child should be quiet and respectful in order to learn more and not to distract the teacher’s attention nor that of the group from the lesson.


If immigrant students from backgrounds stressing quiet respect are to succeed in school, they need to be coached on how to become active participants in their own learning. The teachers' strategy will be to discuss with parents why active learning is important for their children but, at the same time, they need to recognise the pressures of individualist standards instilled at home on some students, who should be graded accordingly.


Parents’ Roles versus Teachers’ Roles

It would be wrong for teachers automatically to criticize parents for failing to help their children with their studies at home.  There may be “good” cultural reasons for their failure to do so.  Some cultures believe it to be wrong for parents to “interfere” in a function that is specifically that of a school, and many may not have had the education themselves to confidently tutor their children.  They may, indeed, consider their own function to be that of balancing the teachers’ individualistic and cognitive approach to the child’s education with the domestic social strategies that will teach them respect.


Some schools, recognising the limited education of some parents, have encouraged parents to participate in a number of way in the classroom.  This strategy not only allows them to assist in the children’s academic instruction, but may also help the parents to learn alongside their children.  In particular with verbal and literacy skills.  The presence of parents also introduces norms of respect for adults; at the same time, parents get to see how the teacher manages group discussions and elicits involvement from the students.


Personal Property versus Sharing

Children coming from some collectivist cultures are accustomed to having their possessions shared by other members of the family.  This is regarded as the norm and the sanctity of personal property very much the exception.  They may therefore find it very strange that, although the school’s property such as books and materials, technically belong to the school, children are expected to treat them as if they are private possessions and are responsible for their safety and security.  Immigrant parents, in particular, will find this insistence on personal property and lack of encouragement to share more somewhat bewildering.

There is, in fact, no reason why materials cannot be shared, jointly cared for, and stored in a place where all students have access to them. Because students will inevitably have to cope with the reality of private property in this society, however, teachers need to explain this cultural norm. Classroom situations may provide opportunities to discuss which norm is being observed and may also offer examples for discussion with parents. When a contrary expectation prevails (such as the expectation to treat normally shared property as the domain of an individual), children and their parents deserve to know about it.  The best strategy may simply be openness.  



[6] Kim, U. (1987). The parent-child relationship: The core of Korean collectivism. Paper presented to the International Association for Cross Cultural Psychology, Newcastle, Australia, July.

[7] In Bridging Cultures in Our Schools - new approaches that work - by Elsie Trumbull at Wested's website: 

[8] LeVine, R. A. (1991) Discussion. In P. M. Greenfield & R. R. Cocking Continuities and discontinuities in the cognitive socialization of minority children. Proceedings from a workshop,.Washington, DC.

[9] Goldenberg, C., & Gallimore, R. (1995). Immigrant Latino parents’ values and beliefs about their children’s education: In P. Pintrich & M. Maehr (Eds.), Advances in achievement motivation. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.


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LINKS TO SITES OF INTEREST - An internationally sponsored initiative for empowering children to build global social and knowledge networks.  The site is available in a multitude of different languages.  This is "building bridges by example". - A very didactic series of references to articles on multiculturalism and education provided by the Center for Multilingual Multicultural Research, an initiative of the University of Southern California.