Guest post By Nicole Biscotti, M.Ed.
Luisa moved to the United States from Navolato in Sinaloa, Mexico and began attending the high school in her new neighborhood. The school promptly identified her as an English Language Learner and began providing her with English language instruction to address language, a very obvious and tangible barrier in intercultural communication. Some of her teachers are fluent in Spanish and can communicate with her parents and the rest of the teachers use the language line to call home. All written communication that is sent home is dutifully translated to Spanish using Google Translate (which is usually accurate enough for the general message to be understood). Unfortunately, the student and her parents still feel confused and at times unsure of how to navigate many aspects of Luisa’s school. This new environment seems very different from what they’re used to and they’re not always clear about school procedures, academic expectations, or social norms.
When teachers asks Luisa questions about how she’s feeling at her new school she’s not sure what to say and she doesn’t want to be impolite. She usually smiles and pretends that she doesn’t understand them. She doesn’t understand very much English but by their tone and body language, she has noticed that many other students speak in a very familiar manner to adults and regularly challenge them. She wonders why they are so disrespectful to adults. What’s even stranger to her is that no one else seems to be surprised.
Fortunately, several students in the class also speak Spanish although they are from different states in Mexico and other countries in South and Central America. Several of them use different words than she does in Spanish and have accents she’s never heard before. The Salvadoran girl that she sits next to is friendly and helped her to log on to the online platform they use at school. In general, the Hispanic students are much more friendly to her than other students. That is to say, they at least speak to her. The students who speak English only don’t ever talk to her and only a few have even smiled at her. Students don’t even speak to each other very much; the students in her class seem to barely acknowledge one another. At home, she was with the same group each year with different teachers coming to their group’s classroom. By the time they were in high school, they felt like siblings. She continues to communicate with her former classmates on an application called Whatsapp in a group chat that they made a few years ago.
Luisa was never the type to get into trouble at school and she’s very concerned that she has a detention. She didn’t expect to get into trouble for being 1-2 minutes late to class. She was assigned detention because apparently someone has been counting and she arrived late three times. Luisa’s mother also has concerns; she is confused about the communications coming from the school. She’s surprised that her daughter was placed in a Math class with younger students since she loves Math and has always excelled in that subject. She doesn’t question the teacher though believing the placement must be intentional and based on her teacher having found Luisa to be behind the other students. She’s also received a letter in Spanish from the school asking parents to be part of a committee but assumed that since she’s not an educated woman she doesn’t qualify to be a part of a school committee.
An awareness of the intersection of education and culture to reduce the barriers to intercultural communication that Luisa and her mother are facing. If we’re serious about engaging meaningfully with our English language learners and their parents, we have to understand the ways that culture influences school to gain insight into how their backgrounds, attitudes, and beliefs may differ from our assumptions.
How Much of School is Based on Culture?
There are basic elements to education that are standard almost globally. In almost all places in the world, across varying cultural contexts, there is a convention for teaching youth academic skills such as reading, writing, and math as basic skills. Factors such as the ages and genders of students, amount of years of instruction, and the setting can vary greatly based on culture. Teaching methods vary based on culture although principles such as clear instructions, consistent classroom procedures, differentiation for student needs, and assessing learning are universal. Some of the differences in schools are due to practical or logistical concerns like weather, available funds, evidence-based research, and educational technology however culture permeates almost every aspect of school.
Hofstede’s, and Trompenaars’ frameworks of culture provide us with insight into an overall culture in belief areas that heavily influence human behavior and vary widely across cultures. The graphic below and table at the end show where elements from both frameworks intersect with different aspects of school. Examples are provided for how these intersections could “look” in education along with US schools’ positioning as a reference. It’s important to remember that these tools are guides, not absolute truths about individuals.
Personality, personal experiences, as well as demographics can create wide variances of traits within cultures. According to Hofstede’s framework, in Mexican culture the PDI (power-distance index measures the degree to which the members of a society accept the hierarchy of power and authority) is high at 98. A student whose parents were university professors in a large city would most likely be more comfortable questioning authority than a student who came from a rural town and a working-class background however. We can deduce this based on larger cities and more educated people placing a higher value on equality vs hierarchy. It’s important to note that the reverse could also be true; depending on personality or students’ personal experiences, the student from a rural town and working-class background could be more comfortable questioning authority.
Cultural Frameworks Provide Insight to Cultural Barriers at School
If we return to our example above with Luisa and her mother, the frameworks above provide valuable insights. Luisa’s uncomfortable with direct communication and disrespect to her elders because she’s from an age-embracing country with a high power-distance index. Being from a collectivist society where students were in a group for most of their education, the individualistic orientation of the United States strikes her as cold and unfriendly. Luisa is particularly in tune to the non-verbal communication between her classmates, with the teachers, and with her because as a member of a high-context culture, nonverbal communication is viewed as an integral part of communication.
In Mexico, time is viewed through a poly-chronic lens which would explain why Luisa was surprised by being punished for being minimally late to her classes. For her, it seemed much more important to politely greet the elderly neighbor from Sinaloa that she often encounters watering her plants on her way to school. The neighbor always initiates a conversation and, having noticed that Luisa’s mother comes home late, brought Luisa a plate of tamales with rice for her mother and her to enjoy for dinner. She never thought she would receive a punishment for being a few minutes late but detention still seemed mild compared to what her mother’s reaction would have been if she had interrupted the neighbor or abruptly ended the conversation. Luisa’s mother isn’t comfortable questioning the teacher about Luisa’s Math class because she accepts hierarchy and views both the teacher and the committee members she read about in the letter as part of a professional class that she doesn’t belong to. Being from a high-context culture, she also feels that since the letter was sent to a large group rather than addressed to her personally it was sent as a courtesy and is not an actual invitation.
An Asset Mindset Requires an Open Mindset
There is no single best approach but the difficulty that we have as humans is that cultural absorption and the forming of one’s cultural identity begin at a young age. Most people grow up believing that their attitudes, beliefs, and norms are the “right” ones. This is deeply ingrained through a myriad of observations and experiences beginning in early childhood and reinforced by expectations from family, peers, and teachers.
Students need support with intercultural barriers and they also bring cultural assets that enrich the classroom community. Conversations about highlighting students’ assets are meaningless however until we are able to take a step back and view our culture as one of many rather than being the “default” or “superior” culture. Only when we are willing to learn about and see value in, attitudes and beliefs that are not our own can we begin to understand the perspectives of students like Luisa and the challenges they face every day.
Framework for Understanding the Intersection of Education & Cultural
(Adapted from the work of Hofstede and Trompenaar)
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