The Influence of Cultural Differences on Teaching and Learning

Rabat, Morocco
Talal Belgdida is a Master student in the program of “Applied linguistics and English language teaching” at the school of Education, Rabat. He loves teaching, tutoring, etc. everything related to the sphere of education. He has been involved in various volunteering activities in his region so far.
Cultural differences affect the way both, teachers and learners participate in education. These differences have become a tough challenge tormenting these two communities especially the teachers on whom most of the blame is pinned when these students fail. This makes one think about how teachers, who lack sufficient knowledge about culture, may interpret the behavior of a particular learner. In fact, these differences might cause educators to unfairly judge students from certain cultural backgrounds as misbehaving or impolite. Since cultural differences are hard to perceive, students may find themselves rebuked by their teachers but fail to understand the source of that concern. However, Tutors and school administrators are now increasingly aware of how impactful culture is, when it comes to teaching and learning.

To begin with, students from Asia and Africa tend to move to universities in western developed countries like USA, UK, Australia, etc. to pursue their higher studies. The tragedy, however, lies in the fact that besides having to deal with culture shock and acculturation issues, those students are confronted with differences even in the education system with which they have to deal with. Apparently, many students do not seem to know that most of the problems they start to face are a result of cultural differences. They rather have the impression that their lecturers and instructors are being devious, unhelpful, or even worse, racist! These misconceptions and misunderstandings may eventually lead a foreign student to feel lost, unwanted and left behind, which hence affects profoundly their academic performance, and leads equally to depression, anxiety and fear that they are now incapable of meeting their families’ expectations.

Consequently, all university stuff, especially lecturers, happen to develop the attitude that international students can be a heavy burden, and once again are not aware that cultural factors are in play. Thus to understand the strong impact cultural differences in a given learning environment have on teaching, it seems sensible to define what is meant by culture as a key concept, a concept that happens to be too broad and not easily summed up. In her book “Culture Learning: The Fifth Dimension on the Language Classroom”, author Louise Damen (2000) defined culture as the “learned and shared human patterns or models for living; day-to-day living patterns [that] pervade all aspects of human social interaction. Culture is mankind’s primary adaptive mechanism.” Individuals from varied nationalities, ethnicities, and races all bring cultural traditions to their interactions, and it is up to teachers to recognize, celebrate and share these different perspectives. International students however, realize that the education system in the host countries –mainly western ones- is characterized by individualism, in that teachers expect their students to be as autonomous as possible and would only provide necessary information and guidance to get them initiated to the course. In contrast, new comers who originate from community-oriented cultures where group collaboration is tolerated and strongly encouraged may find it more difficult to cope up with western institutions.

Further, the effect of culture on beliefs about the value of education and participation styles should not be overestimated, in that many Asian students, for instance, tend to be quiet in class, and making eye contact with teachers is considered inappropriate for many of these children (Bennett, 2003). In contrast, most European and American children are taught to value active classroom discussion and to look their teachers directly in the eye as a sign of respect, interest, and full engagement. For teachers with a classroom full of students of different backgrounds, the responsibility to connect with them goes beyond simply knowing where they are from, or what their favorite subjects are. These teachers must strive to understand their students in a more holistic way, incorporating their cultural traditions into lessons and activities, so students feel understood, comfortable, and focused on learning.

Besides, I tend to believe that multicultural education is not a task to be done or even an end goal to be accomplished; it is rather an approach to education that aims to include all students, promote learning of other cultures, and teach healthy social skills in a multicultural setting. “It is the present and future of education”. According to Shilva Bhouraskar, (2012) “Multicultural classrooms are a melting pot of learning,” she says. “Rather than a passive, one-way flow of learning from teacher to student, there is a brainstorming of ideas, stories, and experiences that enrich the educational experience in ways that are impossible in monocultural classes.”

As a matter of fact, being faced with a variety of distinct cultures makes the task harder for the instructor as well. Hence, the first step for any teacher to manage this situation is to be aware that they are addressing a classroom spanning languages and cultures. Everything they say, the instances they provide, the issues they address, the opinions they express, and the stories they share should keep a higher perspective to avoid issues of prejudice in religion, culture and social structure. Self-awareness is a huge principle the educator should take into account; that implies being able to create a space where students feel their opinions are valid and accepted, and that there is no right or wrong answer. Experiencing the freedom to say things without fear of judgment encourages the most interactive and enriching learning experiences for everyone.

Further, universities are highly recommended to provide support for international students upon arrival and throughout the first months by organizing seminars on cultural differences; the university stuff and counselling should be helpful to those who struggle. Besides, secondary schools and colleges can hold trainings for teachers so that they are aware of the cultural differences in the education system and can better prepare their students at home before they travel abroad, along with creating an environment where open and honest conversation is possible. I also strongly believe in giving the students the freedom and self-monitoring, rather than controlling and manipulating what they should and should not say or do. If we trust and let students be within a multicultural room, they would eventually tap into their humane side and find ways to understand each other. Indeed, they are still marked with differences, but there is a growing sense of tolerance and mutual respect. Cultural barriers cease to exist and people can look beyond to focus on a common goal of learning.
In brief, using different engaging activities in multicultural classrooms is an excellent way to foster inclusivity and encourage students to share their heritage. It is also a useful way for teachers to involve students in different styles of study to immerse them in their learning. Sharing about oneself within the confines of an activity is often much easier than being asked open-ended questions and put “on the spot.” These activities can then provide a safe space for dialogue and serve as an entryway into more in-depth interactions. It is also noteworthy that teachers who balance their roles as facilitators and councilors, and students who learn to work autonomously but also appreciate the value of collaborative work will avoid conflicts and prejudice. Hence, Universities all over the world are supposed to tolerate and understand cultural differences in order to stay productive and competitive.

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