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Cultural Considerations in Education
Sep 1, 2014

It is essential for people who work internationally or in multicultural settings to familiarize themselves with implications of cultural differences. Hofstede's model can be used as an excellent guide for educators who are aiming to operate more effectively in different parts of the world.

We live in a world of diverse cultures. It is crucial to understand the implications of cultural differences in order to be successful in such a diverse world. Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010) in their book, "Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and Its Importance for Survival," present a detailed overview of culture and its dimensions, as well as why intercultural cooperation is vital for a brighter future for humanity. The purpose of this essay is to review the model of culture presented by Hofstede et al (2010) with a focus on educational considerations. As intercultural encounters in schools can lead to confusions, it is especially critical for educators to understand the implications of working in diverse educational settings.

According to Hofstede et al. (2010, 6), culture is the collective mental programming of our minds, much of which is acquired during our childhood when we are open to learning and assimilation. The first 10-12 years are when we are most receptive and when we unconsciously absorb what our environment presents us, which ultimately becomes our mental program (Hofstede et al. 2010, 9). Culture can be inferred by the patterns of how we think, feel, and act (Hofstede et al. 2010, 11). It is reflected in all areas of life, from family and school, to organizations and politics, and is an important aspect in explaining why countries differ in many ways.

Culture has multiple layers (Hofstede et al. 2010, 8-9). Rituals, symbols, and heroes of a country represent the outer layers of culture that are visible practices and that can change relatively easily as compared to values. At the core of the culture lie values that constitute the relatively constant layer of culture. Values relate with broad tendencies to things such as "good-evil," "clean-dirty," "rational-irrational." Values shape the institutions of a country, such as families, education systems, governments, and laws (Hofstede et al. 2010, 23-24). Institutions are vital in shaping the future of a country. For example, culture and institutions can explain why some countries develop and others remain underdeveloped, or why some countries are ruled by authoritarian regimes as opposed to democratic ones.

Six dimensions of culture identified by Hofstede et al. (2010, 29-38) can be stated as:

power distance,
collectivism versus individualism,
femininity versus masculinity,
uncertainty avoidance,
long-term versus short-term orientation, and
indulgence versus restraint.

These dimensions can help explain certain prevalent characteristics in a nation or society. For example, power distance can be associated with the use of violence in a country's domestic political system and the existence of inequality; individualism can help explain national prosperity and social mobility between social classes; femininity and masculinity can have an impact on both parenting, laws, and even the amount of humanitarian aids; whereas uncertainty avoidance is associated with religion, and long-term orientation with national savings rates. Indulgence versus restraint concerns human desires such as enjoying life and having fun.

Since culture affects us in every level of society, it would be a complex task to try to explain all aspects of it. Therefore, the rest of this article focuses on culture as it relates to education along the first five dimensions, which have been shown to have an association with certain educational outcomes as presented by Hofstede et al. (2010). The approach followed by Hofstede et al. is neutral (2010, 25). Hence, both individualistic cultures and collectivistic cultures, for example, can have advantages and disadvantages, therefore one should not be perceived superior to the other.

The first dimension "power distance" (Hofstede et al. 2010, 53-86) represents how inequality is expected and accepted by the less powerful members of a society. In large power distance societies, where inequality is the norm, children are expected to be obedient to their parents as well as teachers. There is a relationship of dependence, and the elderly are treated with respect. In an educational setting, which is teacher-centered, teachers are regarded with respect and even fear. In such cultures, students stand up when teachers enter the classroom and they show respect for the teacher even outside the classroom. The teacher dictates the communication pattern by deciding who speaks when. There is a strict order in the classroom. The educational quality is dependent on the teacher, who is seen as the guru or "the wise one." High power distance countries are mostly Asian countries, Eastern European countries, Latin countries, Arabic-speaking countries, and African countries. In low power distance cultures, on the other hand, education is student-centered. Students and teachers are expected to treat each other as equals. Students are expected to take initiative and shape their own growth paths towards being independent individuals. Students can intervene while the teacher is talking; they are expected to ask questions; they can criticize or challenge the teacher intellectually, and are not expected to show respect for the teacher outside the school setting. In low power distance cultures, two-way communication is vital to a student's success. Examples of low power distance countries are German-speaking countries, Scandinavian countries, Baltic countries, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.

The second dimension of culture is "collectivism and individualism" (Hofstede et al. 2010, 89-133) and relates to the role of the individual versus the role of the group. Most of the world's population lives in collectivist cultures and individualist cultures are the exception. Examples of countries with individualist cultures include the United States, Australia, Great Britain, and Canada. Examples of collectivist cultures include Latin American countries, Pakistan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China. Collectivist cultures are "we" oriented whereas individualist cultures are "I'" oriented. The in-group and out-group distinctions are starker in collectivist societies making them more exclusionist as compared to individualist cultures that are more universalist (or inclusive) with respect to the larger society outside one's moral circle. In collectivist cultures, children grow up in extended family settings whereas in individualist cultures children grow up in nuclear families. In collectivist cultures, the purpose of education is to get a good paying job that can benefit the extended family whereas in individualist cultures the purpose of education is to facilitate children to become independent and stand on their own feet. In collectivist cultures, loyalty to the family is central to one's life and there is a dependence relationship between family members. On the other hand, healthy individuals in individualist cultures are supposed to leave home after they become financially independent.

In an educational setting, students from collectivist cultures show a tendency to not speak up. This is because the student sees herself as part of a group, and feels no need to speak up unless the rest of the group makes her speak. In such cultures, the teacher needs to take the initiative and call a student by name to help her speak. Also, in collectivist cultures students tend not to speak up in larger groups without the teacher's presence, especially when there are strangers. The remedy for this tendency is to divide the group into smaller sizes to increase participation. Due to strong in-group and out-group identities in collectivist cultures, students tend to form subgroups based on their ethnic or clan backgrounds. Therefore, it is a challenge to form groups based on task assignments in collectivist cultures as compared to individualist cultures where task assignments determine formation of groups. Furthermore, in these cases, students expect to see preferential treatment from the teacher if they share the same background. In individualist cultures, such a treatment is seen as nepotism and treated as immoral. This is in contrast with collectivist cultures that perceive it as immoral if the teacher does not exhibit preferential treatment for his or her kin.

In the individualist educational setting, students expect to be treated as individuals and in an impartial manner without any discrimination. Students can easily form groups, discuss issues or differences openly without worrying about losing face, and can also confront each other. In contrast, in the collectivist educational setting, the teacher needs to deal with a student as part of an in-group, not as an individual. Collectivist cultures avoid confrontations and conflict, as students feel a need to save face and not to be ashamed.

In individualist cultures, learning is perceived as a life-long process that should continue after school and throughout one's whole life. The focus is on how to learn rather than knowing how to do certain tasks. The aim of education is to prepare the student to become an individual in a society that is composed of other individuals. Thus, it is critical to teach students to learn how to deal with the surprises of life that cannot be guessed beforehand. On the other hand, in collectivist cultures, the focus of education is to prepare an individual to become a good group member. Therefore, students are given virtues and skills on how to do things and how to fit into the tradition of the in-group. Education is a one-time process that is attained during youth and does not continue later in life. In the individualist society, diplomas and certificates are regarded as individual accomplishments that foster one's self-respect as well as feeling of achievement, and help to enhance one's economic capability. In the collective society, diplomas and certificates bring honor to the individuals and their in-groups such as the family, and are regarded as tools to engage with higher status groups such as becoming a member of a rich extended family through marriage.

The third dimension of culture, "masculinity and femininity" (Hofstede et al. 2010, 135-184), is related to the prevalence or desirability of assertiveness versus modesty in a society. A society can be characterized as masculine when emotional gender role differences are apparent. In other words, men are supposed to take responsibility outside the home and be assertive, tough, and financially oriented; whereas women are supposed to take responsibility at home by being the caretaker of all, modest, kind, and tender. These stark distinctions get blurry in more feminine cultures where both men and women tend to take on the role of the compassionate caretaker of the family. Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway are examples of feminine cultures, and Latin American and Eastern European cultures are examples of masculine cultures.

In masculine educational settings, students strive on showing themselves off and competing openly with classmates. Failure is hardly acceptable, which may even lead students to commit suicide. Competitive sports are taken very seriously. Job choice decisions by students are mainly based on a student's perception of availability of career opportunities. A teacher's brilliance and student success are the most important criteria in evaluating teachers. Boys tend to get priority in education. Women generally teach younger students, whereas men teach at the college level.

In feminine educational settings, success is something that one keeps to oneself and assertive behavior is mocked. Displays of smartness and excellence easily induce jealousy. Failure is a minor issue and is not cared about as much. Competitive sports are only extracurricular activities that do not carry much importance. Job choices are made based on a student's interests. A teacher's social skills and student's social adaptability are the main criteria for evaluating teachers. Both boys and girls are educated using the same curricula. Both men and women can teach young children and college students, since roles are mixed.

The fourth dimension, "uncertainty avoidance" (Hofstede et al. 2010, 187-233), relates to the society's degree of tolerance of the ambiguous and the unpredictable. As human beings, we have to live with the fact that the future is uncertain. This dimension shows itself in the form of a need for rules and is expressed through nervous stress or anxiety. Examples of high uncertainty avoidance cultures include Greece, Portugal, Guatemala, Uruguay, Belgium, and Russia. Examples of low uncertainty avoidance cultures include Jamaica, Singapore, Sweden, and Denmark.

In the classroom setting, students from strong uncertainty avoidance cultures may prefer highly structured learning with clear objectives, clear timetables, as well as detailed assignments. Accordingly, accuracy should be rewarded, such as in the case of finding the one correct answer to a problem. Students expect the teacher to be the expert and respect teachers who use cryptic academic language. Students do not disagree with their professors. Students are more likely to attribute their success to luck and circumstances. Parents are occasionally brought in by teachers into the classroom, but they are almost never consulted as the teacher is always the expert.

On the other hand, students from weak uncertainty avoidance cultures do not prefer too much structure. Instead, they favor open-ended problems with vague objectives as well as broad assignments without timetables. Students from such cultures do not hesitate to disagree with instructors and they still respect them even if they admit that they do not know the answer to a particular question. Students are more likely to attribute their success to their own achievement. Teachers actively involve parents in a student's education and ask for ideas for enhancement.

The fifth and final dimension of culture, "long-term versus short-term orientation" (Hofstede et al. 2010, 235-274), relates to the importance of future rewards. It can be observed in the form of "perseverance and thrift" in long-term oriented cultures and has been associated with economic growth in East Asia. Short-term orientation can be observed more in the form of giving precedence to virtues related to past and present, such as respect for tradition, protecting face, and meeting social obligations. Examples of long-term oriented cultures include China, Honk Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Examples of short-term oriented cultures include Egypt, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, and Ghana.

In short-term oriented cultures, the main work values include freedom, rights, achievement, and thinking for oneself, whereas in long-term oriented cultures, the main work values include learning, honesty, adaptiveness, accountability, and self-discipline. Math scores are strongly correlated with the long-term orientation of a culture (e.g. East Asian countries) as measured by the TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study - an international comparative test of math and science scores). Also, math and science scores are highly mutually correlated. This suggests that learning and teaching are culturally conditioned. This difference of scores across cultures can be explained by the differences in the encouragement of self-enhancement that reduces children's interest in self-improvement activities like education. Accordingly, in such cultures, people seek positive information about themselves, and dismiss negative information. One needs to admit that he or she needs self-improvement and that takes a culture which encourages admitting such a deficiency. For example, Asian students in the United States are more likely to attribute success to effort and failure to lack of it.

Apart from the dimensions of culture, intercultural encounters can have important implications both between migrant or refugee students and local teachers, as well as expatriate instructors teaching in a foreign country to native students (Hofstede et al. 2010, 393-395). Hofstede et al. (2010, 395) suggest that the teachers should learn the language of the students (rather than expecting students to learn their language) to be able to overcome cultural barriers and be more effective in teaching in a culturally relevant manner. Information should be fit into a cultural framework to be meaningful. Therefore, culturally adequate translation is a very valuable art, as what is considered to be important in one language does not necessarily translate into another language meaningfully.

Moreover, differences in cognitive abilities need to be considered by teachers working in foreign cultures (Hofstede et al. 2010, 394). We learn fundamental things according to the demands of our environment while growing up. Therefore, we become better at things that we often do and that are important to us. Learning abilities including memory power emanate from cultural patterns of a society. For example, in China the visual nature of the script develops the pattern recognition abilities while imposing rote learning on students. Another complication arises from use of irrelevant material in classrooms. Some concepts that may be relevant in some countries may not apply in others. For example, organizational behavior concepts in wealthy countries may be irrelevant in poor countries. Finally, intercultural issues can emerge from institutional differences that create varying expectations in relation to the educational process and the role of different parties. Examples include the pay and status of teachers, whether the students served are from elite families or whether the educational system is elitist, and the role of the state in dictating the curriculum (Hofstede et al. 2010, 395).

In sum, culture is a complex concept with multiple dimensions. Cultural differences are a fact of life. It is essential for people who work internationally or in multicultural settings to familiarize themselves with implications of such differences. Hofstede et al. (2010)'s cultural model helps us understand this complex phenomenon, and can be used as an excellent guide for educators who are aiming to operate more effectively in different parts of the world.


Hofstede, Geert, Gert J. Hofstede and Michael Minkov. 2010. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill.