The impact of culture on education

As a result of globalization, many people are becoming interested in ranking systems which show how their own countries and regions compare with others on a variety of measures.

As a result of globalization, many people are becoming interested in ranking systems which show how their own countries and regions compare with others on a variety of measures. For the purposes of this report, let me consider the impact of culture on education.

Research in systematic differences in value preferences across countries and regions are vital for understanding the way teaching/learning processes are handled. The seminal work of Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist and Professor Emeritus at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, on cultural differences demonstrates the five culture dimensions he founded and provides an analytical tool for understanding the local differences in educational policy and teaching methods in school systems.

Based on this cross-cultural framework, a fundamental question is posited: Is it conceivable to find best practices that work worldwide in spite of these value differences?

Professor Hofstede’s report summarizes recent rankings of educational performance across countries and regions and the influence of culture on these ranking systems and describes what culture is and how it influences the way we educate and learn and analyzes “best practices.” His report examines if we can learn from each other while being so different.

Hofstede defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes members of one group of people from others.”

The five dimensions of national culture identified by Hofstede are: Power Distance Index; Individualism vs collectivism; Masculinity vs femininity; Uncertainty Avoidance Index; and Long-Term Orientation

Power Distance Index

Power distance is the extent to which less powerful members of a society accept that power is distributed unequally. 

In high power-distance cultures, everybody has his/her rightful place in society. Old age is respected, and status is important. In low power-distance cultures, people try to look younger and powerful people try to look less powerful. 

People in countries like the US, Canada, the UK, all Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands score low on the power distance index and are more likely to accept ideas like empowerment, matrix management and flat organizations. 

Business schools around the world tend to base their teachings on low power-distance values. Yet, most countries in the world have a high power distance index.

Individualism vs Collectivism

In individualistic cultures, like almost all the rich Western countries, people look after themselves and their immediate family only; in collectivist cultures like Asia and Africa, people belong to “in-groups” who look after them in exchange for loyalty. 

In individualist cultures, values are in the person, whereas in collectivist cultures, identity is based on the social network to which one belongs. 

In individualist cultures there is more explicit, verbal communication. In collectivist cultures, communication is more implicit.

Masculinity vs Femininity

In masculine cultures like the US, the UK, Germany and Italy, the dominant values are achievement and success. The dominant values in feminine cultures are consensus seeking, caring for others and quality of life. Sympathy is for the underdog. People try to avoid situations distinguishing clear winners and losers.

In masculine cultures, performance and achievement are important. The sympathy is for the winners. Status is important to show success. Feminine cultures like the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands have a people orientation. Small is beautiful and status is not so important.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index

Uncertainty avoidance (or uncertainty control) stands for the extent to which people feel threatened by uncertainty and ambiguity. In cultures with strong uncertainty avoidance, people have a strong emotional need for rules and formality to structure life. The way people think and learn is influenced by this value.

In high UAI countries like Germany, Russia, France, Iran and Brazil, the need is to know about what people in the past and present already said about a certain subject. It is a pre-requisite for competence. This results in the high status of experts, as opposed to weak uncertainty-avoidance cultures, like the UK, the US and Denmark in which the views of practitioners are more highly respected.

Long Term Orientation

The last element of culture, Long-Term Orientation, is the extent to which a society exhibits a future-orientated perspective rather than a near term point of view.

Low-scoring countries like the US and West European countries are usually those under the influence of monotheistic religious systems, such as the Christian, Islamic or Jewish systems. People in these countries believe there is an absolute and indivisible truth. In high-scoring countries such as China, people believe truth depends on time, context and situation.

Can we learn from each other?

1. Best practices

In analyzing the results of educational measures, a very Anglo-Saxon approach is applied. This approach values practical application over “academic” research.

This Anglo-Saxon brand of inductive reasoning can be further understood by adding the influence of a high score on MAS: strong action and achievement orientation. This way of thinking is called pragmatism. Abstract argumentation is something for “academics.” What counts is whether specific actions lead to desired observable behavior.

In contrast, deductive thinking is the norm in high UAI cultures. These cultures try first to get an understanding of what is known about a subject. The first step is always to look into what others, especially experts from the past and the present, have already said on a subject. Then a philosophy can be formulated. 

The last step is application. In this approach philosophy and thinking is more highly regarded than the actions of practitioners that follow. As a result, people of these cultures and regions experience “best practices” as “superficial.” They are more interested in the thinking that led to successful approaches.

2. Can we learn from another culture?

The answer is that cultural values are deeply rooted and are very consistent over time. The “collective programming of the mind” begins from the moment children are born. They learn from their parents to obey absolutely or to speak up. This programming continues at school as was described above how the five dimensions apply to learning situations.

Are students expected to find their own path and are they allowed to contradict the teacher? Are they expected to compete with each other in class? This all depends on the country culture. It is in this “context” that needs to be taken into consideration when looking at what has been successful in one country and whether or how those approaches can be applied to another country. It is short-sighted to expect countries and regions to be effective in introducing new ideas if these ideas are not likely to fit in the context of their values.

These comments are not suggesting that we cannot learn from others. Of course, we should keep an open mind about what is happening elsewhere. But it is naive to think that some best practices in a certain specific culture can be automatically copied and pasted to another culture with different basic preferences. 

What is needed is a way to “translate” from one value system to another to make it work. Professionals working in an international environment should understand the different expectations of colleagues and students in the teaching-learning process. They should be trained to understand and apply the “different rules of the game.”

Two issues were globally recognized as the core of understanding educational quality: a supportive culture for education and the need for a high status of teachers. These two features of education are highly influenced by culture and therefore implemented in different ways, in different countries.

Conclusion

Researchers across the globe explained that while the inputs to education (like money, school choice, years in school and teacher-pupil ratios) can be identified and outputs compared (ranking systems on measures of literacy, numeracy and educational attainment), this country-specific process, described as a “black box” approach, implies that there is no systematic way to describe how the differences in the teaching/learning process transforms inputs into outputs. What happens between input and output is very much a local issue.

Well researched systematic differences in value preferences per country/region are fundamental in understanding the way the teaching learning processes are handled. The five culture dimensions found by Professor Hofstede provide an analytical tool for understanding the local differences in the educational policy and school systems.

This brings us to conclude that:

1. A truly international approach to ranking countries on education should take cultural differences into account before “benchmarking” and describing the characteristics of good school systems and good teachers.

2. We can and should learn from each other. But we should also understand that to make a “best practice” work, requires translation to a different culture/value system.

3. The five dimensions of culture provide a guideline for the translation.

4. The quality of teachers is related to how country cultures are defining the role of teachers in the education process. It is a matter of effectiveness to accept this and to understand that results can be obtained in different ways.

5. Planning and implementation of change in the educational field should take the country culture into account. For instance, in high PDI countries it should be done top down, committing first the top of the educational field. In low PDI countries with a high score on UAI it is a must to commit first the recognized experts in the field, while in countries with low PDI and femininity all stake holders must be involved from scratch.


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