Understanding Cultural Differences in the Classroom Will Help Develop Cultural Competence

The next time you’re in class or at clinical, look around you – it’s likely that you’re learning from and studying with people from different cultures than your own. To make sure that each individual has the best educational experience possible, it is necessary to develop cultural intelligence and cultural competence. Doing so requires you to become more knowledgeable about and accepting of the cultural differences that affect learning and classroom behavior; this will allow you to care for and work effectively with people from different backgrounds as well.

Being culturally intelligent and competent includes considering how cultural differences influence learning styles among other things. Some students tend to learn best by observing and then doing, others by verbal instruction, and still others by using visual and written instructions. This preference can be affected by a student’s cultural background; for example, students coming from cultures where they learn by watching their parents or teachers complete a task before trying it themselves may prefer to watch an instructor demonstrate a lab experiment or nursing skill before attempting it themselves. This does not mean that they expect someone else to do the work for them, but this is how it may appear to others (“How culture affects,” 2011).

According to Pratt-Johnson (2006), other cultural differences emerge when we consider how people learn, acquire knowledge, problem solve, deal with conflict, and communicate non-verbally. Generally speaking, people from different cultures learn in different ways. In the U. S., students of- ten work in groups and learn from completing collaborative activities. In some cultures, however,  the teacher is always the center of class activities and the sole authority figure; students from this type of background may be reluctant to participate in class discussions and activities (Pratt- Johnson, 2006). This does not mean that they don’t understand the material or are unfriendly though others may see it that way.

Additionally, different cultures acquire information in different ways, according to Pratt- Johnson (2006). In some cultures, information is gathered through research in libraries and on the Internet. These cultures appreciate evidence that can be measured and documented. However, other cultures may acquire information through non-academic sources, such as information that is passed down by elders. If they don’t have access to the same quantity and quality of experience with books or similar forms of research, people from these cultures may place greater value on information and knowledge acquired through oral tradition (Pratt-Johnson, 2006).

Dupraw and Axner looked at the ways different cultures deal with conflict and found that some cultures see conflict as positive, while others work to avoid it (as cited in Pratt-Johnson, 2006). In the United States, conflict is avoided by most people, but when it can’t be, individuals usually deal with issues face-to-face. However in some countries, open conflict is seen as embarrassing or demeaning, so  these  cultures  work out conflicts privately and in some cases in writing (Pratt-Johnson, 2006).

Cultural differences also explain certain differences in behavior and nonverbal communication. The table below offers some possible cultural explanations for “different” behaviors that may be seen in the classroom (“Clip & save checklist,” n.d.). Patients and coworkers may also display these behaviors, so it’s important to be aware of them.


Possible Cultural Explanation

Avoiding eye contact.

Keeping eyes downcast may be a way of showing respect. In some cultures, direct eye contact is considered disrespectful and a challenge to authority.

Smiling when disagreeing with what is being said or when being reprimanded.

A smile may be a gesture of respect that children are taught to employ to avoid giving offense in difficult situations.

Shrinking from or responding poorly to apparently inoffensive forms of physical contact or proximity.

There may be taboos on certain types of physical contact. There is also significant dif- ference among cultures with respect to people's sense of what is considered an appro- priate amount of personal space.

Avoiding active participation in group work or collaborating with peers on cooperative assign- ments.

Cooperative group work is never used by teachers in some cultures. Students may thus view this type of sharing as "giving away knowledge" and may see no distinction be- tween legitimate collaboration and cheating.

Displaying uneasiness, expressing disapproval, or even misbehaving in informal learning situations involving open-ended learning processes.

Schooling in some cultures involves strict formality. For students who are used to this, an informal classroom atmosphere may seem chaotic and undemanding, while teach- ers with an informal approach may seem unprofessional. Such students may also be uncomfortable with process-oriented learning activities and prefer activities that yield more tangible and evident results.

Talking loudly and sometimes overlapping speech with the others in the group or class.

In some classrooms around the world, students have more freedom to speak. They're not as closely regulated. Students talk a lot more, and the talk more loudly. What is considered interruptive or rude behavior in North American classrooms would be considered task-oriented behavior in the home country's schools.

Being inattentive or not displaying active listening behaviors.

In some cultures, the learning process involves observing and doing or imitating ra- ther than listening and absorbing through note-taking or other forms of active listen- ing.

Performance following instruction reveals that the student does not understand the instruction, even though he or she did not ask for help or further explanation.

In some cultures, expressing a lack of understanding or asking for help from the teacher is interpreted as a suggestion that the teacher has not been doing a good enough job of teaching, and it is considered impolite. Additionally, members of some cultures may be offended if someone provides help without it being asked for; this may make them feel stupid or incompetent.

Being unresponsive, uncooperative, or even disre- spectful when dealing with people of another gen- der.

In some cultures, the expectation for boys and girls is quite different and there may be separate schooling based on gender. The idea that women and men should have the same opportunities for schooling and play comparable roles as educators will there- fore run contrary to some peoples’ cultural conditioning.

Appearing reluctant to engage in debate, specula- tion, argument, or other processes that involve directly challenging the views and ideas of others.

In some cultures, it is considered inappropriate to openly challenge another's point of view, especially the teacher's. In other cases, there may be a high value attached to being prepared, knowledgeable, and correct whenever one speaks.

Exhibiting discomfort or embarrassment at being singled out for special attention or praise.

The limelight and individual praise is not considered appropriate in some cultures, where the group is considered more important than the individual

People who exhibit behavior different than our own may have good reason for doing so. The goal, for faculty, students, administrators, and anyone else involved in the learning process, is to become accepting of and comfortable with cultural differences in the classroom, as they will be found in the workplace as well. Becoming more knowledgeable about and accepting of the cultural differences not only creates a better learning environment for students from different cultures, but also creates a unique opportunity to learn from the experiences of others. Developing our cultural competence and intelligence is important for our success in the classroom and the multicultural world in which we live, and will allow you as nurses to provide the best patient care possible.


Clip & save checklist: Understanding cultural differences in student behavior. (n. d.). Scholastic. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/clip-save-checklist-understanding-cultural-differences-student-behavior

How culture affects teaching & learning. (2011, June 7). Viewpoint Innovation. Retrieved from http://viewpoint-innovation.com/?p=205

Pratt-Johnson, Y. (2006, February). Communicating cross-culturally: What teachers should know. The Internet TESL Journal, 12(2). Retrieved from http://iteslj.org/ Articles/Pratt-Johnson-CrossCultural.html