Bridging the gap – cross cultural awareness in the ELT classroom.

EFL teaching and cross cultural awareness training have co-existed, working in parallel, for a long time. Many international EFL teachers, by default, have wide intercultural experience but many may never have looked at the field in depth or applied it to their classroom practice. This post aims to look at how cross cultural knowledge can be applied both to the content of our lessons and our methodology.

We should start by having a brief look at what culture is. It’s not an easy thing to define. We can then examine some of the cross cultural theory and see what the classroom implications might be.

So what is culture? There are lots of definitions and this is my favourite. It’s from Geert Hofstede in ‘Communication Between Cultures’, 1984.

“The collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another”. Rather nice I think.

To personalise it all a bit, think about your history, religion, population mobility, geography, language, country size and climate too! They are amongst the things that make you what you are. It all matters in real life as well – below are some of the life-guiding issues that vary hugely from culture to culture. So think about your attitude towards:

Authority, conflict, consensus, money, relationships, change, status, emotions, time, trust and transparency. Time for self-searching and indeed self-awareness is the beginning of cross cultural awareness.

Now I promised you some theory, so the main thinkers are Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, the rather anecdotal Richard Lewis and the godfather of cross cultural awareness, Geert Hofstede

While reading this summary of the theory, why not ask yourself “where do I fit in?”. It makes it more relevant and will also help to keep you awake.

In ‘Riding the Waves of Culture’, 1997, Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner identify seven cultural dimensions:

  1. Universalism vs. particularism (What governs us, rules or relationships?)
  2. Individualism vs. collectivism (Do we function in a group or as individuals?)
  3. Neutral vs. emotional (To what extent do we show our emotions publically?)
  4. Specific vs. diffuse (Do we separate or mix our work and private lives?)
  5. Achievement vs. ascription (Do we have to work for status or is it given to us?)
  6. Sequential vs. synchronic (Are we linear active and do one thing at a time or multi-active and do several things at the same time?)
  7. Internal vs. external control (Do we think we control our environment or do we feel controlled by it?)

Still awake? OK, Richard Lewis in ‘When Cultures Collide’ 1996, divides cultures and their views of times into Linear Active (who see time in a straight line and view it with great importance) and Multi Active (who see time as a more fluid thing). Generally these two culture types don’t get on too well and nor do his other two categories, Data-oriented (driven by numbers and evidence) and Dialogue-oriented (more driven by people and relationships).

In ‘Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival,’ 1997, Geert Hofstede suggests five indices for analysing and comparing cultures:

PDI: Power distance index – how centralized is your culture and how does it view authority?

IDV: Individualism index – is your culture collectivist or individualistic?

MAS: Masculinity index – to what degree are traditional gender roles maintained?

UAI: Uncertainty avoidance index – how tolerant is your culture of risk and change?

LTO: Long-term orientation index – is your culture long or short-termist?

So where do you fit in?

Let’s now take these ideas to the classroom. There seem to be two ways of applying them. The first relates to content. Cultural issues always interest people – from teenagers onwards and we all need content to make our students speak. Increased globalisation and the internet have developed a greater awareness of other cultures. This, combined with the fact that students equate EFL classes with internationalism, suggests that this is useful and stimulating content.

In mono-cultural classes, you can have fun with mini cultural profiles and asking students to discuss how typical they are. In-class comparisons can be very fruitful in multi-cultural classes but of course need to be ‘policed’ carefully!

In Business English classes you can devise activities around geographical themes such as “Where are you going/Who do you work with?”. You can then also get students to develop ‘target’ culture profiles, identify the potential conflicts and prepare some action points. The internet can be useful here by the way! You can also develop business-function-specific activities such as meetings, presentations or negotiations, again identify the ‘target’ culture or cultures and list the cultural issues and strategies.

The other application of the theories is to our methodology. If you teach multi-cultural classes or are working in a culture that is not your own, then the theories may assist you in your classroom management. Let’s think about Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner and their theories in this context.

  1. Universalism vs. particularism (What governs us, rules or relationships?)

Will we find relationship-building in class challenging and how important are the key rules and policies to students?

  1. Individualism vs. collectivism (Do we function in a group or as individuals?)

Will feedback best be given on group or individual performance? Should we avoid excessive public individual praise or negative feedback?

You may also need to manage your expectations about degrees of learner autonomy.

  1. Neutral vs. emotional (To what extent do we show our emotions?)

How open as can we be with students and will personalisation be part of your teaching? Can you use some level of emotion in the classroom to communicate key messages?

  1. Specific vs. diffuse (Do we separate or mix our work and private lives)

Will informal environments for one-on-one coaching and support work with your students? Should we put lateness and poor timekeeping in a cultural context and engage with the student concerned?

  1. Achievement vs. ascription (Do we have to work for status or is it given to us?)

Be very aware of to what extent your students have a sense of ‘face’. With some students you may have ascribed authority – be aware of this.

  1. Sequential vs. synchronic (Are we linear active and do one thing at a time or multi-active and do several things at the same time?)

Do be aware of how time limits and deadlines are viewed by some students. You may need to make it clear when deadlines etc. are non-negotiable.

  1. Internal vs. external control (Do we think we control our environment or do we feel controlled by it?)

The challenge with some students here may be around developing learner autonomy and reducing the feeling of teacher dependency and the teacher as an authority figure.

My sense is that there is a lot of work that can be done on the interface between cross cultural theories and English language teaching in terms of both content and methodology. I am very keen to hear your views and hear about your experiences so please do get in touch.

A few other references if this is your bag.

Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner , ‘Riding the Waves of Culture’, NB Publishing 1997.

Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov, ‘Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind’. Revised and expanded 3rd Edition.  McGraw-Hill USA, 2010.


The teacher and the selfie stick – a few thoughts on classroom self-awareness.

When you get to my age, many things are annoying.  Most things perhaps.  Of all the annoying inventions of the 21st century, the selfie stick seems to me to be one of the worst. They suggest a great deal of vanity in their owners – the idea that they are more interesting than the place they are in. They also block the view in galleries and museums.

But they have got me thinking. One of the great things about being a teacher is that once the door is closed, the classroom is your world.  A private place for you and your students. This is a great idea but as teachers we have so many things to do, so many things to remember that we sometimes don’t have a chance to assess what it is actually like to be taught by us, what it feels like, how we appear, how we sound. If we could take a series of selfies over the length of a lesson we might get a real sense of how we seem to our students and this should lead to a heightened sense of self-awareness. Even with a horrible selfie stick this wouldn’t be practical, so how can we develop that sense of ourselves as teachers?

People may worry about being too self-critical and there is risk of that but American psychotherapist Stephen L. Salter has written on what he calls “the tyrannical culture of positivity”. You can blame Facebook and its ‘likes’ for this in my view. I think a healthy critique of our classroom behaviours is a useful tool.

The best way perhaps is to have one or more of your classes video-recorded. A well-made recording of your lesson will allow you analyse so many of your behaviours and the responses of your students. The first time you see yourself teaching on film there is a certain ‘cosmetic effect’ –“is that really how I look, oh no, look at me” etc. But it doesn’t last. The real problem with being videoed is practicality in that it’s unlikely that it can be done often enough to be really useful.  Being observed by a colleague is of course another way of understanding how you appear to your students, but whoever observes may not give you the feedback you really need.  Your best critic is of course you – a high degree of self-awareness seems key to being an effective teacher.

So what about a series of imaginary selfies, a series of snapshots of you at work? Just the act of imagining what images the camera might save seems me to be a good way to raise self-awareness. I do this while and after I deliver my teacher development sessions. So we need some sort of check list of what to consider. Here’s mine:

Your position in the room – are you at the front only or do you ‘enter the class’ and mingle with the students listening and watching? Do you get close to those at the back of the room? Do you block the view your students have of the whiteboard or do you even talk to the whiteboard? Remember when you write on the board, stop talking as the loss of facial contact with the students decreases audibility.

Your movements – first of all do you actually move? Static teachers are not very motivating for the students. Assuming you do move, is it in a fixed pattern like a caged tiger or is it more random? Either way your movements should have purpose and not be a distraction for the learners. And never forget how position and movement influence audibility.

Your face and eyes are part of the way you react, the ways you indicate success or displeasure, the ways you support a struggling student or encourage an unfocussed one. They can also give away boredom, lack of interest and frustration!  And make it clear when you weren’t listening – it happens to us all!  Eyes are also a way of ensuring inclusivity – making eye contact with all students including those at the back makes them all feel involved. I often work with very large groups and use my eyes a lot to keep a sense of unity. Yes in some cultures eye contact is minimal but then facial and hand gestures can be used to keep the feeling of inclusivity.

Your clothing. This can be awkward but if you feel uncomfortable in a particular set of clothes, you will probably look it too.  Equally it seems obvious but a good teacher moves, bends and leans a lot and that can be rather, er, revealing sometimes. For both men and women by the way.

Your body language is often unconscious and the whole issue is highly cultural but the defensive pose of crossed arms or the confrontation of hands on hips are pretty universal. Open arms and gestures of inclusivity and support are important. Do also remember your height in relation to the students.  I remember early on in my career learning how my height (1.8m) could intimidate young learners, so I taught myself to crouch down.

There are of course no correct ways of how you appear to your students. What matters is the fact that you consider these issues and try to picture yourself in the classroom. Awareness, not paranoia.

But no selfie sticks please.