Is It Time for New Lenses?

Teaching Across Cultures

It’s International Education Month at FSU, so we’re thinking about teaching across cultures.

You’ve probably heard the anecdote about two fish who greet each other as they swim. “How’s the water today?” asks one. “Water? What’s that?” queries the second fish. Our cultural perspective is our water; it’s also the lens through which we perceive our world. It allows us to make meaning, to perceive patterns, to formulate judgments. To each of us, ideas and actions that reinforce our own cultural perspectives seem right and good; behaviors or values that emerge from other cultural perspectives may seem jarring or even wrong. In our classrooms, the most noticeable place for these collisions is in communication. It’s easy to misinterpret tone, eye contact, gestures, and other aspects of communication in any human interaction, but it’s even easier to fall into misinterpretations when we and our students come from different backgrounds.

In some cultural contexts, for example, eye contact is considered challenging and disrespectful, while in others it’s a sign of honesty or engagement. We all form automatic judgments about each other based on such nonverbal aspects of our interactions, but our cultural frameworks often mislead us. This matters in a teaching context because our expectations of students, and our unconscious ways of interacting with them, can have a huge impact on their learning. For instance, we might assume that some students are disengaged, if they’re not expressing enthusiasm in the ways we recognize. When certain students ask questions about a grade, or request clarification about feedback, we might feel more challenged than we do by other students, even when the request is reasonable, because their communication styles don’t match our own (Sue, 2015). We may expect greater, or lesser, levels of formality in address than our students have been taught to use. We probably don’t even realize that we expect students to speak at a specific modulated volume.

Although we’re usually unaware of it, our reactions in these interpersonal exchanges are shaped by our cultural contexts. When a student’s cultural script and ours are at odds, we might feel distrustful, or even adversarial. Whether or not we’re teaching international students, or we’re international faculty, our students are operating from a diversity of cultural perspectives, so such misunderstandings are common.

To identify these everyday misapprehensions, we can step back and interpret our subjective reactions. Our own acculturation has inevitably instilled implicit biases in our reflexive responses; but we can make ourselves aware of them, and then we can counteract them. We’re all aware of stereotypes about groups, based on nationality, ethnicity, race, class, age, and so forth; those stereotypes are likely to influence us, unconsciously. We make categorizations in response to cues as subtle as a student’s accent (each of us has an accent, of course, but we only hear those that are less like our own). We can transcend our subconscious programming, though. When we find ourselves reacting to a student, we can pause to consider what we perceive or assume about the student’s cultural background. How might that be influencing our attitudes?

There’s not a quick recipe for intercultural fluency; it requires attention and self-awareness and a commitment to long-term work. But it’s work worth doing. If you’re interested in learning more, FSU’s Center for Global Engagement offers intercultural training and a Global Partner Certificate. Many of our colleagues at FSU, including Dr. Shengli Dong of the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems, are important contributors to expanding knowledge in the field. We can all work together to make our institution an incredible place to learn.

Thank you for all you.


Exam Design Workshop

Wednesday, November 13 | 10:00am-12:00 | DIF 432 | Sign up to attend

Test what you want to be testing. During this session, we’ll work on designing exams that are not only accurate measures of student learning in your course, but also learning opportunities themselves.