Open to Interpretation

Open to Interpretation | Human Resource Executive Online For families on an international relocation assignment, cultural differences will be prevalent in many aspects of life. One that can be particularly shocking to parents is the educational style in their child's new classroom. The executive director of The Interchange Institute discusses education and just how different it can be in different cultures.

Sunday, February 1, 2009
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You walk into your child's classroom, you see what you see and hear what you hear, and you know what it means. Right?

Not right, actually. Not if you are from one country and the classroom is in another. Cultural differences in educational values, communication style preferences and child-rearing goals pervade virtually every thing that happens in a classroom. Expatriate parents are therefore often surprised -- even dismayed -- at what they see, because they are interpreting the scene within their own set of expectations. If they learn a bit about what the teacher has in mind and the cultural context of her/his choices, they may have a much different -- and more accepting -- reaction.

As an example, consider one simple hour -- the American "Open House" or "Back to School" event that most schools in the U.S. hold in the fall, when parents visit their children's classrooms to meet the teacher.

In 60 short minutes, teachers -- and I'm talking about the very best ones here -- can flummox parents from other countries into a high state of concern if they don't understand what they're seeing. Here are some examples of what happens that night:

The teacher does this: circulates the schedule for parent-teacher conferences and invites parents to volunteer their special skills with the class.

The teacher intends: to welcome parental involvement, a mainstay of good education in the US; she wants to work as a partner with parents and use their skills to enhance the classroom experience in creative ways.

But some international newcomers think: education should be left to the experts. (One mother said to me, "In my country, we leave the teaching to the teachers, just as we leave surgery to a surgeon. We don't expect to be invited into the operating room and we don't expect to be invited into the classroom.")

In a recent worldwide survey of school principals, 90% of American principals said they expected parents to volunteer for school projects and trips, compared to 44% in Belgium, 49% in South Korea, 29% in The Netherlands.

The teacher does this: tells a cute story about a boy in her class who corrected her description of something they were studying.

The teacher intends: to communicate to the parents that she encourages independent thinking in her students.

But some international newcomers think: the teacher was risking losing the students' respect; with so much to learn, they think, it is best for the teacher to do the explaining, describing, lecturing.

The same worldwide researchers asked eighth grade students how much they agreed with this statement: "In my mathematics class students do exactly as the teacher says." In the US, 48.8% agreed or strongly agreed with that statement. Compare this with 73.8% in Taiwan, 79.8% in England, 69% in Japan, and 85.1% in Jordan.

While this might reflect a difference in teachers' abilities to maintain discipline, I think instead that it reflects a difference in teachers' willingness to allow -- even encourage -- challenge and interruption.

The teacher does this: says that children will be expected to read books of their own choosing, both in school and at home. 

The teacher intends: to encourage student-driven learning (which presumably will be more meaningful to the children) and expand the range of information present in class discussions.

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But some international newcomers think: it would be better for teachers, as experts, to select the best works to be read. When researchers asked fourth graders how often they read a book during school hours that they had chosen by themselves, 71.9% of American children said they did this every day or almost every day.

Compare this with Argentina (58.2%), Czech Republic (35.7%), France (52.7%), Germany (50.5%), Israel (63%), The Netherlands (53.3%), Russia (53.3%), and Sweden (61.8%).

The teacher does this: hands each parent a folder filled with his/her child's recent essays, emblazoned with stickers and "Great Job!" written at the top.

The teacher intends: to encourage children to feel like competent learners, and to solidify their base of self-esteem so they will grow into adults who love writing.

But some international newcomers think: the teacher seems to be rewarding mediocrity; truly, some of the essays in the folders are not "great" -- not outstanding, not perfect. They worry that if all students are told they are "great," the potentially motivating element of competition will be missing.

With some cultural information and interpretation, the parents whose reactions I mention above soon appreciated what the US educational experience offered (even if they sometimes continued to be concerned about the child's ability to return to their home educational systems). They loved joining their children's class, they became regular parent volunteers, they understood the benefits of emphasizing each child's individual progress.

A Swedish parent walking into a classroom in Sussex, a Jordanian one walking into a class in Tokyo, an Australian walking into one in Paris will all have different reactions and concerns, paralleling these described above. Providing them with cultural information and interpretation can go a long way toward helping their children master their new educational system.

Anne P. Copeland is executive director of The Interchange Institute, a not-for-profit research organization dedicated to promoting dialogue and facilitating understanding between people who move to a new country and new community.

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