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Teaching Students Cultural Nuances in School

by Eddie Rayner

By Antony Koshy,
Principal, Global Indian International School, Dubai

It has become vital to sensitise children to be inclusive, open-minded global citizens, and that needs to start when a young mind is learning to shape itself eagerly – at school. Picture this: your child returns home from school, and what started with discussions on how the day went quickly escalates to a point where the focus of the conversation are two new students. It has only been a week since they joined the class, and your child finds them rather amusing – where one appears to be shy and reticent, the other seems to be uninhibited and is the class clown already. These are two charming children standing on either end of the spectrum. Well, commonly, such behaviours would be attributed to nature

But is that true? Could it not be that their cultural and societal differences have had a massive role in shaping their present identities?

When Cultures Clash in a Classroom

Let’s try to explain diversity in an appropriate way first. The visible elements are, of course, language, colour, race, religion, art, architecture, social etiquette, and more. However, these obvious differences are only the tip of the iceberg. It’s the values and belief systems – the hidden elements – that truly shape our cultural identities and may lead to conflicts in a classroom. 

Keeping that in mind, let’s capture a broader aspect of cultural values with the help of two examples.

  • Tamanna is a fifth-grader who is not as interactive as the others with her teachers. Tamanna’s lack of interaction may be perceived as incompetence, shyness, or timidity. However, the reality is that Tamanna belongs to a family where formality with elders is held on a pedestal. As a result, she may not even know that friendly conversations with teachers are not only acceptable but even necessary for academic growth.
  • Kanika is a sharp and nimble-witted middle-schooler who always seems to interrupt the teacher in class to ask doubts, conduct debates, present her ideas, etc. Plus, she does all this without first raising her hand. Kanika’s enthusiasm and interactivity may be taken as arrogance, vanity, even disrespect. However, the reality here is that Kanika was born and brought up in a more informal culture that encourages friend-like conversations with the elders.

Hence, appearances can often be deceiving. All the children mentioned above are subconsciously acting upon the cultural beliefs and values etched in their hearts.

How Teachers can Prevent the Classroom Culture from Clashing

Now that we know how cultural differences play out in the classroom and lead to unfair assumptions, we can affirm that such problems can only be resolved by fostering a culturally sensitive environment. For instance, punishing a child for not interacting much in class may lead them down a destructive path of self-doubt and loss of identity. 

What’s worse, it may even encourage students to ridicule and judge each other simply for being different. The thing to understand about cultural clashes, both for teachers and students, is that the problem goes deeper than what’s right or wrong. Though the values are ingrained within the child, the differences they give birth to are trivial. Punishing, mocking, or disrespecting apparent differences in the classroom are not the right way to teach cultural nuances. The only way to establish harmony, cooperation, and a love for diversity is through sympathy and sensitivity.

Global Indian International School is committed to making every student feel equally comfortable in the class

And it all starts with the captain of the ship – teachers! They are responsible for safely guiding students across the unknown, tempestuous waters of cultural differences. Being educated on the subject is crucial – The best teachers know more about student psychology and cultural diversity than the subject they teach. Recognising and making space for cultural differences will create a safe environment for all students to learn and grow—interactive sessions on cultural background help. Teachers can have short sessions every day to encourage each student to research and speak about their family, culture, and society to stir up curiosity, among others. Such sessions also challenge existing notions and help rethink cultural assumptions while allowing students to feel heard and valued for their differences.

Shifting from an instructor to a facilitator is a win-win for all. In a culturally diverse classroom, a teacher needs to become a facilitator of cultural goodwill. To encourage students, whether shy, ambitious, or spirited, to share what they find interesting, partake in classroom discussions, suggest ways to make the session more engaging, and more. Global Indian International School is committed to making every student feel equally comfortable in the class – personalised attention, assessment, and nurturing is an integral part of imparting education. Teachers and educators need to be made aware of how vital maintaining high sensitivity to language concerns is. It’s incredible how language and culture are intrinsically connected. 

So, when teachers encourage students to learn different languages, they are naturally opening paths for them to comprehend cultures in a more profound and meaningful way.As a result, students will possess something more than cultural awareness. They will have cultural sensitivity!

It’s the values and belief systems – the hidden elements – that truly shape our cultural identities and may lead to conflicts in a classroom

Antony Koshy, Principal, Global Indian International School, Dubai

Dangers of Stereotyping

It’s also very essential to understand that no cultural group is homogenous. The world today is a global village, and children are exposed to overwhelming volumes of information. Their beliefs are not restricted to what they’ve been taught via the three primary means of cultural identity: society, family, and peers. A girl child from an egalitarian gender society may seemingly have an overnight change of views regarding gender inequality simply by watching podcasts on feminism. 

Cultural beliefs and values are transmissible from one corner of the world to the other without the need to step foot outside. 

Thus, the only logical conclusion is to teach children that it all boils down to the individual; that mutual respect, cooperation, and sympathy are the foundation on which a strong culture or community stands.

As social beings, our best chance at acing the school of life is to have a culturally aware and sensitive attitude towards others. And what better way to solidify necessary skills such as these than during the prime learning years. Water the seeds of cultural sensitivity in your child today!