Cultural Differences in the Classroom
I do not want my house to be walled in on sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the
cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.
The integrated ESL classroom is a place of both cultural and societal diversity. Students
enter with expectations about what the environment will be like, how teachers will act,
and what will happen. Many (if not most) of these expectations are born out of previous
educational experiences in students’ native culture. Likewise, teachers enter the
classroom with expectations—how the students will act, what the nature of the various
classroom interactions will be, and what his or her responsibilities are (and are not).
These assumptions are also formed on the basis of culture, the culture of the instructor.
Not surprisingly, expectations of non-native students and their native instructors are often
quite different. Module 6 explores the potential pitfalls of differing cultural expectations
in the classroom.
Instructor and Student Roles
Module 4 presented Krashen’s idea of the affective filter: in order to receive input and
learn, students must be in a comfortable environment. Much student discomfort is caused
by cultural expectations about the roles teachers and students play in the classroom. In
many cultures, teachers carry tremendous authority and classrooms are entirely teacher-
centered. It is inappropriate for students to question the teacher. The role of the student
is to write down the information given by the teacher and memorize it. The role of the
instructor is to critique the work of the students. In some settings, students are shamed
and criticized for errors. Instructors keep a professional distance.
Students from this type of educational background may feel uncomfortable when an
instructor uses a more informal style—soliciting student opinions, calling students by
first names (or asking that students address the instructor by first name), turning over
classroom work to groups and partners instead of lecturing, or encouraging students to
talk about personal issues. Students may doubt the credibility or ability of such an
instructor because of apparent lack of authority. Even an instructor’s casual clothing can
be a distraction for students who come from a background of traditional education.
Similarly, instructors can feel frustrated with students who don’t embody certain
American values, such as promptness, self-reliance, individualism, advancement, or
candor. They may view these students as lazy, unappreciative, dishonest, or subversive.
They may feel that when in the U.S., the students should “do as the Romans do.” While
it is a worthy goal to help students function in the new cultural structure, it’s important to
recognize underlying cultural factors that can explain otherwise perplexing behavior.
Another cultural difference to navigate is that of classroom conduct. Students may come
to class with a completely different idea of what is acceptable, based on their cultural
experience. Consider the following areas where cultural differences become apparent:
In one integrated classroom, two students continually provided help and answers to
another student during test-taking. No matter how many times the instructor warned
them, the students continued the behavior. They were not typical trouble-makers, had a
good relationship with the teacher, and were model students in every other way. To the
instructor, it should have been obvious that students don’t help one another during an
exam. To the students, however, helping others who have difficulty and working
together are important values. When someone is struggling, it is the responsibility of the
community to assist him. In other cases, students may feel justified in cheating because
the necessity to ‘save face’ is more important than honesty or independent achievement.
The difference between these underlying values can create a conflict between teachers
Lateness and Absenteeism
Promptness is an important American value. In the U.S., arriving on time is a sign of a
respectful and responsible person. Other cultures, however, may not place the same
emphasis on time awareness. An instructor may feel that students who consistently come
late are irresponsible and disrespectful, while the students may not understand why a ten-
minute delay is important.
Some cultures have firmly drawn gender lines. Consider the following true gender
conflicts; they are drawn from actual multi-cultural classrooms:
husbands and wives did not want to be separated for partner work
a male student grew angry when corrected by a female teacher
a female instructor felt threatened by a male student’s culturally acceptable
a husband prohibited his wife from attending class when she became more
proficient in the language than he was
communication was more free when same-gender students were partnered
female students expressed angst over being in class instead of home with their
children, although they were trying to make a better life for their families
In a multi-cultural classroom, not only do the students have cultural differences from the
instructor, they have different cultural expectations from each other. In one class, for
example, a student grew increasingly angry and eventually lashed out at other students
for talking in class. In her culture, students never talked when the teacher was talking;
they were expected to remain silent. The situation caused harsh feelings; one group felt
the other was inappropriate and disrespectful, and the other group couldn’t understand
why some of the students were so “intense.”
In another example, a student refused to work with a classmate because of political
problems between their two countries. At first, it was very difficult for the instructor to
understand why the atmosphere in the classroom was so tense. The instructor valued and
promoted group interaction and assigned students to groups at random, unaware of
underlying cultural issues.
In a third situation, students grew annoyed with a classmate who continually told jokes
about a particular ethnic group. When the instructor tried to resolve the situation, the
joke-teller was completely caught off-guard. He had never considered why such jokes
might be offensive. The instructor was able to turn the situation into a lively discussion
in which everyone had a voice.
The Importance of Dialogue
These scenarios are not presented to imply that certain values are more desirable than
others, or to imply that teachers can resolve every cultural issue. The points are merely
offered to highlight the importance of 1) instructor awareness of cultural differences, 2)
student awareness of cultural influences, and 3) dialogue. Offer your students the chance
to discuss how classrooms and learning are different (or similar) in their home countries.
Without this dialogue, students may not know exactly why they feel uncomfortable in the
American classroom. If the cause is not identified, the student may simply leave the
program. If students are particularly inhibited, offer them the chance to reflect in writing
instead of in front of others.
Module 6 – Discussion Springboards and Plan of Implementation
Cultural Differences in the Classroom
Date of meeting: __________________________ Class Title: _________________________________
Instructor Name: __________________________ Instructor Name: _____________________________
Area of Instruction: _______________________ Area of Instruction: __________________________
Use the section below as a discussion guide. Use the back of the form to take notes on your partner’s
1. Talk about any cultural discomfort you have observed in the students, relating to
either instructor or student roles in the classroom.
2. Have you felt frustration at student behavior that may have cultural origins? Explain.
3. Discuss any cultural gender issues you have observed in the classroom.
4. Has lateness or absenteeism been a problem? If so, has the situation improved or
stayed the same during the course of the term?
5. Have you observed any cultural conflicts between students?
Plan of Implementation
With your co-instructor, form a plan to implement one or more of the following ideas during your class
sessions this week.
1. Plan an activity that allows students to reflect on and discuss cultural differences in
relation to the classroom or work environment.
2. Identify any cultural classroom behavior that you feel needs to be changed in order for
students to succeed in the host culture. How will you address this issue with students in a
3. Plan an activity that addresses differences in gender roles between students’ native
cultures and the host culture.
Module 6 – Reflection Summary
Cultural Differences in the Classroom
Instructor Name ________________________________ Class Title __________________________
Content Area ________________________________
Please complete and submit this form to the program coordinator. Your reflections can be discussed with
your co-instructor at your next meeting.
1. Describe any situations that arose this week in relation to cultural differences in the
2. How did you address these issues?
3. Describe any dialogue that occurred this week regarding cultural differences.
4. Did you identify any classroom behavior that needed to be addressed? Describe the
process and outcome.
5. Were gender roles addressed this week? Describe the process and outcome.
6. Additional comments: