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Nurturing Culturally Aware Teaching

Written by: Sarah Hodge
Published on: Mar 11, 2024

Culturally Aware Teaching
Photo Credit: wavebreak3 -

As English language instructors, we are entrusted with creating a safe environment for our students to acquire English. For both students and instructors, the English language classroom may be their first exposure to students from a wide range of cultures, languages, and religions (at my institute, we have students from more than 100 countries). Your students may be refugees or asylum seekers and may be dealing not just with culture shock and a new language, but also trauma, which means the creation of a positive, safe learning environment is critically important.

Cross-cultural differences in the classroom can manifest in a variety of ways:

  • Student attitudes toward time, deadlines, rules, authority, conflict resolution, etc.
  • How students view and receive feedback and/or praise
  • Academic integrity/student perceptions of academic dishonesty
  • Preference for individual work instead of pair work/groupwork

A culturally affirming attitude toward students from diverse backgrounds can significantly impact learning. In recent decades, asset-based pedagogies have emerged that incorporate students’ cultural identities and experiences into the classroom as tools for effective instruction. The terms for these approaches to teaching vary, including culturally responsive teaching and culturally sustaining pedagogy. Culturally responsive teaching means using students’ customs, characteristics, experiences, and perspectives as tools to enhance classroom instruction.

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory

From 1967-1973, Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede undertook a pioneering study of culture across 50 countries and three regions. Based on these findings, Hofstede identified six key dimensions:

  1. Power distance
  2. Uncertainty avoidance
  3. Individualism
  4. Masculinity
  5. Long-term orientation
  6. Indulgence

Hofstede’s work still resonates today in the English language classroom because it helps us understand why students from certain cultures may be more or less competitive, focused on group success versus individual success, more or less risk-averse, focused on the present instead of the future, or have a greater (or lesser) tolerance for ambiguity. The six cultural dimensions also give insight into why students from certain regions thrive on structured classrooms with clear objectives and precise timelines, while others prefer open-ended assignments with room for innovation. According to Hofstede’s 1986 article, “Together with a foreign language, the teacher acquires a basis of sensitivity for the student’s culture,” and it can be implied that the opposite is also true. The following links are helpful for understanding the cultural dimensions:

Seven Cross-Cultural Attitude Strategies

Developing cultural awareness often requires us to get out of our comfort zones.

Darla K. Deardorff, executive director for the Association of International Education Administrators, identified the most common definition of intercultural competence as “the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural situations based on one’s intercultural knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” Windon and Lamo adopted Deardorff’s cross-cultural attitude strategies to develop and enhance effective communication in intercultural situations:

  • Practice openness by demonstrating acceptance of difference.
  • Be flexible by demonstrating acceptance of ambiguity.
  • Demonstrate humility through suspension of judgment and the ability to learn.
  • Be sensitive to others by appreciating cultural differences.
  • Show a spirit of adventure by showing curiosity and seeing opportunities in different situations.
  • Use a sense of humor through the ability to laugh at ourselves.
  • Practice positive change or action by demonstrating a successful interaction with the identified culture.

These strategies are beneficial for not only instructors but also students in order to foster a culturally inclusive classroom.

Resources for Preservice Training

Multiple research studies have looked at whether preservice teachers are adequately prepared to teach in multicultural classrooms. TESOL has identified a desire for more studies in the areas of intercultural awareness and cross-cultural understanding in the classroom, including further research to understand what might be missing from teacher education programs. One tool that has been used with preservice teachers is the Cultural Intelligence Scale (CQS), developed by Ang and Van Dyne. The CQS aims to measure cultural intelligence conceptualized through 4 dimensions: metacognition, cognition, motivation, and behavior. Here are a few other resources:

Further Reading
Ang, S., & Van Dyne, L. (2015). Handbook of cultural intelligence. Routledge.

Chahar Mahali, S., & Sevigny, P. R. (2022). Multicultural classrooms: Culturally responsive teaching self-efficacy among a sample of Canadian preservice teachers. Education and Urban Society, 54(8), 946–968.

Deardorff, D. K. (2006). Identification and assessment of intercultural competence as a student outcome of internationalization. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10, 241–266.

Hofstede, G. (1986) Cultural differences in teaching and learning. International Journal of Intercultural relations 10, 301–320.

Knott, D. (2019). The inclusion of culture in TESOL lessons: Three case studies on teacher cognitions and context. International Journal of English Language Teaching, 7, 41–55.

Mohamed, N. (2021, May 26). Understanding culturally sustaining pedagogy. TESOL Blog.

Risse, M. (2011). Understanding the impact of culture on the TESOL classroom: An outsider’s perspective. TESOL Arabia’s Perspective, 18, 15–19.

This article first appeared on the TESOL Blog. Reprinted with permission.