Cultural Values & Their Impact on Education Research Paper Starter

Cultural Values & Their Impact on Education

This article discusses the impact of cultural values on the education of students. Cultural values drive a society's performance and actions. They are the beliefs, practices, symbols, specific norms, and personal values that individuals in a society share. Ways in which educators can address the impact of cultural values on education are examined with Hofstede's cultural dimensions, and culturally relevant teaching strategies are discussed.

Keywords: Cultural Competence; Culture; Cultural Mismatch; Culturally Relevant Teaching; Cultural Values; Diversity; In-group; Out-group; Value-based Education


The guidelines that describe how we as people should behave and how organizations should perform are referred to as values. Our values tell us what is good and what is bad and provide daily instruction about how we should function (Sagiv & Schwartz, 2000, 2007; Schwartz, 1999, 2004, 2007). Values tell organizational leaders, policymakers, and individuals how to behave, as well as serve as guiding principles for life (Schwartz, 1999).

Since culture is the context in which we live and the manner in which we are socialized, the idea of cultural values refers to what drives our performance and our actions. Cultural values are the beliefs, practices, symbols, specific norms, and personal values that we share as a society. What one perceives is then shaped by his or her experiences and the cultural values to which his society adheres. In addition, the ways in which institutions are organized express their underlying cultural values (Sagiv & Schwartz, 2000, 2007; Schwartz, 1999, 2004, 2007, 2010; Curry, Meyer, & McKinney, 2006).

Take, for example, the U.S. legal system and the way it is designed to have the prosecution and defense lawyers challenge one another for a conviction or acquittal. Or the design of the family system in which the major emphasis placed on parents is to rear achievement-oriented children. These examples depict a cultural value emphasis on success, self-assertion, and drive. Socialist societies, however, are not as competitive and confrontational. In some countries, cultural value emphasis is more on cooperation, equality, and concern for others (Schwartz, 2010).

Psychologists, social scientists, and educators have paid more attention in recent years to the importance of cultural values and the influence they have on lifestyles and behaviors in various cultures. Each discipline has defined values based on its own perspective, and different methods have been used to measure and study cultural values specific to the culture's unique discipline. For example, government leaders might use their interpretation of cultural values to justify their decision to go to war. Company executives might use a cultural value emphasis to make hiring decisions (Carter, 1991). Nevertheless, the way in which various cultures interpret their cultural values is a choice they are entitled to make based on what they deem as important for their particular groups.

Further Insights

Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions

Dutch social psychologist and writer Geert Hofstede has examined cultural values across more than 50 countries and suggests that five dimensions of values form together to represent each culture. These dimensions of culture include:

  • Power distance,
  • Uncertainty avoidance,
  • Individualism vs. collectivism
  • Masculinity vs. femininity, and
  • Long term orientation.

As society continues to become more and more culturally diverse, classrooms are becoming more and more diverse with students from various backgrounds. Hofstede believes the five cultural dimensions can address these changes in society at large, but particularly in the classroom (Hofstede, 2001).

The first cultural dimension discussed by Hofstede (2001) is Power Distance. Power distance refers to "the extent to which [people] expect and accept that power is distributed unequally" (p. 98). In other words, people generally accept hierarchy as the appropriate way to govern society. So in the societies where this is the case for education, teachers receive the utmost respect and students and parents rarely question or disagree with teachers. Teachers learn to recognize however, when there is interference with learning based on student's cultural assumptions about power distance and what this means for them. It is then the teacher's responsibility to communicate his or her own expectations while being careful not to devalue the student's unique values, which may be different from that of the teacher.

The second dimension is Uncertainty Avoidance. Hofstede (2001) defines this dimension as: "the extent to which members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations" (p. 161). This dimension deals with the desire people have to consistently have clear rules of conduct in every situation. As for conduct in the classroom, children are expected to obey their teachers. As for the education system overall, obtaining and understanding the facts should be the primary concern. In cultures where uncertainty avoidance carries a low tolerance, education is understood as a voyage of discovery with the unknowns not necessarily looked upon as threatening.

A third dimension is Individualism vs. Collectivism. Hofstede (2001) suggests an understanding of collectivism can help address how classrooms are becoming more and more culturally diverse. Although the U.S. and Canada are among the most individualistic cultures in the world, in most other parts of the world, people value their group membership much more. In collectivist cultures, people identify themselves as part of a group such as a clan, caste or ethnic group. Some individuals place priority on their personal identity first, and belong to other groups by choice. From an educational standpoint, teachers in collectivist cultures address questions to the class as a whole, or in small groups of children rather than singling out individual students. The praises and rewards teachers give go to the group as a whole rather than an individual.

According to Hofstede (2001), the masculinity vs. femininity dimension is "a society in which gender roles are clearly distinct: men are supposed to be assertive, tough and focused on material success; women are supposed to be more modest, tender and concerned with the quality of life" (page 297). In the U.S.-Canada example, the U.S. tends to be more masculine in its cultural values. In the U.S. and other "masculine" societies, school failure equals disaster for a child. As for teachers in masculine societies, the best students are praised much more than any other students. On the other hand, school failure does not receive such great attention in more feminine societies, including Canada, and the weaker students are praised more by teachers to give them encouragement.

Lastly, the Long Term Orientation focuses on planning and saving for the future. Hofstede (2001) explains that this dimension suggests that cultures with a high Long Term Orientation are very frugal and encourage their children to work hard in school. The U.S. and Canada have low long term orientations but some African countries fall even lower on this dimension.

Ultimately, if teachers in multicultural classrooms understand the five cultural value dimensions and also understand what diverse students value the most, they may find new ways to look at their students, ultimately learn from them, and understand how to better serve them.

Overall Impact on Education

Because students come to school from many different cultural frames of reference (Crothers, 2008), learning in a majority classroom, with mainstream cultural values as an emphasis, can be difficult for minority students. Villegas (2001) explains that White children typically have an advantage in the classroom over minority children because the curriculum and classroom culture is typically designed to be an extension of their home and community culture. Minority students, however, face various disadvantages because they are presented with classroom values different from what they've experienced in their homes.

Cultural Mismatch

Hollins and Oliver (1999) call this phenomenon a cultural mismatch. A cultural mismatch occurs when the culture of the learning environment is different from that of the home culture of the child, and learning is adversely affected. Academic achievement for the out-group (minority students) is compromised by the relationship between the home and school culture. For the in-group, in this case the White students, academic achievement flourishes. Cummins and Entwistle (2005) explain that this situation is even more prevalent for adolescent minority students. Studies find that by age eight, enthusiasm for learning and self confidence in the ability to learn could be significantly negatively affected due to the cultural mismatch between their school and home cultural...

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