“Communication does not take place in a vacuum.  All communication takes place in a social setting or environment.  We call this the context because the setting is never neutral; it always has some impact on how the participants behave.  The classroom environment is one of these settings that specifically influences intercultural interaction.  The rules, assumptions, values, customs, practices, and procedures of a given culture strongly affect the conduct of classroom activity.”
Larry Samovar & Richard Porter --  Intercultural Communications: A Reader


Effective Teaching In A Cross-Cultural Setting

     Every teacher has his or her own style of teaching, there are different national and cultural academic traditions, and there are often cultural differences in pedagogy.  But regardless of styles, traditions and cultures, all good teaching anywhere in the world consists of one thing – making connections.

     Cognitive neuroscience, educational psychology and our years of practical teaching experience all tell us that good teaching consists of bringing about knowledge and skills in students by making connections between the new things that we are trying to teach them and their existing information base and repertoire of skills.  In a Piagetian perspective students build and expand upon schemas through accomodation and assimilation.  And, from a Vygotskian point of view, students advance fully into their zone of proximal development through the assistance of parents, teachers and peers.


The Need For Cognitive, Motivational & Behavioral Supports

     Effective teaching requires the use of cognitive, motivational and behavioral supports.  And where the language of instruction is the students’ second language, good teaching also requires considerable linguistic supports as well.  Teachers must utilize and build these supports into their courses, methods of classroom instruction and overall interaction with students.

     For example, linguistic supports consist of an adjustment of the teacher’s language which includes slowing down the pace at which you explain material, simplifying your English a little and keeping away from slang, jargon and idiomatic expressions, and in general controlling your vocabulary and keeping to familiar words which you’ve already defined.   It is also helpful to either preview key vocabulary before a lecture or unit or else to stop and define words as you go along.  When you are lecturing or explaining it is a good practice to constantly repeat, sum things up and then repeat them again.  And lastly it is important to ensure that the volume of your voice is loud enough for students to hear.

     Cognitive supports consist of providing the students with adequate cognitive frameworks upon which the new information and skills can be attached in their minds.  This includes the use of advance organizers such as outlines, models, concept maps and other graphic organizers whether they are in the form of handouts, overhead transparencies or just writing and drawing on the board.   It also includes making things more concrete in the beginning and then moving toward the abstract and this is greatly facilitated by using more audiovisual elements for teaching.  Movies, slides, textbook illustrations and photographs and CD-ROMs are very effective.  In general, it is important to be sensitive to student cognitive processes.  We must know our students’ fields of experience, locate their experiences relevant to what we’re teaching and then make the necessary connections through our teaching.   From a strictly verbal perspective, there is nothing more important for effective teaching than a good example or good story that illustrates what it is we are trying to get our students to understand or serves as a heuristic that furthers their understanding.  A picture is worth a thousand words and a good story can paint a picture in the minds of your students.   You must be tuned into the lives of your students in order to know which examples and stories will be most effective.  Some stories are quite universal and can be understood by students worldwide no matter what culture they are from, but other stories may need more cultural backgrounding for them to be effective.

     Motivational supports are also important.  We must build student success and self-esteem into our course structures and classroom methods.  We need to be interesting and instill excitement about what we’re teaching.  We need to be relevant and connect to the reality of student lives and experiences.  We need to demonstrate a purpose to learn besides just passing the course because it is a requirement.  And lastly we need to show students a little fun and enjoyment.

     And then there are behavioral supports.  We must structure our courses and classroom methods to provide maximum shaping and patterning of the requisite behaviors such as reading, writing, note-taking, studying, test-taking, asking questions, discussion and debate, and getting to class on time or getting to class at all.  With regard to behavior modification, positive reinforcements (rewards) and negative reinforcements (removal of unpleasant stimuli) work better than punishments (giving unpleasantness).

     In short, we don’t push students to learn but instead try to pull them into and support them within their learning zone of proximal development.   Students will rise to our expectations if we provide them with a ladder to climb on.   That ladder, or scaffold, consists of all the things we say and do in order to help students learn.

Neural Networks And External Information Storage

     Our knowledge and skills reside in neural networks in our brains that are both physical and informational in nature.  As we teach and successfully make connections in our students’ minds we actually facilitate the growth of axons and dendrites that make connections between neurons to form neural networks.  These neural networks form the foundation of our memory, our knowledge and our thinking and motor skills.   It’s pretty exciting to think that as we teach in the classroom and the light bulb of understanding goes on in our students’ minds that we are actually altering their brains neurologically! 

     Our knowledge and skills also reside in external social networks encompassing all humans in our own society and other societies around the world and throughout human history, and all forms of external memory devices like books, paintings, sculpture,  photographs, films, CD-ROMS, floppy disks and computer hard-drives.  This is the notion of distributed intelligence.


Reaching Students

     For teachers who are teaching in a culture other than their own, reaching students can at first be difficult because they lack an understanding of their student’s culture and hence a large part of their students’ lives.  While most teachers learn quickly about their students, some others do not and for them this lack of cultural understanding can lead to frustration, negative stereotyping, anger and ultimately failure as a teacher.  And this in turn can have psychological effects such as low self-esteem and motivation for the students being taught by a foreign teacher. 


The Cross-Cultural Approach

   The cross-cultural approach to communicating can work for people on both sides of an international fence.   Methods of intercultural communication and interaction can assist people from individualistic and nuclear-family oriented Western cultures coming into collectivistic extended-family oriented cultures, as in the case of Americans, Australians or Europeans teaching in the Pacific.   These methods can also assist people from collectivist cultures coming into individualist cultures, as in the case of Pacific Island students going to Australia, New Zealand or the United States to attend college.   They are also of benefit to Pacific island students who encounter foreigners as instructors in their home country, as in the case of students at the College of Micronesia-FSM.   And, in general, better cross-cultural understanding and communication skills by everyone involved in cross-cultural interactions contributes to happier and more productive people. 

     The work of the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall was pivotal in the development of cross-cultural communication studies in the United States.   Hall’s research into cultural differences in verbal and non-verbal communications and conceptions of time and space was utilized by the U.S. Department of State through its Foreign Service Institute to assist in the training of American foreign service diplomats who would be stationed overseas.  Two of Hall’s books, The Silent Language (1959) and The Hidden Dimension (1966) are still widely read and relevant today in the field of cross-cultural communications.  Hall’s work demonstrated the value of applying anthropological concepts to the practical task of training people to work in other cultures.  As Hall stated in a landmark 1955 article in Scientific American on the “anthropology of manners”:

“The role of the anthropologist in preparing people for service overseas is to open their eyes and sensitize them to subtle qualities of behavior – tone of voice, gestures, space and time relationships – that so often build up feelings of frustration and hostility in other people with a different culture.  Whether we are going to live in a particular foreign country or travel in many, we need a frame of reference that will enable us to observe and learn the significance of differences in manners.” 

     The field of cross-cultural communications is a hybrid offspring of the social and behavioral sciences, particularly social-psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology.  It shares the strengths of the scientifically developed concepts, knowledge, analytical procedures and data that have been well tested.   It also shares some of the weaknesses.  The social and behavioral sciences, while able to explain and predict a lot about humans, are also sometimes limited and inexact. The inexact nature of the social and behavioral sciences is due to the complexity of human individual and collective thoughts, emotions and behaviors.  When discussing and analyzing a culture we out of necessity deal in generalizations stereotypes.  But they are generalizations and stereotypes that have been proven to be statistically valid when applied to large populations of people over time, but to which nonetheless there are always exceptions and variations in individual and collective behavior.

      The same thing applies to our classes of students.  We can successfully generalize and predict certain student thought, emotion and behavior patterns but there will always be exceptions to any rules we might formulate.  There are always a complexity of variables at work such as student and instructor age, gender, race and ethnic group, culture, first language, second language, appearance, personality, the semester and time of the year, the subject matter, the size, lighting and ventilation of the classroom, the time of day, the weather and many other tangible and intangible factors.  What might work for an instructor one semester with one mix of students may not work as well with the next, hence the need to remain empirical, experimental, flexible and responsive.

      Some people are skeptical of the value of improved intercultural communications.  For example, there was a rather ethnocentric person who worked in Micronesia for several years as a journalist and was continually frustrated due to her lack of cross-cultural understanding.  She could never “figure out the locals” because she never made an effort to understand and respect their culture.  Her cultural values and ways were right and theirs were wrong.   Before finally leaving the region she suggested that Micronesian cultures should be “codified” and written in a book so that her and other expatriates could understand the rules of behavior better.   Cultures cannot be “codified” but they can be explained in both general and specific terms that apply most of the time to a wide range of the population in question.  We don’t usually talk about “our culture” per se or make reference to it in our everyday lives, except perhaps when we are making explicit comparisons between our own and another culture while discussing culture as part of an academic exercise.  Our culture goes unspoken of because its influence on us is largely at the unconscious level.    Culture consists of well-established cognitive networks that frame and guide our thoughts, emotions and behaviors without us much noticing the process very much.   Culture is also dynamic, with some parts changing and other parts remaining the same depending on a host of variables.   Cultures also have room for individual variation, with everyone in a culture not necessarily being the same.   Cultures are not written into codes, but culturally prescribed values and norms are always embedded in our social institutions and unwritten rules of discourse and interaction that we learn through the socialization and internalization processes.  Learning another culture is a fairly straightforward proposition.  The right attitude, a few communication concepts and some time spent as a participant observer is all it really takes. 

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