My first foray into a universal classroom was a dramatic illustration of the idiom, “silent as the grave.”
I had volunteered in a university in a central Asian country for two weeks to improve my teaching skills and to seek vocational direction with some teaching practice. Tasked with guest-lecturing on American history to English language learners in the school’s equivalent of an honors program, I began planning rigorous, intellectually stimulating content for the class. I perceived that advanced students would need advanced content to be satisfied with their guest lecture.
The day of the first lecture arrived. I arranged stacks of handouts and books on a table in front of a class of 30 students. But immediately upon beginning my lecture, the students seemed to disengage, and no one was taking notes. The charts, maps and slides of data I had compiled on pre-Revolutionary America somehow failed to kindle the interest I felt, but failed to impart, to the students. We encountered stormy weather somewhere over the Atlantic, stumbled off the Mayflower, and fell asleep somewhere between Bacon’s Rebellion and the Great Awakening.
My lesson plans disrupted, I showed a video in the next class. I had learned an important truth: that students who are bored with a class won’t say so. This is especially true when students are presented with a supposed “guest lecturer” who has the authority (real or imagined) to present knowledge, which students are expected to absorb. Students from Individualist cultures may be more willing to address the instructor about perceived or real flaws in a class. But in Collectivist cultures, this may not be acceptable. This also accords with Hofstede’s study of Power Distance.
Several other interventions could have salvaged the class. To understand these, I’m going to look at Hofstede’s cultural dimension of Individualism versus Collectivism.
Individualism and Collectivism impact the classroom in many subtle but significant ways.
This construct measures the extent to which a society expects its members to be independent rather than interdependent.
For example, Individualists think of themselves as a discrete “I” whereas Collectivists may envision themselves as a “we.”
How does Individualism/Collectivism impact the classroom?
- Students from Collectivist cultures who study in online programs may self-organize into online support groups for support and collaboration according to Correia (2014).
- They also seek opportunities within the online community to access other students for cooperation on projects and to debrief or process content.
- Students in such a setting may benefit from specific interventions from the instructor or course designer, such as group projects in which there are clear group roles to alleviate confusion about each student’s responsibility.
- In my narrative, then, the best format may have been to call upon a spokesperson at the beginning of the class to share what the class knew about American history up to that point. Another option could be to break the students into small groups, each assigned with creating a question about American history to ask the instructor. These questions could then drive the discussion and debate for the class. This method requires one to improvise more, but can deliver more intellectually satisfying results for students.
 Correia, A.-P. (2014). Students’ online learning experiences in collectivist cultures. 37th Annual Proceedings of the American Educational Research Association, 2014, vol 1. https://members.aect.org/pdf/Proceedings/proceedings14/2014/14_08.pdf
 Correia, A.-P. (2014).
 Mukherjee, K and Hanh, K. Culturally sensitive learning design: Professional development for diversity and inclusion. 42nd Annual Proceedings of the American Educational Research Association, 2019, vol 2. https://members.aect.org/pdf/Proceedings/proceedings19/2019i/19_15.pdf