Honoring Students From Collectivist Cultures

Collectivist Societies Believe in Interdependence Over Independence Photo by Agung Pandit Wiguna on Pexels.com

The Microaggression

A former colleague of mine called me the other day to let me know how her supervisor had ridiculed her for still living with her parents in her late 20’s.  The supervisor talked about how when she had been younger, she couldn’t wait to become an adult and be able to leave her parents so that she could spend the night wherever she wanted.  This supervisor could not understand why this young girl in her 20’s hadn’t done the same and found her to be “weird.”  

This so-called supervisor, like many, fell into a trap we have discussed before in this blog of expecting similarities across cultures. LaRay M. Barna (1997), names assuming similarities in cultures as one of the six barriers to intercultural communication. While we are all human, we are not all the same.  We don’t all have the same values, the same habits, or the same traditions.  Unfortunately, this axiom seems to go against much of the anti-racism rhetoric of the past 40 years and therefore, in our eagerness to not discriminate, we tend to be blind to differences.  This blindness, in turn, actually leads us to commit microaggressions and to discriminate.  

In this story, the supervisor is from an individualistic society.  In individualistic societies, a goal of parenting is to lead children to become independent.  However, my former colleague is from a collectivist society, where the goal of parenting is to help children become interdependent members of their communities.  Therefore, in collectivist societies, children do not necessarily leave home when they graduate high school or get their first job.  Often, adult children wait until they marry to leave home.  Some don’t leave even after marriage.  Multigenerational families are far more common in collectivist societies than in individualistic societies.  

After stepping down from my initial indignation on my colleague’s behalf, I began to wonder if as Dual Language educators, we sufficiently consider the differences between collectivist and individualistic cultures and more importantly, how these differences affect our classrooms.  We should especially talk about this considering that while the dominant American culture is individualistic, most of our students who enter as native or bilingual speakers of the Language Other Than English (LOTE) are likely from collectivist societies.

Individualistic cultures are most prominently found in Western and Northern European cultures and in those cultures that have descended from these parts of Europe such as in the United States, Canada and Australia.  On the other hand, collectivist cultures are mostly found in Latin American countries, amongst the original peoples of the Americas, Eastern and Southern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.  In other words, the majority of the world is collectivist.  Here are a few major differences that we are likely to see in the classroom between the two cultures:

Independent Work in Collectivist Cultures

Individualistic cultures emphasize the self and thereby, individual achievements.  On the other hand, collectivist cultures emphasize community achievements.  Therefore, when students are assigned independent tasks, students from collectivist cultures who are high performing may feel an obligation to help those students who are struggling. And those who are struggling may expect students who understand the subject matter to teach them. 

Application: The fact that students want to help each other should be celebrated. Imagine a world where we all climb our own personal ladders while helping pull each other up. Besides, there’s no better way to achieve mastery in something than to teach it. So provide opportunities for students to work together and for stronger students to help struggling students.   Even ask students, “Could you please help (insert name of another student) out with adding fractions?” However, teach students how to help.  Explain to them that by giving answers, they are not actually helping.  They need to help their classmates learn the material. And let them know that during assessments, while they cannot work together, you will use the data to help you recognize whom you can help more.  

Parenting in Collectivist Cultures

Parenting may look different in collectivist cultures than in individualistic cultures.  For instance, because interdependence is valued in collectivist cultures, you may find parents carrying their children to class long past when you think it is appropriate, or helping their kids with their coats even when you feel that the kids can do it on their own. Parents may want to accompany their children during breakfast or spend lunches with them. You may find that parents from collectivist cultures may not give their children certain “privileges” expected in individualistic cultures such as the opportunity to have/earn money or go to different locations on their own.  For instance, kids from collectivist households may not receive allowances or money for `A’s.’  Teenagers from collectivist households may refuse money for babysitting because their intention is to help others in their community.  

In certain collectivist societies, because children’s achievements contribute to their community’s achievements, parents may have high expectations for their children and push their children harder than you think appropriate.  Therefore, a student may be disappointed in their own performance even if you are impressed. To those in individualistic societies, self-esteem is an important value and this disappointment with oneself may appear like low self-esteem when in reality, it is the knowledge that one can and should always strive to do better.

On the other hand, parents from other collectivist cultures may have a more hands off approach in schooling that appears to teachers from individualistic societies as a lack of concern for their children.  Instead, this hands-off approach represents the hierarchical structures of many collectivist societies that depend on income, position, and age.  Due to these structures, parents who believe in “community” trust the teacher to get the work done.  Therefore, while parents want to help advance their children’s education, they do not see their place in the school environment.

Application:

When family values differ from your own such as when elementary students are carried by their parents for longer than you think appropriate or when high school students tell you that they hand any money they earn over to their parents, refrain from judging or at the least from voicing your opinion and/or demonstrating your judgement through your facial expressions and body language.  The same goes for when parents and children have higher or more stringent expectations than you would for your own kids.  The research demonstrates that this difference in parenting is equally valid and that this type of parenting is equally successful in raising healthy, productive citizens.  

To get parents from collectivist societies more involved, offer opportunities that are more tailored to their strengths, interests, and culture.  Create a community where parents can interact with one another in their home language.  Invite parents to share their culture with the students.  Create opportunities for students to interview their family members and learn about their parents’ experiences.  Have activities in the home languages of your students.  Have parents tell you how they would like to be involved.  Let them run workshops whether they be in cooking or culturally appropriate parenting.  The more inviting your classroom and school are, the more likely you are to have parents involved in your school community.

Self Advocacy Among Collectivist Students

In individualistic societies, students are encouraged to talk about their opinions and tell the teacher what they need.  However, in collectivist societies, social hierarchies are valued and honored.  Children from collectivist societies are taught to respect adults and not express their opinions.  They may, therefore, feel uncomfortable when asked to express themselves to adults.

Application:

Work on building community in your classroom so that students will express themselves to each other.  In that process, you are more likely to learn what your students need.  Also, building relationships with parents may help you learn what your students are experiencing and need.  Whatever you do, do not get upset with students when they have trouble telling you what they are thinking.  They are following their cultural norms.

Continuum Between Individualistic and Collectivist Cultures

To be sure, everyone is on a continuum between the two dimensions, and two people from the same overarching cultures may not have the exact same values.  However, overall, collectivist communities have overarchingly different value systems than individualistic communities.  The more we work on learning from each other and about each other and unlike the supervisor mentioned earlier in this post, work on respecting those differences, the better we will serve our students and our community. And of course, unlike the supervisor in question, no matter what, we should never ridicule anyone for being different.

What are some other differences that you know of between individualistic and collectivist cultures?  Let me know in the comments.

2 comments

  1. Considering that most societies around the world are collectivist, yet the dominant culture in the U.S. is individualistic, being aware of these differences in how people see themselves relative to others in the community really ought to be required for teachers. Think of how many opportunities for judgement, misunderstanding or tension can come up in a classroom or between teachers and caregivers simply because of this difference in culture?

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