Cross Cultural Learning: Stereotypically Different?

A starting point

As a starting point, Cole and Scribner (1977) is a good read as it introduces main themes regarding differences in cross cultural learning. However, comparisons between contemporary cultures are now available and therefore papers discussing such comparisons are more relevant and perhaps more informative.

Learning methods and what is considered important in learning appear to vary across cultures. Cole and Scribner (1977) sought to examine this theory through their own research and that of others.

Their paper is a good lead into modern literature surrounding the subject, as it references primitive tribes and compares learning strategies with those employed by Westerners. They propose that further research should move attention away from primitive tribes and instead concentrate on differences in learning between contemporary cultures.

Cole and Scribner (1977) cite two main approaches regarding culture and memory within psychology. The Vygotsky-Leontiev Theory of memory development holds that primitive non-literate individuals remember primarily through unmediated natural processes; while modern literate individuals remember primarily through the use of writing systems and internalised memory aids. It therefore assumes that more culturally advanced people will have a better memory. Bartlett’s Social Schema Theory suggests a culturally dependent reconstruction of memory. He proposed that principles of recall are universal; and that only the specific social schemata and when they are brought into cultural studies of recall must carefully specify the way in which the materials and conditions of recall “fit” existing schemata. This theory assumes the idea of rote versus constructive recall as defining the cultural difference in learning.

Through detailed examination of the Liberian Kpelle tribe compared with American children, Cole and Scribner (1977) concluded that American word recall improves significantly with age; while Kpelles only improve slightly with age. Clusterable lists were learned more easily by all; but Kpelle children show no sign of actually clustering. Both groups show better recall for objects than words. Other Liberian tribes were found to display similar results; therefore Cole and Scribner (1977) concluded that results are not necessarily defined by unique cultural differences, but by factors common to non-educated traditional groups of individuals.

They suggested a potential combination of Flavell’s (1970) “production deficiency” and Bartlett’s theory that recall is guided by available organisational schemas that are culturally determined; as a proposal for explaining cultural difference in learning.

One limitation in the research available to Cole and Scribner (1977) was noted as possible confounding effects of laboratory studies which may require reconsideration of memory tasks

They also stated that cultures may differ in the extent to which they require deliberate memorisation of information, and in the situations where it is required.

Why are cultural differences in learning relevant in contemporary society?

Establishing explanations for and reasons behind cultural differences in learning is becoming more important as globalisation influences the dynamics within school classrooms. Diversity within cultures results in students with varying cultural backgrounds studying together. If major cultural differences do exist in relation to learning styles, this has implications for teaching methods and could lead to students with minority cultural backgrounds struggling in lessons which are not catering for their needs.

Brown et al. (2007) also refer to the importance of School Psychologists understanding fully the implications of cultural differences in learning. They claim that to gauge a full understanding of pupils’ academic performances, their culturally derived learning style must be taking into account.

Joy and Kolb (2009) suggest that cultural differences may be at their most pronounced in the first years of higher education. If learning styles are so different cross-culturally, schools must deal with any differences in learning early to prevent possible isolation and poor academic performance due to ineffective teaching styles.

Finally, cultural differences in learning styles can have implications for businesses and organisations as well as schools and universities. In management, multicultural teams are becoming more prevalent. For these teams to engage effectively, an understanding must be established with regards to different problem solving styles and learning methods. Understanding culturally variations and how individuals have been predisposed to certain approaches is crucial.

Recent papers comparing modern cultural differences

Kennedy (2002) reported that, stereotypically, most research pointed to the notion that Asian cultures typically use rote learning, memorisation and passivity as main learning methods. Tweed and Lehman (2002) stated that, in contrast, Western cultures were expected to apply a deeper level of learning through understanding and inquiry. Recent studies however have refuted these claims and it now appears that the learning differences between these cultures are less marked. Some research suggest that learning styles are more situationally dependent; with bicultural individuals having an ability to switch their learning frame depending on situational cues (Hong et al. 2000).

Other recent papers examining learning stereotypes.

Main References

Brown, M., Aoshima, M., Bolen, M., Chia, R. and Kohyama, T. (2007) “Cross-Cultural Learning Approaches in Students from the USA, Japan and Taiwan”. (2007) School Psychology International, 28, No. 5, 592-604

Cole, M., and Scribner, S. (1977). Cross-cultural studies of memory and cognition. In R. V, Kail & J. W. Hagen (Eds.), Perspectives on the development of memory and cognition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Greenholtz, J. (2003). Socratic teachers and Confucian learners: Examining the benefits and pitfalls of a year abroad. Language and Intercultural Communication, 3 (2), 122-130.

Kennedy, P. (2002) Learning cultures and learning styles: myth-understandings about adult Hong Kong–Chinese learners, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 21(5), 430–445.

Niles, F. S. (1995). Cultural differences in learning motivation and learning strategies: A comparison of overseas and Australian students at an Australian university. International Journal of Interculture Relations. 19(3): 369–385.

Purdie, N. and Hattie, J. (1996) Cultural differences in the use of strategies for self-regulated learning. American Educational Research Journal, 33: 845-871

Tweed, R. G., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Learning considered within a cultural context: Confucian and Socratic approaches. American Psychologist, 57, 89–99.