Cultural awareness

The higher education community is multicultural by its very nature: the Finnish population is culturally and ethnically diverse. This diversity of cultures is also further enriched by exchange students and immigrants. Some degree programmes or study units have been designed to be conducted in languages other than Finnish, which enables smoother participation for students who do not speak Finnish. Furthermore, even in Finnish-language education, it is essential to consider students’ diverse cultures and linguistic abilities. 

What is meant when we talk about cultural awareness?

To begin with, it is important to understand the concept of culture. In many definitions, collectivity is an essential feature of culture. At the core of culture is always a shared way of understanding and interpreting the world – the culture connects a group of people and at the same time distinguishes the group members from other groups. Cultures change and mix but are also preserved from one generation to another because people have the skill to communicate and transfer accumulating information from one generation to another.

One’s own culture is invisible if one is not aware of its impact on one’s behaviour and mindset. Cultural awareness simply means the ability to recognize one’s way of interpreting the world and to see it as one among many possible ways.

In the educational context, cultural awareness can be seen as the ability to identify what we take for granted in learning, such as recognizing one’s learning concepts and adopted learning culture. It is the ability to consciously examine one’s own ways of thinking and acting, identify differences, and act flexibly without valuing one approach over another. A culturally aware teacher or instructor sees how their own culture manifests in practical teaching and guidance.

Cultural awareness does not mean mastering various cultural practices or having answers to every question but rather involves openly hearing and examining different meanings that individuals bring to encounters.

Learning cultures

Based on the well-known cultural dimensions, it is possible to make some assumptions about the effects of general cultural differences on learning cultures. For example, so-called Hofstede’s dimensions (Hofstede 2005) have been linked to differences in learning cultures: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism/collectivism, masculinity/femininity and short/long-term orientation.

There is evidence of differences in collectivism/individualism and power distance between European and Asian learning cultures (eg Apfelthaler et al. 2007). Learn about these differences and how they may be manifested in learning. There are however also regional, class-specific and individual differences intertwined with cultural variation.

The right to learn in one’s own cultural way? 

Lixian Jin and Martin Cortazzi (eg Cortazzi & Jin 2002) researched Asian and Western students’ learning concepts. In one of their studies (Jin & Cortazzi 2017), the attitudes of university students towards asking questions in a classroom setting were investigated, revealing significant differences between Chinese and British students.

Chinese students saw active learning as focusing on listening as a mental activity. Chinese students preferred to postpone their questions outside the lecture or leave them unasked. They did not think that the reason was timidity or fear of losing their face but felt that questions need to be formulated so well that there is not enough time for it during the lesson. They also wanted to respect the teacher and felt that an individual student wastes other students’ time with questions which may not interest others. Additionally, they believed that a well-prepared teacher would revisit important topics later.

On the other hand, British students considered asking questions and participating in discussions as active learning. British students believed that the teacher expects questions. They thought that the teacher might intentionally leave something unsaid to activate students’ own thinking and discussion.

Chinese students regarded British students as disrespectful and incapable of controlling their behaviour. British students, in turn, interpreted Chinese students as shy, passive, or indifferent. Different behaviours based on different learning concepts and misinterpreting that behaviour led to a misunderstanding of people’s personalities behaving differently (Jin & Cortazzi 2017, 243).

This case raises the question of the extent to which students in an international learning environment should have the right to learn in their own cultural way when different learning concepts collide. In multicultural learning situations, there is inevitably a need to adapt to different learning concepts. Are we willing to accept diversity and be flexible so that even minorities do not feel their adopted learning concepts belittled or their learner identity threatened?

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