A Melting Pot of Learning

(While I try to speak without bias, I should note that I have a Western Mind model and come from the Euro-American cultural background. I welcome any comments to discuss these ideas in greater depth as I find this topic very fascinating and relevant to what we need to be discussing in this day and age. The more perspectives we can gain from others the more we learn about their culture and our own biases.)

As an instructional designer, familiarity with how to make learning material (in whatever modality) reach as many students as necessary and possible in ways they can comprehend is essential. In this pursuit, we focus on topics such as accessibility, universal design for learning (UDL), and inclusion. However, in addition to those, I have been exploring an area that could use more data—the integration of cultural understanding in learning design. 

Through continued research, the concept that different cultures have varying norms, beliefs, and practices associated with learning is more noticeable with the increase in international education. In her book Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West, Li (2012) explains this concept well,

“Still, as research documents, individual culture’s ways of learning (and teaching) as formed in their long histories are unlikely to disappear even for cultures that have incorporated other cultures’ bodies of knowledge and pedagogy. Instead, these culturally formed ways of learning may continue to shape how learners actually engage in learning.” (p. 107).

We can see cultural awareness, or the lack thereof, makes a difference in how the learning environment functions and it has always been present. Additionally, with the uptake in online learning experienced throughout the world in recent years, we find a higher possibility for international courses in more settings. The cultural lens which instructors and learners view through needs to be addressed in a more significant way. Today, I will cover three key points to ponder as you develop learning material while keeping the cultural differences of your students in mind—and how these differences may alter their learning experience.

The roles withing the classroom

First, when we look at learning in different cultures, we need to be aware of how students and teachers perceive each other—and that their relationships with each other may look different. Let’s analyze the roles of a classroom by looking at how two cultural groups view the teacher/student relationship.

  • European schools. The schooling framework often developed in this broad culture emphasizes the teacher as an expert—and students should respect and listen to the teacher to gain information from them. While there is sometimes room for discussion and challenging material (especially as the children get older) the teacher ultimately holds the “correct answers.” This framework focuses on lecture (in front of a class or a video online) to relay information because minimal discussion or relationship needs to be developed to create knowledge transfer.  For a deeper look at the expectations on a European teacher, explore this article: The European Teacher: Transnational Perspectives in teacher Education Policy and Practice.
  • African countries. Abdoulkadre, et al. (2017, p. 166) found in certain areas of the African continent, “Africans often use informal, even clandestine, mechanisms to manage cultural differences and build trust in order to gain knowledge”. The article points to the idea that building trust comes before knowledge transfer. If this is the case, if a student does not have a relationship with their instructor it may hinder their ability to absorb the information. Community, even online, becomes essential for effective education. This community can be built through virtual meetings where people see each other or discussion boards where the instructor helps to build rapport and relationships. 

Overall, keep in mind that while designing your course, make sure that you do not limit your mindset to how interactions should occur and penalize students for it. Discovering the ways students communicate with the instructor will help you understand context for your relationship and improve how you understand the work they turn in as well as how they communicate with you. 

The motivators for learning

When we look at any learning context, we need to consider how the things that inspire students to learn can vary. A single culture on its own already has variability in individual motivation, and those differences are amplified when on an international scale. Even within the same continent, motivation can look different. For example, in North America:

  • In the United States, within the public, government funded K12 system and higher education systems, we tend to prioritize internal motivators (such as drive, focus, passion, or interest) as key to success over external motivators (even though it is claimed both matter). Ultimately the student controls what they learn and therefore determines their own version of what is retained. An example of this thinking can be seen here: “students who believe they have a limited capacity to learn or feel they are unlikely to succeed often have problems with motivation. In a similar vein, students who conceptualize intelligence as a fixed quantity that one either has or doesn’t have tend to be less motivated” (Usher & Kober, 2012, p. 2). We can engage with this type of motivation by including multiple forms of media to catch the student’s attention, engaging curiosity through experimentation or discussion, showing the relevance in the student’s life, or letting them lead in learning by encouraging curiosity and challenging each other through collaboration. Overall, this culture promotes convincing the student to be motivated as it’s an individual’s choice.
  • In comparison, North America also includes the Native American population with its own cultural systems. For example, the Navajo community lives within the borders of the United States but exist as their own cultural group. When contrasting motivation for learning in this subgroup against the larger population, it is believed by some that, “mainstream schools and teachers value mastery, future time orientation, competition and success, individuality and aggression, while [Navajo] pupils, in contrast, value harmony, present time orientation, maintenance of the status quo, anonymity, and submissiveness” (McInemey & Swisher, 1995, p. 29). Based on this mindset, the way you interact with a student needs to change— you may be rewarding the student for for something they do not view as an accomplishment. What could work better is rewarding them for completing work effectively or how well they worked as a group (creating harmony) to problem solve. 

To help with this issue while designing with different types of motivation in mind, you can find many tools to make these adjustments to online and face-to-face classrooms—you just need to be open and aware of the motivators needed based on the student’s cultural understanding of success and knowledge. 

Allowing for different modes of expression 

A final example for designing with culture in mind is found in the way learners express their knowledge gained, which may look different based on the cultural expectation of what knowledge or understanding looks like. Some examples include:

  • In the United States, we value achievement and communication. Knowledge comes from challenging pre-existing thought while also absorbing the existing theories and understandings at an expert level. With this mindset, using discussion boards in the online environment or classroom discussions can be found valuable as students can share what they know and expand upon it or challenge ideas presented in class. (To explore more about this topic, I recommend this fascinating article: Bridging Cultures in Our Schools: New Approaches that Work).
  • In contrast, in China, while discussion does exist, higher value gets placed on individual action over words. “They prefer showing by doing over speaking about what they know” (Li, 2012, p. 97). One way you could design your learning space to cater to this cultural understanding is through an assignment that shows their gained knowledge. As an actionable achievement that can be measured and documented showing their progress, this would potentially be more valued than a discussion.

Designing for cultural differences in learning

Through these examples, it can be seen that culture matters in how we define our content as effective. So how do we design with this in mind even though there are so many different cultural viewpoints in the world? Here are a few places you can start, While these concepts seem to be born out of other areas of research, good design usually fulfills more potential issues than we sometimes realize.

UDL address opportunities for us to explore these accommodations for different cultural understandings of learning (Tara provides an overview of UDL, and I reviewed how UDL helps with assessment). By offering students multiple ways to engage, we can accommodate different preferences for expressing knowledge. Students will feel like they have been able to express their full understanding well. 

Designing for accessibility also allows for more inclusive design. For example, closed captions help those who may speak a different language from the instructor as their native tongue. Accessibility also involves fining examples for your classroom that resonate with the students based on their cultural systems, so they can comprehend your message. Curiosity about each other is how we understand the bigger picture. By creating connections, we will then understand more of the cultural lenses we all see though. We need to strive to meet our learners where they are instead of forcing a counterintuitive understanding upon them. 

Overall, we need more research to find how we get to a place where learning is free of cultural barriers. This research has implications beyond education, and it also alters how we live, work, teach, and learn in a worldwide community. As we design, we need to leave options integrated into our learning environments. Whether or not we are able to get to know each of our students, we need to design with all of them in mind, and it’s essential to include the element of flexibility. Education is rapidly changing to be more inclusive on an international level—and we need to be ready for it. 


Abdoulkadre, A., Zhan, S., & Wanjiru, R.. (2017). Learning and knowledge transfer in Africa-China JVs: Interplay between informalities, culture, and social capitalJournal of International Management, (23)2. 166-179.

Li, J. (2012). Cultural foundations of learning: East and west. Cambridge University Press. 

McInemey, D. M. & Swisher, K. G. (1995). Exploring Navajo motivation in school settingsJournal of American Indian Education, (34)3. 28–51.

Schratz, M. (2014). The European teacher: Transnational perspectives in teacher education policy and practiceCEPS Journal, (4)4. 11-27.

Trumbull, E., Rothstein-Fisch, C., & Greenfield, P. M. (2000). Bridging cultures in our schools: New approaches that work. A WestEd Knowledge Brief. 

Usher, A., & Kober, N. (2012). Student motivation: An overlooked piece of school reform. Summary. Center on Education Policy.

Author: Jessica Pierce, Instructional Designer

Jess enjoys the science behind learning and cognition and how it applies in multiple modalities, including eLearning. In the off hours, she likes spending time with her husband and three kids, going out for coffee, or running the occasional road race for the “free” shirt (to counteract the caffeine).

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