Individualism and Collectivism :: What Does this Cultural Dimension Have to Do with Education?

Culture School is in session! In this series, we take an aspect of intercultural theory and apply to daily life. Basically, our goal is to expose those cultural moonwalking bears. And because this blog is about culture and education, we consider each topic in the context of the classroom.

photo by maryatexitzero

In two previous posts, I described how Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimension of Individualism and Collectivism influences cultures and then used personal examples to show how I’ve experienced this dimension in my life.

Wondering why we’re talking about cultural dimensions? Want to know who Geert Hofstede is? Take a look at the first post in this series.

Now  we’re going to look at how the cultural dimension of Individualism and Collectivism relates to education.

The purpose of education in individualist societies is different from what it is in collectivist cultures.

For an individualist, education will not only improve the holder’s economic worth, but also his/her self respect. Also, in individualist societies it is not enough to just have a diploma: what you do with it is also very important. In other words, you need to have done something with your knowledge to achieve status.

In collectivist (group-oriented) cultures, the role of education is that of social acceptance. A diploma is a great honor not only to the holder but also, or more importantly, to his/her group. Such proof of education provides entry to higher status groups, to a better life.

What confers status is the diploma, and less how well you did in school, or what you did with your knowledge. The social acceptance that comes with the diploma is more important than the individual self-respect.

The role of parents and teachers, as well as the relationship between them, is very different in individualist and collectivist societies.

In collectivist societies, the parents’ role is mainly to teach children to behave, to rear well-behaved and respectful children. In the U.S., one of the most common questions that Latin American parents ask teachers is “how is my child behaving” as opposed to “how is my child doing in school”. (There is a great book that talks more about this.)

Collectivist teachers are perceived as having a lot of authority, and their main role is to teach children knowledge. Individualist teachers expect to be challenged; they expect their students to offer opinions, and formulate their own thoughts/theories.

Below are Hofstede’s more detailed characteristics of Collectivist and Individualist classrooms:

Collectivist Societies

Individualist Societies

1  Positive association in society with whatever is rooted in tradition

2  Positive association in society with whatever is “new”

3   The young should learn; adults cannot accept student role

4  One is never too old to learn: “permanent education”

5 Students expect to learn how to do

6  Students expect to learn how to learn

7  Individual students will only speak up in class when called upon personally by the teacher

8  Individual students will speak up in class in response to a general invitation by the teacher

9  Individuals will only speak up in small groups

10  Individuals will speak up in large groups

11  Large classes split socially into smaller cohesive subgroups based     on particularist criteria (e.g. ethnic affiliation)

12  Subgroupings in class vary from one  situation to the next based on universalist  criteria (e.g. the task “at hand”)

13  Formal harmony in learning situations should be maintained at   all times (T-groups are taboo)

14 Confrontation in learning situations can    be salutary; conflicts can be brought into the    open

15    Neither the teacher nor any student should ever be made to lose face

16  Face-consciousness is weak

17  Education is a way of gaining prestige in one’s social environment and of joining a higher status group

18  Education is a way of improving one’s economic worth and self-respect based on ability and competence

19  Diploma certificates are            important and displayed on walls

20  Diploma certificates have little symbolic value

21 Acquiring certificates, even through illegal means (cheating, corruption) is more important than acquiring competence

22 Acquiring competence is more important than acquiring certificates

23 Teachers are expected to give preferential treatment to some students (e.g. based on ethnic affiliation or on recommendation by an influential person)

24 Teachers are expected to be strictly impartial

Of course, as previously mentioned, this is dense material. Even though Hofstede assigns a nice, neat number to several countries to indicate whether it leans more towards individualism or collectivism, it’s obviously not that simple.

Recommendation?  Use this information as a guide for self-discovery. Become observant. Be curious about everything around you, even if you’ve seen it a million times.

Tomorrow, as you go through your day, look at everything in your school with new eyes. Where do you see individualism? Where do you see group-orientation? Ask why? You don’t need to have a definitive answer, actually, it’s better if you don’t. Just keep asking why. It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question. – Eugene Ionesco

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About the Author: Anamaria Knight

Originally from Romania, Anamaria studied and taught in Romania, France, and the US. After earning a Master’s degree in intercultural communication she moved to North Carolina, where she works as an advisor for international teachers coming to teach in the U.S. and delivers intercultural workshops to K-12 teachers. Anamaria is @AnamariaKnight on Twitter.

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