Power Distance in the Classroom

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 the cultural dimension of Power Distance. We covered a bit of theory, but we also looked beyond it, at specific instances in which I experienced this dimension. In my home country (Romania – high power distance) as well as in my host country (USA – low power distance).

For a quick review of Power Distance, you can watch a very brief video from an earlier blog post.

Today we will explore the different ways in which this dimension can be reflected into the classroom. So what does Power Distance have to do with Education?

Generally speaking, in a High Power Distance culture:

  • Teachers are expected to take all initiatives in class – initiative from students is considered disrespectful
  • Teachers are gurus who transfer personal wisdom
  • Students treat teachers with the respect reserved for people of high status
  • Students are taught obedience, both at home and at school

And, generally speaking, in a Low Power Distance culture:

  • Teachers expect initiatives from students in class
  • Teachers are experts who transfer impersonal truths
  • Students treat teachers as equals

Below are Hofstede’s more detailed characteristics of High and Low Power Distance classrooms:

Small Power Distance societies

Large Power Distance societies

1 Stress on impersonal “truth” which can in principle be obtained from any competent person

2 Stress on personal “wisdom” which is transferred in the relationship with a particular teacher (guru)

3 A teacher should respect the independence of his/her students

4 A teacher merits the respect of his/her students

5 Student-centred education (premium on initiative)

6 Teacher-centred education (premium on order)

7 Teacher expects students to initiate communication

8 Students expect teacher to initiate communication

9 Teacher expects students to find their own paths

10 Students expect teacher to outline paths to follow

11 Students may speak up in spontaneously in class

12 Students speak up in class only when invited by the teacher

13 Students allowed to contradict or criticize teacher

14 Teacher is never contradicted nor publicly criticized

15 Effectiveness of learning related to amount of two-way communication in class

16 Effectiveness of learning related to excellence of the teacher

17 Outside class, teachers are treated as equals

18 Respect for teachers is also shown outside class

19 In teacher/student conflicts, parents are expected to side with the student

20 In teacher/student conflicts, parents are expected to side with the teacher

21 Younger teachers are more liked than older teachers

22 Older teachers are more respected than younger teachers

What do you think?

As you read the list above did you think of examples from your own classroom teaching (or learning) experience? Do you think the culture in which you teach leans toward high or low Power Distance (most cultures tend to be more of one than the other, although you will find elements of both in any culture)?

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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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