Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Teaching Across Cultures

Culture Shock    Teaching Approaches    Cultural Intelligence    Stories From the Trenches


Culture Shock

Why should you anticipate culture shock?

Teaching involves entirely different kinds of interactions than other professional and social contexts. It makes different linguistic demands and requires an unusually high level of cultural nuance. Teaching approaches that worked in one cultural context may not necessarily work in another, and instructors who assume the transition will be easy may be in for a shock.

If you are an international instructor teaching in the U.S., it is likely that you have excellent English language skills and function effectively in any number of professional environments in the U.S. You may not expect teaching to be any different. However, teaching involves entirely different kinds of interactions than other professional and social contexts. It makes different linguistic demands and requires an unusually high level of cultural nuance. Many international instructors find that in order to teach effectively in the U.S., they must adjust much more to their students than they ever anticipated.

Similarly, if you are a U.S. instructor teaching students from a culture other than your own (whether at home or abroad), you may assume that the pedagogical approaches that have always worked for you will be equally applicable in your new teaching context. You may also assume that since your students chose to study at a U.S. institution, it is their job to adapt and not yours. However, teaching approaches that worked in one cultural context may not necessarily work in another, and instructors who assume the transition will be easy may be in for a shock.


Teaching Approaches

Why don't the same teaching approaches work everywhere?

As members of a culture – and participants in its educational system – we implicitly learn a set of patterned behaviors (e.g., how to behave in the classroom, how to interact with authority figures) and unconscious beliefs and assumptions (e.g., what constitutes meaningful learning, appropriate instructor and student roles). When instructors’ and students’ assumptions and expectations differ significantly – and are not reconciled – they may lead to frustrations and tensions that interfere with effective learning and successful and satisfying teaching.

Educational systems and pedagogical approaches evolve to meet particular political, economic, social, and environmental needs, and are influenced by factors such as…

  • The percentage of the population that attends university.
  • Whether higher education is publically or privately funded.
  • How expensive a university education is and who bears the cost.
  • Cultural beliefs about adulthood, maturity, respect, and authority.
  • How education is viewed in relation to national goals and priorities.
  • The role of faculty and students in relation to larger national concerns.
  • The nature of the job market that university graduates will enter.
  • Cultural beliefs about meaningful inquiry and the nature of creativity.

Cultural Intelligence

Why does teaching require cultural intelligence?

Successfully bridging cultural differences in the classroom requires “cultural intelligence.” Cultural intelligence does not involve mastering a set of specific rules for each culture. Rather, it requires that instructors develop a flexible set of skills, including the ability to listen and pay attention, reflect on the meaning of underlying behavior, seek out relevant information and advice, and adapt resourcefully. It also requires being aware of, and willing to challenge, one’s own cultural assumptions.

A quick note about culture...

While culture is a powerful force in all of our lives, its effects are sometimes difficult to recognize because...