If I were to choose one word that basically sums up what the world is experiencing today, it would be globalization. The advent of the Digital Age brought about the emergence of a "global village" characterized by faster markets, a more continuous transfer of technologies and capabilities, a freer movement of people and goods, and quicker real-time exchange of information - making borders and territories virtually inexistent. Because of globalization, countries around the world have become melting pots where people from all four corners of the globe live and interact with one another on a daily basis.
Cross-cultural diversity resulting from a globalized environment has become very much visible not only in cities and communities, but also at universities and schools - especially inside a classroom. Through constant interaction with one another, the differences among students in terms of beliefs and customs are more noticed amd emphasized. Such cultural differences may lead to misunderstanding and arguments that could affect the classroom dynamic and the overall pace of the learning process. To prevent conflicts from escalating, teacher
s must act as bridges between these cultural gaps, and must, at all times, establish and promote a classroom environment that does not only respect diversity, but also values it as an asset to student learning and growth.
WHAT IS CULTURAL SENSITIVITY?
As the world becomes smaller and smaller through the wonders of television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet, people are now more exposed to different ideas and concepts that are mainly shaped by one's culture and belief system. These differences, in turn, could directly affect relationships and the way people communicate with each other. This is where cultural sensitivity comes into play. Cultural sensitivity is defined as the quality of being aware and accepting of both the differences and similarities in cultures, without assigning values to them (e.g. right or wrong, better or worse) (National Maternal and Child Health Center on Cultural Competency, 1997). It also refers to the qualities of openness and flexibility that people develop in relation to others, and includes the learning and understanding of other countries' traditions, and the attempt to be free from prejudices and preconceptions about other cultures.
The idea of cultural sensitivity and awareness has become a necessity nowadays, especially when going to a foreign country for the first time. People spend a lot of time searching the Web not only for interesting places to visit or exotic dishes to try, but also for survival phrases they can use when talking to locals and for acceptable behavior and customs when it comes to clothing, religion, and conversation etiquette. These are done simply because people do not want to offend or to inconvenience other people while exploring alien territory.
Cultural sensitivity is also seen as a very important skill in the fields of international relations or trade. For one, learning about a country's culture can greatly affect the success and failure of products and services across borders. Packaging certain products in four can be seen as a practical business
strategy, but this will not work in japan
ese culture associates the number four to death. Moreover, the tone of diplomatic negotiations also depend on how familiar people are with certain protocols. For example, politics and religion might be considered as taboo in most countries, but these are actually effective small talk topics when engaging in discussions with Arab counterparts.
Professions that require interpersonal communication also rely on cultural sensitivity. For instance, people working as health care practitioners need to be doubly aware of the cultural beliefs and values of their patients. They should know the factors and dimensions that influence these patients to react in a particular way. Hispanic patients, for example, may tend to hide pain or discomfort because of simpatia (the dimension of being polite and pleasant in the face of stress) or be reluctant in asking additional questions
because of respeto (the factor that dictates that authority figures, like doctors, must be shown respect at all times).
Being culturally sensitive, albeit necessary, is easier said than done. People do not develop this skill or trait overnight. It usually demands commitment and time to research and gain a better understanding of the culture. However, just like learning a foreign language, the more people get to be exposed to cultural differences by working with different groups of people, the more they learn from and understand these differences, which will eventually lead to acceptance and tolerance.
BEING CULTURALLY SENSITIVE AND AWARE IN THE CLASSROOM
s and students are, by far, the ones who get to be exposed to cultural diversity as often as possible. What makes it more interesting is that the dynamic of the group is confined in a smaller space, which makes cultural differences more visible, and most of the time, more awkward or embarrassing. For instance, avoidance of eye contact would mean that someone is guilty or hiding something if you were an American, but for Hispanics, it is a sign of respect. Or, during discussions, the Dutch and the french
dislike beating around the bush and prefers being direct and to the point, but Asians and South Americans try to avoid confrontations and say "I will try" and "We'll see" instead of saying "no." If students are not familiar with these cultural dimensions, such behavior and reactions may lead to misunderstanding, arguments, conflicts, or worse, violence.
Teaching multi-lingual classes obviously puts students in an environment with diverse, if not clashing cultures. It now becomes the responsibility of the teacher
to, first, be individually conscious about these cultural peculiarities and the potential difficulties they may pose in teaching the class, and second, to promote sensitivity and awareness among the group by highlighting both differences and similarities. The teacher
should also stress that these peculiarities should not affect the learning process, but instead will help improve it.
In organizing the entire flow of the course, the teacher
should, first, do a background check if their students belong to a certain cultural or ethnic group. He must then study their group's customs and traditions and conduct a research on what the group considers as acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Although, it is practically impossible to know everything that is to learn about every existing culture, the teacher
should still be aware of particular cultural dimensions that may affect the group dynamic inside the classroom like eye contact, gestures, and manner of expressions during interpersonal communication. The teacher
must also know topics that each culture finds acceptable or taboo, so that he will not offend any of the students or may hinder the learning process during classroom activities and discussions. Having sufficient information about the cultural background of his students, the teacher
will be able to create lesson plans and construct the class syllabus that responds not only to the students' needs and learning objectives, but also to their culture. Furthermore, the teacher
must check if the resources to be used for the class will not, in a way, put a particular culture in a bad light. He should diversify and supplement existing references with articles and visual aids that incorporate minority voices and highlight the uniqueness of cultures.
It may also help if the teacher
talks to the students individually during the first week of the course to find out their expectations from the class, and their feeling towards working with people of different cultural backgrounds. Upon gathering the information he needs from each of them during the needs assessment
stage, he can now present these outputs, alongside the students' learning objectives, during the needs negotiation stage. However, he must make sure that the way he introduces and explains the topic will not make the students feel uncomfortable. Moreover, he must establish a list of classroom rules that will explain appropriate and inappriopriate language and behavior regarding diversity. He can create these rules with the entire class while discussing their behavioral expectations. He must also encourage students to report incidents and violations regarding these rules. If they do not feel comfortable speaking to the teacher
directly, placing a small box where students can drop notes about their concerns is an effective alternative.
In preparing and organizing individual lessons, the teacher
must come up with classroom activities where students can learn something about and become aware of each other's cultural background. For example, one can organize a small cultural festival where students can bring (or wear) their native costumes and prepare dishes unique to their ethnic backgrounds. Here, students can take turns in explaining their clothes and dishes to one another. The teacher
can also include both in-class and at-home group work as a regular part of the learning experience, where students are assigned in groups with different backgrounds. These tasks will help them explore intellectual and personal connections within the group despite cultural differences. Activities should also help students focus on the characteristics they have in common rather than the traits that set them apart. These activites should also target confidence-building and value the students' self-esteem and inspiring and admirable talents.
Lastly, the success of cultivating cultural awareness and sensitivity lies on how effective teacher
s are in being role models inside the classroom. They should not, at all times, use language that makes assumptions or creates stereotypes regarding a student's individual experience. They must make sure that students can personally come to them for advice whenever difficult situations of any kind occur, and must be fair in imposing sanctions to erring students. They should also validate the student's individual experiences, take regular inventories of their feedback to classroom activities, group tasks, and homework, and use their comments in improving teaching methods and instructions for future lessons. Moreover, teacher
should always encourage students to be themselves, and must create and maintain an environment where students feel that being different is not a hindrance when it comes to learning and connecting. In fact, it is through diversity, understanding, and acceptance that people learn and become productive members of society.
TAKING THE FIRST STEP THROUGH CULTURAL SENSITIVITY
Cultural competence is defined as a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enables that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations (Cross, Bazron, Dennis, & Isaacs, 1989). Operationally defined, cultural competence is the integration and transformation of knowledge about individuals and groups of people into specific standards, policies, practices, and attitudes used in appropriate cultural settings to help produce better outcomes (Davis, 1997).
Cultural competence is another important skill that requires long-term commitment that includes the ability to understand the language, culture, and behavior of people and to make appropriate recommendations and actions based on these cultural dimensions. To become culturally competent, one must first learn cultural sensitivity and awareness. This means that a person must make efforts to be aware of actual cultural dimensions that may affect interactions with people, and at the same time, must be willing to design materials and implement programs that are culturally relevant. In addition to cultural awareness, it is also essential to understand and acquire knowledge about how people view their own culture and assess
facts through relevant norms, cultural values, and worldviews. The final stage is by developing and maintaining cross-cultural skills through formal coursework, informal interaction and networking, and experience. This is done by establishing professional and working relationships with people of different cultures, learning to negotiate between their beliefs and practices and the culture of a person's profession, and developing and evaluating culturally relevant and appropriate programs, materials, and interventions.
It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who once said that "Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original." Cultural diversity, be it inside a small classroom or on a global scale, may bring forth negative consequences to interaction and communication. However, it can also provide answers to the unending questions
of life once people realize that cultural differences exist, and understand that these differences can be utilized as tools to promote and improve the learning process.
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