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Why doesn’t this lesson work with these students?

Taken from

A brief introduction to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions approach (1986)

When I mentioned that I planned to blog today on the day off of writing MA papers I’d granted myself, I was met by laughter from those who know me, disbelief from those who don’t identify, and contempt from those who are just jealous (well, less so of that last group – but it adds a lovely dramatic flare). Me? I’m not surprised by my desire to blog amidst all the other writing I have to do. Before dropping my recent research into the bottomless barrel of past efforts, I thought I’d give it one last, bloggified nod, so to speak. This, I tried to explain to the laughers and they said ‘no need’. The disbelievers, on the other hand, just wanted me to take a bath. The contemptuous jealous, well they are fictitious, so of course they fell to their knees and threw money.

What transpired here is an example of a matching and conflicting cultural interaction. Hofstede (1986), a well-cited Dutch social psychologist, suggests everything said and done is influenced by the cultural background of the participants involved. This may sound obvious to some, but where it may come in handy is when considering the effectiveness of our approach and materials in the classroom. I’m sure we have all been frustrated by why some perfectly sound, pedagogically appropriate activities are eaten up by some students and seem to fall flat with some students. Are the former better students? Are the latter just unengaged? Does it come down to a multiple intelligences argument? Maybe, as Hofstede later suggests, it’s as a result of a clash between our educational culture and theirs.

Becoming more aware of our own cultural definitions and those of our students might then inspire more understanding on both parts. See if Hofstede’s cultural dimensions approach, as it applies to education, resonates with you:

A very interesting read from 1906, should you ever have the opportunity.

Individualism vs Collectivism describes the degree to which a society values the individual (high individualism) or the group (low individualism).

  • high individualism societies: students are praised when sharing their ideas openly in class, prefer individual assignments, recognise the intrinsic value of learning
  • low individualism societies (i.e. collectivist): students avoid spotlighting themselves, prefer group work, learn to obtain a higher social status

Power Distance refers to the degree to which members of a society accept (large power distance) or reject (small power distance) the inequalities of power between authority and subordinates.

  • small power distance societies: student input is valued; classrooms are student-centred with much classroom dialogue stemming from student-generated content; high student responsibility for their own learning; focus on critical thinking permeates the learning environment
  • large power distance societies: teachers are the unquestionable authorities on all subject matter; information solely given to memorise as opposed to evaluate (see Collis and Dalton’s (1990) theory of “teacher ownership” and Barnes (1992) theory of the “transmission-interpretation classroom” also); teachers are why students succeed or fail; uncritical respect for knowledge in textbooks (Cortazzi & Jin, 1999:200, 215)

Uncertainty Avoidance describes the degree to which people feel comfortable (low uncertainty avoidance) or threatened (high uncertainty avoidance) by ambiguity, lack of structure and personal risk-taking.

  • low uncertainty avoidance societies: students experiment with their knowledge; not afraid to make mistakes; receptive to open-ended tasks with no explicit goal
  • high uncertainty avoidance societies: students are cautious of making public mistakes; crave structured lessons, with clear goals and grading schemes in advance; expect explicit error correction and concrete prescriptions to improvement

chinaMasculinity vs Feminity refers to the degree to which a society values competition, aggression and success. The more a society values these, the more likely they are to have a clearer division of gender roles, where males are expected to demonstrate these characteristics.

  • masculine societies: students excel when competing with each other; direct connections between course content to immediate goals necessary; unmotivated by perceived failure
  • feminine societies: students recognise the value of making mistakes and learning from those experiences; good at transferring skills from one lesson to another, despite absence of obvious connections to their goals

A mini-evaluative framework

When considering where on the spectra in each case we and our students may differ could be helpful is asking ourselves how the differences affect what we all do in class. If there is any frustration, questions like these can facilitate some reflection of these cultural dimensions at work, though by no means is it exhaustive:

  1. Do our students willingly answer questions when asked in class or keep quiet?
  2. Does our approach/materials emphasise the end grade or the learning process?
  3. Do our materials and assignments encourage group work or individual activities? How do students react to either?
  4. What is the expected teacher role? What happens if expectations are not met?
  5. Do we assume our students respond to student-centred lessons?
  6. Are course materials presented (e.g. textbooks/handouts, texts, etc.) as unquestionable?
  7. How are ‘grey’ areas dealt with?
  8. How detailed is the syllabus, course policy and assignments?
  9. How is feedback handled in class and on assignments?
  10. Do we use competition for motivation? Should we?
  11. How are mistakes and failure in tasks or assignments handled?
  12. Is skill transferability implicit or explicit?

In the end, all theory is a work in progress and Hofstede’s here is no exception, evident from revised editions of his books. Still, like with any theory, it inspires reflection that can prove useful when addressing why something we do doesn’t seem to work well with certain students (or there are discrepancies between your desire to blog on your day off and others perspective that that is ‘work’).

Further considerations

Before jumping the gun and changing everything we do to accommodate our students cultural learning expectations, there are some unaddressed issues to think about. First, the Chinese Culture Connection (1987) responded to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions with the Chinese Value Survey, aiming to balance out a suggested Western value perspective used to formulate his research questions.  Hofstede then responded with a fifth cultural dimension and some excitement of correlations between the CVS and the 4Ds (now Hofstede has even added a 6th). Next, a lot of is assumed of a national group culture, when in fact, individuality among people from any society is obvious. Holliday (1999) characterizes this deficiency by discussing cultures on smaller, evolving scales. Finally, Haritatos & Benet-Martinez (2002) go into detail regarding the effects of having lived in two different, opposing cultures. Further exploration here may be helpful considering students and teachers who may have adapted and untertaken cultural dimensions from their adopted homelands.


Chinese values and the search for culture-free dimensions of culture. (1987). Journal of Cross-Cultural psychology  18/2, 143–164.
Cortazzi, M.& Jin, L. (1999) Cultural mirrors: Materials and methods in the EFL classroom. Culture in second language teaching and learning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Haritatos, J. & Benet-Martınez, V. (2002) Bicultural identities: The interface of cultural, personality, and socio-cognitive processes, Journal of Research in Personality 36/6, 598-606.
Hofstede, G. (1986) Cultural differences in teaching and learning, International Journal of Intercultural Relations 10, 301-320.
Hofstede, G. Hofstede, G.J.&Minkov, M. (2010) Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind 3rd Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Holliday, A. (1999) Small cultures, Applied Linguistics 20/2, 237-264.

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Very interesting article and links, thanks!

On the issue of ‘cultural accommodating’ I have a couple of devil’s advocate questions … how much should a teacher accommodate their students, and how much should students accommodate their teacher? and how possible is accommodation…how far can/would you go??


A timely and highly relevant post, Tyson, especially as promoters of innovative teaching begin to reflect critically on the shortcomings of their methods.

I will definitely take these factors into account, given my recent experiences.

Anne Hodgson

I don’t know whether you’re familiar with the Cultural Dimensions of Learning Framework (CDLF) using eight cultural dimensions. Parrish/ Linder VanBerschot created a questionnaire that provides a reflection on one’s Learner Inventory. I think this might be right up your alley:
I’m with you about being cautious about the issue of “applying” the dimensions to students of various cultures. Using Parrish’s questions with my learners, I find there actually is relatively little conclusive evidence that, say, more students from one culture accept handouts as unquestionable, or prefer group work over individual performance, more than others. I haven’t researched this statistically, these are my impressions. Still, the reflective process is very useful.

Anne Hodgson

Hmm… some questions and categories are more telling than others, I’d say. But now, as assessment time rolls around and I’m looking through the entry survey results and their individual performance in class, it helps me reassess the learning curve each individual went through. You know how I hate assessment, but I have to do it. Anyway, with big, multicultural classes I can only recommend it.

Just skimmed your post (bit of cross-commenting here!) as it’s late and I really shouldn’t still be on my computer and also because I’ve read lots of this stuff before and I was looking for the juicy new insights 🙂 It’s too late for any really intelligent comments, but I just wanted to say, it was interesting stuff to be reminded of. I’m really interested in the whole balance between showing to students that you have some understanding of where they’re coming from (and why they may find certain things difficult/awkward in class), yet trying to prepare them for what’s to come by getting them used to what’s expected in the host culture (in this case a UK university).

Pete Laberge

It is funny, but when I was young, the 60’s & 70’s…. we were independent (Read some history! Vietnam Protests, Yippies, etc.), we were creative (all the tech you have today came from where?), we were innovative, we were critical thinkers (see independent, above) and we got by. And we also respected and listened to our teachers, parents, etc (sometimes). We also learned how to read, write real things (not just 100-some char tweets), and count (w/o Excel). Today I keep hearing a common complaint: Kids are NOT independent, creative, innovative, can’t critical think, can’t read, write, count. They have no memories (maybe because they learn nothing and only know how to look stuff up?) But you see we did not have everything done for us. We read real books that required us to use our imaginations. Unlike videos, where it is all done for you. We had to actually count, read, and write (real papers, not multimedia driven blurbs). MAYBE Teachers, you are doing too much for the kiddies? If you make them use their brains, they might develop? Think about it. Sorry if I sound terse, but I have a zillion things to do , no time for an essay.


Good refresher! I have found that students are more willing to delve into those dimensions that are ‘unfamiliar’ to them if the teacher is able to construct lessons around topics related to their culture(s). Of course, the ease with which this occurs depends if the classroom contains multiple cultures or a single. Basically, I try to use more culture-based content when encouraging students to explore a variety learning styles they may not use on a regular basis. Alas, in many teaching settings, teachers are not given much freedom in terms of classroom content. So, in the end, it becomes a trial and error process using a set curriculum that often lacks culture-based content.


Here’s an example of something I have done in the past with elementary students in Korea. The video is in Korean, which makes the content that much more applicable to their lives. In turn, hopefully increasing motivation and decreasing language-learning anxiety.


Definitely. This lesson could be extended across numerous class periods for a variety of reasons, Romanization is one of them to be sure. Romanization of the foods always makes a lively topic with all ages. And I try to stay out of the debate for the most part as long as the students are fairly close to the correct sounds/letters.


Very interesting post. One thing that struck me is a caution (mostly to myself) about the questions you present to illustrate where education cultures might clash: I would be tempted to analyse the observations I make based on those questions in terms of culture and forget to include other possible factors. There could be a wide variety of reasons why an activity doesn’t work with a class.

When I first read Hofstede, it seemed brilliant. Living overseas, I am of course aware of cultural differences in education, but I hadn’t ever seen it put so succinctly into little boxes (forgive me, Dimensions). I know where Korea is supposed to fall in Hofstede’s 4Ds, but either it’s a country in flux or (as you mentioned) not enough attention is given to students at an individual level. Or maybe both. Or maybe something else entirely.

It’s so easy to generalise a nation or a culture, but I think it might be dangerous when I teach a class of unique people, none of whom seem to want to fit neatly into boxes.

Thanks for making me think this week.


First reaction was “yeah but”, second reaction was to go away and think…..I haven’t got time to check out any sources or think too deeply (working flat out 16 hours a day this week!) but I think teachers are sometimes too ‘friendly’ with students and unwilling to ‘impose their laws’ on them. What I mean by this is I think students sometimes need to learn more about the culture which influenced the language and be willing to therefore learn more about their own culture in order to understand their own responses. It also depends on why the students are learning the language (English in this case). If they are purely learning English as a language in order to be able to go away and teach it in secondary school in their own country then I can understand their unwillingness to participate in an, in their views, unnecessary group work etc. However, if they are learning English in order to study in the UK, use the language as part of their job, then I feel it’s essential that they learn how to participate in the culture of the target language. There is no ‘one’ culture, but it’s perhaps easier to opt for the more obvious UK or US-style approach.
I realise I’m rambling on so here’s a more concrete example:
On Monday I met my new students. They are all of one and the same culture and have all learnt English to MA level (and some have spent a brief period of study in the UK or US). That being said, our teacher training college does things differently to what they are probably used to (from their earlier studies) even though we are just a couple of floors higher (literally) than the Arts Faculty where most of them studied. I’ve noticed an occasional lack of willingness to participate, a desire to sit and ‘sponge things up’ in the past and have been known to find it frustrating (as a believer in participatory learning). To help explain our ‘culture’ and our working methods, I’ve asked them all to read King’s article on “Sage on the stage” ( which, I hope, will also help them think about their own vision on education – as they’re all training to be teachers. I’ll be curious to see what they’ve produced based on this, on Friday when I next see them……
Love reading these posts – don’t really have time for my own just yet – so am relying on you to distract me when I need some good quality reading/thinking (as opposed to the all-seeing eye in the corner of my room).


Hear hear!


I think human nature is a bit too complex to fit into labels (i.e., individualism/collectivism, small/large power distance, etc.). I see it less as a sociocultural phenomenon and more as an emergent learning ecology (ELE).

In an ELE, the teacher makes instructional adjustments throughout the course in order to create opportunities for students to actively participate in the learning process. At the same time, the students are making adjustments to their own learning tactics (either on their own or from the guidance of the teacher). Instead of accommodating to one another, students and teachers are constantly adapting as the ELE unfolds. In an ELE, relationships remain key as educational stakeholders (i.e., educators, learners, community leaders, parents, etc.) gain interdependency. Instead of taking on specific teacher roles, the teacher instead assists the learner from being perhaps more dependent at the beginning of the course to a more independent then interdependent individual by the end of the course. That is, a teacher becomes less didactic, and more facilitative to the learning process, although at an given moment either one (didactic leader or facilitator) may arise depending on the situation.

The problem I have with labels (i.e,. learning styles, multiple intelligences, masculinity, femininity, etc.) is that is presupposes learner attributes. When actually, “what’s best” in the classroom is not revealed until relationships (around concepts, materials, and human interaction) form. I’ve never found it helpful to categorize (stereotype) learners when planning for a particular class. For me it requires a more reflection-in-action that develops over time as I tweak, adjust, and experiment with concepts, materials, personal interaction in a way that motivates learners to dare, share, and care about others.


Any theory becomes useful to the degree that putting it into practice actually leads to higher student achievement. I would enjoy a discussion that puts this theory (or any other) in practice. I think I have a topic for this Sunday’s TILL Google+ hangout. Thanks for that!

Thanks for bringing up this topic. Relevant to every classroom. I think the list of questions is a very useful one!


Great. I enjoyed reading this. I teach English in Cambodia and knowing the culture of the students is imperative to creating a ‘healthy’ classroom environment.

One of the first things that I noticed in Asia when teaching is the loss of face culture. Asians are afraid to lose face and it affects the way you teach considerably! Students are more timid than say Europeans or Latin Americans and you have to bring them out of their shell differently!

Another problem is finding a topic that they can relate to. For example, discussing food is a topic that I shy away from because when I ask “What special food do you eat for holidays?” The answer? “Rice” and pretty much it’s the same answer for every food related question I teach them!

Here in Cambodia, students aren’t encouraged to think ‘outside of the box’ they are encourage to do only as the teacher says. Therefore, for a new teacher in Cambodia who wants their students to be creative, it can be frustrating and difficult, but with a little practice you can bring them out of their shells and get a fulfilling experience teaching them!

I can do this

this is one post that made me think…I also live in a different country and culture than what I was born in, and your analogy to what happens in class using Hofstede’s cultural dimensions helped me go beyond Hofstede. I think we have to stop generalizing about the culture in which we work, live and play (and yes, for some of us, writing a blogpost is play) and how people form their attitudes towards work, life and play in more discreet pieces than national culture.

As an educator teaching a language which is from a culture which has individualism as one of its cultural tenets, (EFL in Mexico) teaching university EFL and teacher training in Mexico, a culture based on collectivism at its best, you have provoked me to say that we need to take Hofstede even farther. Perhaps coming from an individualistic point of view helps me make my next point. Or perhaps it is neo-liberalism, the Free Trade Agreement, globalization and the cinching of world distances, whatever the reason…

We have to remember that each family promotes different values towards education, work ethic and priorities in society. The lines get blurred between society in a country like Mexico where there is so much cultural invasion from a dominant individualistic society with a technically lessened power distance, gender role difference, and a diminishing uncertainty avoidance factor. Thinking of Mexico’s migration dialectic and how men and women throw themselves into uncertain fates by crossing borders to work in different countries sheds a different light on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, but that is for a different post.

What I should finally say is that each students comes to school with a set of unique expectations, even within a collectivist society. So I love your analysis and your plugging in the theory…because it works! THansk for the great read and the inspiration.


Adam Simpson

Best post I’ve read in a long time. My dissertation was based on Hofstede’s work, but as I’ve only ever taught in a mono-cultural environment it has never occurred to me to apply it to my learners. Compelling reading!

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