How do different cultures approach learning?

One of the most interesting aspects of working in a cross-cultural team is the diversity of ideas and approaches to learning that it brings. People from different cultures tackle problem solving in very different ways, for example. There may also be a great range of styles in dealing with authority, or giving and receiving feedback.

Much of this stems from the education system that shaped the individual. While stereotypes need to be avoided, here are a few clues as to why different cultures have such varied approaches to learning.

  • In China, schooling is competitive, because the marketplace for jobs is highly competitive. Students work longer hours and under more pressure than those in the West. Individuals want to please their parents and bring honor to their family. This is one reason why Chinese workers have a reputation for tenacity, and a desire for constant self-improvement. Learning the importance of ‘saving face’ starts at a very early age.
  • Similarly, in Singapore, the education system is geared towards high achievement, which is often attained by rote learning and a culture of extracurricular tuition to get through exams. Parental pressure and expectation is high. The Singaporean concept of kiasu – a Hokkien word meaning ‘afraid to lose’ – may explain the role parents play in high-pressure schooling. Throughout one’s life, bringing honor to the family is important.
  • Finland constantly rates as having one of the best education systems in the world. Teaching is regarded as a worthy profession, as honorable as becoming a doctor, so good, highly qualified teachers are attracted to the job. Children start school at seven, where they are taught respect, equality and critical thinking, and are given plenty of freedom. There is no race to the top. As such, Finns are known for their collaborative approach in business, their problem-solving mindset, their creativity and lack of ego in business.
  • A high value is also placed on education in India, where schooling is competitive and like China, family honor is a priority. The teaching style may focus on learning by rote rather than creative thinking but many Indian millennials have broken out of this mindset. Particularly in fields like technology, Indians have a reputation for being creative and adaptable, and for their collaborative approach to problem solving. There is, however, still a cultural reluctance to challenge authority in the workplace, or to admit to not knowing something, stemming from school days. This can be a hindrance for someone working in a multicultural team where others have louder voices.
  • Japanese teaching methods include allowing children to fail, so that they learn from their failures. Learning is by listening, not by challenging the teacher, which carries on into adulthood; individuals in the workplace would be highly unlikely to criticize or contradict their boss. Teamwork and respect are taught in a practical manner; children have to clean the school themselves. Strict uniform standards teach conformity that again, carries on into adulthood.
  • Managing a team in sub-Saharan Africa can be challenging as many individuals have not been taught at school to push themselves academically, or to think laterally. In comparison to the USA, Europe or Asia, schools in much of Africa are under-resourced and teachers are poorly paid. Students who do rise to the top often do so in the face of great adversity and demonstrate real ambition and embrace opportunities for further education in the workplace, but getting middle or low-ranking employees to develop as self-motivated problem solvers can be difficult.
  • In the USA, relationships between student and teacher are far more informal, which is reflected in the flat structures in American workplaces. Students are encouraged to ask questions, even to challenge teachers and to speak up for themselves. Presentation skills and confidence are taught from an early age. Yet the American system is regarded by many as inward-looking. Students tend to have poor foreign language skills, or a lack of world view in comparison to Europeans which again, is echoed in adulthood.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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