Cultural Patterns of Cognition and Learning

A small green grassy planet with cows, chickens, horses, and trees on its surface.
Green peace earth, miniature planet, globe concept showing a green, peaceful and animals poultry life

Written by Carol Subiño Sullivan and Sarah Kegley, Center for Teaching and Learning

 

In a recent episode of the Deep Culture Podcast, the hosts explored the question of how culture affects the way people think, specifically cultural patterns of cognition. The basic premise is that culture is a lot more than customs and etiquette: cognitive processing is shaped by our cultural environment. The conversation is informed by insights from psychologist Richard Nisbitt’s research who argues that cultural patterns found in an individual are a reflection of patterns out in the environment. In The Geography of Thought, Nisbitt uncovers some patterns of thoughts common within cultures, such as “patterns of attention in perception, beliefs about the controllability of the environment, and tacit assumptions about stability vs. change.” When comparing across cultures, some of these patterns stand out for their striking differences.

This conversation made me wonder how cultural patterns of cognition impact the dynamics of learning we see in our classrooms. One cultural pattern discussed in this episode is whether people place primary importance on relationships (a pattern more common among Asian cultures) or objects (more common in Western societies). For example, when asked to match a cow with grass or chickens, Asian respondents were more likely to select grass and Western participants were more likely to select chickens. The hosts explained that the choice of grass represents how Asian participants placed the cow in relationship with the broader environmental context in which they live. On the other hand, most Westerners related cows and chickens as two types of animals, reflecting a tendency to categorize objects.

How might this predisposition to relationships or objects impact the approach that students take on addressing a design problem? I can imagine that such differences in perspectives would lead students to focus on different aspects of the problem and propose different solutions. Differences in approaching problems are desirable!

I can also envision dynamics that result in silencing perspectives that are held by a minority of group members or by group members who are less vocal or confident in advocating for their ideas. In order to foster a more inclusive learning experience, instructors could prime students to seek different perspectives and give them due consideration before selecting a solution to pursue. A group member might even be designated to play the role of listening for differences of perspective and drawing them into the conversation.

How do you create openings for cultural differences to shape learning in your teaching practices? If you are interested in thinking more about these questions, let us know and we may feature it in an upcoming event! Share your reflections with us and earn a 2021-22 Reflective Teaching Badge token.

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