REFLECTIONS OF THE STATE: THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MODELS OF THE UNITED STATES AND RUSSIA
By Lisa DeWaard, MA, MAT, Ph.D.
Managing Director and CEO of Hofstede Insights USA
Keywords: public schools, culture, hierarchy, democracy
The public education systems in Russia and the United States are as different as the two countries themselves. And, just like our understanding of the word “culture”, definitions of “education” differ greatly.
Public education systems are developed to instill in children the cultural values a nation lives by, as well as prepare them to participate in the functioning of the state as adults. Educational systems, like countries themselves, have unique pathways of development: some have ancient cornerstones, some are quite new, and others have seen sharp—even explosive—changes over time. In this paper, two systems will be described and compared: the public schooling system of Russia and the public schooling system of the United States. I will argue that each system of education in its current form reflects its cultural values, with results replicating each society’s nature.
Before examining the public school systems, let us first look at the values that shape the culture of each nation.
An analysis of each country using the Hofstede Six Dimensions of National Culture
Using the Six Dimensions of National Culture by Geert Hofstede as our analytical framework, we see that the countries are separated by more than 48 points on all but one of the dimensions, Masculinity, with a difference there of 26. These point differences are indicative of real-life culture shock potential. The higher the number, the greater the difference in value along each scale and the greater the potential for culture shock. Russia and the United States are about as different as the two nations can be
Points of difference:
PDI: 56 IDV 45. MAS. 26 UAI: 34 LTO: 34. IVR: 67
For those unfamiliar with the Six Dimensions of National Culture developed by Hofstede in his multiple publications (cf works cited for a sample of Hofstede’s influential publications), let me provide a short description of these values here. Power Distance (PDI) is a measure of the felt need for hierarchy in a society. The higher the score, the greater the need for and evidence of hierarchy in a particular country. Russia scores quite high and is one of the most hierarchical societies for which we have data. This has strong implications: not only is hierarchy seen as a good and right way to structure a society, the people without power agree that it is not only acceptable, but needed, that those with power get to play by different rules and are unequal before the law. The role of those with power is to use it to care for those without it. Hierarchical cultures typically value strength and will go to great lengths to develop the biggest monuments, the most frightening armies, and to put in power those who show great personal strength. The United States has a score of 40, indicating a need for hierarchy to establish chains of command for the sake of organizational convenience more than for displays of strength.
We find another substantial difference when we consider the second dimension, Individualism (IDV). Individualism and Power Distance are negatively correlated (with very few exceptions). Russia and the United States both follow the correlated pattern: Russia is high on PDI and low on IDV, suggesting a hierarchical and collectivist culture. In high PDI cultures, individuals tend to see themselves as members of interdependent groups. These groups can be the key to survival in hierarchical countries if the hierarchy is manipulated by those with power and corruption is rampant. The collective group is interdependent in all ways, including financial and emotional. The maintenance of harmony in the group is the highest priority because the group functions as a safety net if a job is lost or illness or other misfortune befalls a member. The United States rates the highest of all countries for which we have data on the IDV scale, with a score of 91. In the way that hierarchical societies tend to be collectivist, egalitarian societies tend to be individualist. The focus on the individual in the United States is one of its hallmark qualities: each individual should have the opportunity to develop themselves and their own interests and is expected to be independent and stand on their own as an adult.
Masculinity, the third dimension, relates to one’s motivation to work and the importance of non-work-related pursuits. Masculine cultures, like the United States, value ambition, dedication to one’s work, and career advancement. Feminine cultures, like Russia’s, value work-life balance and prefer cooperative to competitive learning. Colleagues typically do not compete with one another at work, instead prefer cooperation. Each country’s unique profile requires an examination of all of the scores together, and while Russia seems to be a highly competitive country, this is at the governmental level and not at the societal level. Indeed, the hierarchy is so prominent that someone less qualified can be promoted over someone more qualified simply because they come from a certain family or university. This makes competition fruitless and, therefore, not common.
Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) shapes nations in profound ways. Russia has one of the highest scores on this dimension, with a 95. Most of the cultures with high scores on this dimension are countries where war and disruption have been frequent, and Russia has been involved in many conflicts, many in living memory and on their own soil. These experiences have led to three marked impacts on their culture: 1. Fear of the unknown has led to a complex bureaucratic system to build predictability steps into daily life. This extensive bureaucracy is often hated but seen as necessary. 2. Changes happen slowly. With the high PDI (which teaches obedience) and the high UAI (which focuses on process over results), conditions that wouldn’t be in other places are tolerated. For example, with politicians, “the devil you know” is often preferred to a new candidate whose choices will create unforeseeable changes. 3. Deep expertise is valued, and generalists are not. Experts with very deep knowledge provide reassurance that they can offer solutions that can be counted upon. The US has a much lower score than Russia on this dimension. This means that the focus is on product over process. People tend to have a higher risk appetite in general and feel that failure can be a positive thing if it brings lessons for the future. An experimental approach is preferred over a research-intensive one. People are often much more comfortable with change and can pivot in the moment with less stress than those with high UAI.
Long-term orientation (LTO) provides another interesting difference between the two countries. Russia scores high, indicating more acceptance of gray thinking and less acceptance of black-or-white thinking. Planning can be short- or long-term; Russians tend to think less about the next year and more about the next generation. While there have been periods of strong censorship, it has often been the case that the people parrot the positions of the leaders, yet in private among friends, Russians can be quite skeptical. High PDI, UAI, and LTO paint a picture of a patient group of people who will say what needs to be said to survive even if they disagree privately with a position. The United States has a short-term orientation, indicating a preference for black-and-white thinking, a philosophy of absolute truth, and a focus on the near-term.
Finally, Indulgence versus Restraint (IVR) scores are also quite different. While Russia is a restrained culture in which duty to family and country outweighs personal pleasure, the United States is quite indulgent. It is common to be spontaneous, to live in the moment, and to have fun in all situations, even at work.
To sum up, Russia is a hierarchical culture in which life revolves around the needs of your social group, and the self is considered less important than the group. Life is a serious thing. Therefore, business is conducted in a more formal manner. Risk is avoided when possible and deep expertise is desired in problem-solving situations. The United States is a nation where all people are expected to be equal before the law and independent as adults. Competition and career development are integral to one’s identity, and risk-taking is considered a positive trait. Decisions are made with a focus on short(er)-term success, and having fun is not considered inconsistent with serious business.
The History of Education in Russia and the U.S.S.R.
Prior to the reign of Peter the Great, education in Russia was limited among the upper classes to tutors for wealthy sons. Among the lower classes, it consisted of the passing of a profession from fathers to sons. Some religious education in the form of liturgical knowledge in Old Church Slavonic happened in church services, which were (and still are) led in that language. However, no systematic plan for education had been in place, and neither was any more specialized education required for life in Russian society.
Peter the Great’s sweeping reforms and restructuring of all aspects of the nation—from constructing a new capitol in the swamps of the Bay of Finland and requiring all nobles to build palaces and relocate there to rearranging governmental positions to be based on merit and forcing Orthodox men to cut off their beards against their will—Peter forced all of the reforms through using the unlimited autocratic power he held as tsar. The opportunities he offered in the form of education and upward mobility were, however, limited to men (but not available to serfs) (cf. Massie, 1981). As Black (1973) notes:
“To be a woman in Muscovy and in the opening years of Peter the Great’s Imperial Russia was to be illiterate and a virtual slave to the wishes of father and husband. Even in upper society, education was not regarded as important until Peter made it a requirement for advancement in state service. After that, Russia’s noblemen begrudgingly educated their sons by employing private tutors, private boarding schools, a few scattered government institutions and, for the wealthy, in élite military academies. So far as their daughters were concerned, most fathers regarded education in anything but house managing skills as a waste of time” (p. 23).
Peter the Great did not stop at the founding of secondary schools, but also established the first university in Russia in 1724: Saint Petersburg State University.
When Catherine took power four decades later, the absolute nature of the power of the monarch had not changed. “in 1762, Russia was an absolute monarchy, placed at the despotic end of the spectrum which extended through the Prussia of Frederick II to the France of Louis XV. There were no institutional limitations on the power of the ruler, who was even entitled to name his successor, or more often her. There were no constituted bodies or ‘estates’, no ‘intermediate powers’ that existed elsewhere in Europe. As head of the executive, the sovereign exercised authority through a series of functional colleges headed by boards under presidents, whose work was co-ordinated by an appointed administrative Senate of some twenty or thirty people. This misleadingly-named body had no legislative powers, which were lodged entirely in the ruler” (de Madariaga 1990, p. 289). This allowed her to initiate her own reforms in many areas, including education. Catherine, an avid reader and correspondent with Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu, desired to educate young women. In 1764, she founded the Smol’ny Institute for Noble Maidens, which was located in the Smol’ny Monastery in Saint Petersburg and was the first effort to create a system of secondary education for ladies. At first, it was open only to aristocratic girls, but Catherine later extended the opportunity to girls of high intelligence from other social strata.
Alexander the First has often been credited with the founding of a system of education for the Russian people, but as Brower (1970, p. 128) writes: “The school reforms of the early eighteenth century underline two themes of education in Tsarist Russia…The new schools resulted from government decree and represented the population an obligation, not a right. The modernization of Russia was a revolution from above, in which…education and much else all acquired their force to the extent that they were defended by autocratic power. Thus, from the time of Peter the Great, education was forced on Russia from above, by the state, and from without, by Western learning and pedagogy. Alien to the population on two counts, it was bound to produce stress within Russian society.” There was also a fear that education would lead to revolt. Educational material was standardized and centralized (ibid).
These many attempts at developing a consistent educational system in the 18th and 19th centuries were not entirely successful; universal schooling was only officially instituted after the establishment of the Soviet Union (Brandenberger 2010) and was used as a method to indoctrinate the masses into the Marxist/Leninist ideology, which was considered essential for the future success of the country.
The United States of America
With a much shorter history and a radically different approach to nation-building than Russia, the United States’ public schooling system came about in a very different way. Although the initial group(s) of immigrants came from England, Scotland, and Ireland, subsequent immigration waves came from all areas of the globe. What unites Americans is not a common ancestry or ethnic group. Instead, it is the notion of liberty and the philosophy of democracy expressed according to the Six Dimensions of National Culture (see above). As a republic of associated state governments, education was the responsibility of each state and has remained so through today. The federal government’s role in the education of children is restricted by the Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This amendment, passed in 1789 and ratified in 1791, has historically applied to education. In fact, the website of the U.S. Department of Education states: “Please note that in the U.S., the federal role in education is limited. Because of the Tenth Amendment, most education policy is decided at the state and local levels. So, if you have a question about a policy or issue, you may want to check with the relevant organization in your state or school district.” The Department of Education does publish recommended Standards for Education, but can only suggest them, not mandate them. As a result, education does vary from state to state, and local and state policy groups lead changes to curricula and other advances.
As the number of the “common” schools funded by communities to educate the children of their regions increased during the early 19th century, one of the foundational goals has been to provide a space for cultural and political assimilation: “a common meeting place where children from different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds might come together under the banner of pluralist democracy.” (Bartrum 2008, pp. 269-270). In this manner, the motivation for early schools in the United States was to promote democracy, an idea that required an educated population. I argue that this remains the primary motivation of government schooling in the US today.
How each system reflects its culture
As a culture expert, former educator, a participant in both the US and Russian educational systems, and a board member at a private school in St. Petersburg, Russia, I present an analysis of how and why each system reflects its national culture of origin, thereby reinforcing the basic cultural values of each nation.
The concept of authority—often unlimited—is present in Russia from its first days over a millennia ago until today. While efforts have been made to dilute the power a leader holds and not have it fully concentrated in the hands of a single individual, the amount of control that Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia as of the writing of this paper, holds is much greater than that of many of the world’s leaders. Russians admire strength and prefer a leader who promotes the positive characteristics of their culture and history. This is clear in historical documents as well as modern ones and has been a part of the schooling system since Peter the Great. Indeed, among the nations for which Hofstede Insights has data, Russia scores 93 out of 100 for power distance, a score that indicates a clear preference for authority and hierarchy as well as one that implies that there are different sorts of people—such as bosses and workers—and that these people have different worth in society. While the Soviet Union sought to elevate the worker to a higher position in society, even going so far as to mandate a shift from informal address to formal (cf. DeWaard 2012) from bosses to subordinates, the underlying need for hierarchy and desire for strength did not weaken. Indeed, as we have seen in many authoritative regimes, such as the Soviet Union, those who had power also had wealth and privileges not shared by the masses.
The preference for hierarchy in Russian society combined with the high score on uncertainty avoidance combine to create a system in which experts—in this case, teachers—are the unquestioned experts in their subject matter. The focus at the primary and secondary levels of education is on the mastery of basic skills and the memorization of information transmitted by the teacher. At the university level, this continues. The ideal student does not interrupt or challenge the authority or knowledge of the teacher. Information is to be given back to the teacher in the same way it is delivered; in Russian, teachers “read lessons,” and students write reports and give oral examinations at the end of the semesters. While graduate students are given more opportunities to question, their studies are closely monitored, and the input of the advisor is crucial. And although this is changing, students in high UAI societies are typically given fewer opportunities to express their own analyses or present their opinions to the class. Additionally, knowledge is considered to belong to everyone, a reflection of the collectivist value in the culture. The unfortunate side effect is that cheating has long been rampant at the university level, with bookstores selling official cheat sheet books that students can take into their exams and use.
The low score on IDV indicates a preference for a collectivist approach to life, a way of thinking that takes into account all the feelings and opinions of the matters of the in-group and one that is reinforced by certain aspects of the educational apparatus. Students often go through their K-11 schooling with the same group of classmates, creating deep friendships and (often) lifelong bonds. In the university system, this repeats, and since students must choose their major upon enrolment, they go through the five years of university classes together as a group. Due to the low score on MAS, part of studying together is supporting one another through difficult times with coursework or in each others’ personal lives. As a collectivist culture, there is no separation of personal and private life; they are intertwined. The expected behavior in these groups is avoidance of disruption to the group’s harmony, so members will disagree in more implicit ways to not cause another member to lose face.
This system of education is quite successful in that it prepares students for the realities of work life and an understanding of how to succeed in their society after finishing their education. They know they must study a single study quite seriously to be considered an expert and employable. For this reason, Russian universities require students to choose their specialty subject upon enrolment, and they follow that trajectory for the five years of undergraduate education. No general education requirements are part of the curriculum, as these are expected to be covered over the course of the K-11 years of primary and secondary school.
The United States schools can be said to be successful in that they also reflect their societal values and prepare students for the reality of life beyond the university. Because choice is one of the hallmarks of a highly individualist culture, parents have three basic options for schooling their children in the US: public schooling (provided by the government and funded by the state), private schooling (sectarian or secular, incurs an additional cost), and homeschooling (in which parents teach their children outside of a traditional school setting). Students are also allowed to choose which classes they take in high school as long as they complete the requisite number of credits in various areas, such as mathematics, social studies, language studies, and others. With the lower score on uncertainty avoidance in the US, there is a preference for generalists over deep, narrow specialistsin many fields. The undergraduate education system allows students to choose their classes, but the major does not typically have to be chosen until the third year. The first two years are spent completing requirements for a broad range of general education courses, such as mathematics, science, history, and language(s). Low UAI cultures often prefer generalists because they believe that a person trained across a number of disciplines may be able to come up with unique solutions to problems. This preference for product over process is strong. It’s not uncommon to hear someone from the United States say, “why does it matter how I get there as long as I get the result?”
As a culture with a lower score on PDI and a high score on IDV, it is considered a positive sign if a student asks a question or challenges the teacher’s information. This is not seen as impudent or rude; but rather as an indication that the student is adept at critical thinking and desiring to understand the issue on a deeper level. Students are encouraged to take unique approaches and to share their opinions. With the desire for competition from the high MAS score, students try to show interest in the topic and excel when possible. Because of this cultural predisposition, teamwork is actively taught as a part of post-schooling work life. Perhaps surprisingly, US students do learn to work together quite well, despite the prevalent desire to have their work scored independently of group mates. The combination of low PDI, high IDV, and low UAI encourages an environment in which students are often required to present information to their classmates, often without preparation. This teaches students to be able to pivot on the spot, which is expected at work post-schooling.
Also, due to the high score on IDV, there is a sharp separation of personal and professional life. Early on in secondary schools, since students have some say in which classes they take, it’s common never to have the same combination of students in two classes. This also continues at the university; it is rare to have the same students in the same classes unless the program is highly specialized and cohort work is part of the learning (for example, in nursing degrees). During this time, students are also expected to learn to work together even if they do not like one another. Harmony within groups is not expected and conflict is acceptable, which is made easier by not having the pressure to be friends with whom you don’t get along.
Finally, the US scores low on LTO and high on IVR, leading to an often polarized society and reliance on traditions (such as the continued use of our constitution, despite it being over 200 years old), but one in which there is no separation of work and fun. It is not considered unprofessional to joke around at work. This is modeled at school in scenarios where students are required to pick a side on an issue and defend their stance but are also allowed to have birthday parties in their classes and joke around with their instructors.
Conclusions and Implications
In the work we do at Hofstede Insights using the Six Dimensions of National Culture to solve cross-cultural problems, the majority of the time, those in conflict have the best of intentions to work together well, but different value patterns promote different work practices and lead to misunderstandings. In the same way that the dimensions can be used to diagnose problems, they can also be used to solve them. In this paper, I have compared and contrasted two countries that have often been (and currently are) at great political odds with one another. The values patterns of each are strongly reflected in the school systems in place as well as in the political realm. Both countries speak of their democracies, but the ways these are practiced (or not) reflects the values underlying them. As someone who speaks both English and Russian, has lived in the United States and Russia and feels equally at home in both places, I believe that there are many areas in which we misunderstand one another and, at the same time, many areas of potential cooperation that have not been explored.
For those teaching students from either of these cultures, you will likely note many differences in student behavior cited in this article. If you come from the United States, Russian students may appear reluctant to speak up without being called on, ask for more guidance on assignments than you are used to, and not want to risk giving an incorrect answer. If you are Russian teaching students from the United States, you may find them rude or arrogant for interrupting or voicing a dissenting opinion. In each of these cases, the behavior is likely learned from their previous educational experiences and intended to be positive. It is helpful to meet with the student to let them know your expectations for both behavior and work.
While our data have been validated and replicated numerous times, it is impossible to speak with certainty about any individual since each has a unique personality. The scores and suggestions do, however, provide useful guidance on what could be motivating behaviors in intercultural contexts. We estimate that the formation of the individual’s value system is complete around puberty and is formed from cultural influences, the behaviors and values of caregivers, the influence of peers, and each person’s unique personality. That being said, the data should be used with care and not in a proscriptive manner.
Black, J. L. (1978). Educating Women in Eighteenth-Century Russia: Myths and Realities. Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne Des Slavistes, 20(1), 23–43. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40867265
Hofstede, G., & Michael H. Hoppe. (2004). An Interview with Geert Hofstede. The Academy of Management Executive (1993-2005),18(1), 75-79. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4166037
Hofstede, G., Hofstede G. J., & Michael Minkov (2010). Cultures and Organizations: The Software of the Mind. Third Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
 According to our data, roughly 85% of the world’s population lives in countries with a score above 50 on PDI.
 While many aspects of US society appear to show a distinct preference for shows of strength, these are related to the score on Masculinity and do not derive from Power Distance, since all citizens regardless of position are expected to be equal before the law.
 Exceptions to this correlation are cultures which have a high score on PDI and a high score on IDV and include France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Argentina, Poland, Slovakia, and Malta.
In Japan, the amount of absenteeism in compulsory education was a record high in 2021. Despite the studies and measures taken by the education ministry, the number is worsening. This article studies the author’s observations, literature with a particular focus on students with developmental disabilities, and cultural analysis using the 7 Mental Images of National Culture. In conclusion, the author hypothesizes that the cultural perception of diversity influences the phenomenon and suggests the need for inclusive culturally intelligent (CQ) education that considers cultural influences.
Record Number of Students in Compulsory Education Refusing to Attend School. Japan’s MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology) defines “futoko” or absenteeism as follows: “Those who are absent from school for 30 days or more per year due to some psychological, emotional, physical, or social factors excluding those due to illness or economic reasons”. According to the survey released on October 27, 2022 (1), the number of students who are futoko in Japan’s compulsory education exceeded 240,000 in 2021, which was a record high. The ratio of futoko is higher in junior high school where 5% of the students are not attending school. The survey attributes “apathy and anxiety” felt by the students as the main reason for futoko. (49.7%).
Why are there so many school non-attendance due to psychological factors in Japan?
This article hypothesizes that cultural perception toward student diversity is one of the main factors in the high levels of truancy. To do so, we describe the authors’ observations, study literature with a particular focus on students with developmental disabilities, and analyze cultural perception toward diversity using the 7 Mental Images of National Culture developed by Huib Wursten.
Observation of a Correspondence High School: Receptacle for Diverse Students
One of the author’s daughters was futoko for 2.5 years during compulsory education: from the second semester of the 7th grade (September 2016) to graduation from middle high school (March 2019). While the exact cause is unknown, among the reasons are the accumulation of stress and anxiety from the strict school rules, relationships with classmates and teachers, and difficulties to keep up with other students due to slight writing difficulties. After graduating junior high school, she entered a private correspondence high school, where she continued attending until graduation. The atmosphere of this school was kept friendly for diverse students. For example, unlike many regular high schools, the power distance between teacher-student and senior-junior students was kept low. There were fewer school rules and more focus on individual learning styles. Correspondence high schools offer more flexibility in the frequency of attendance through schooling, online learning, submission of assignments, and testing. As a result, most of the students continued attending and graduated. Many students including the author’s daughter take steps toward higher education at colleges and universities,
A significant number of students were transferred from regular high schools midway through the year due to the so-called “burnout syndrome”.
A high level of diversity was also observed including mild learning disabilities (LD), other developmental challenges (ASD and ADHD), and LGBTQ among the correspondence high school students.
Despite the growing awareness of developmental disabilities among parents and teachers, the author at the time felt that social understanding and support were insufficient, especially for those who are not diagnosed but having difficulties.
Literature study with a particular focus on students with developmental disabilities
MEXT’s Survey on Problematic Behavior, Truancy, and Other Student Guidance Issues for Children in the 2021 Academic Year (2) shows that approximately 6.3% (200,000 out of the 3.3 million) of high school students in Japan are enrolled in correspondence high schools as of 2020, and this number is increasing every year. The 5th Meeting of Researchers on the High School Correspondence System by MEXT (3) suggests 66.7% of the case studied correspondence school students have been” futoko” during elementary/junior high school or a previous school.
It seems that correspondence high schools play a major role in the reintegration of students who did not find their place in regular schools.
The National Institute for Educational Policy Research (4) announced schools that “When a large number of students are absent from school for a long period, it is necessary to recognize that there is something wrong with the way schools are managed”. It informed that children with developmental disabilities are more likely to experience failure in a regular school system and to have difficulty adjusting, leading to stress, anxiety, loss of motivation, and low self-esteem.
The institute says that some cultural perspectives are attributed to futoko: “In Japan, there is an emphasis on group-oriented education, such as learning together, cooperation, and collaboration. The more united a group is, the more implicit the rules and discipline become, which makes it difficult for students with developmental disabilities to behave appropriately.”
Analysis of Cultural Perception and Its Influence Using the 7 Mental Images of National Culture
According to the 7 Mental Images of National Culture developed by Huib Wursten (5), Japan alone forms a single cultural group apart from the other 6 cultural clusters or “Mental Images”. The culture is uniquely characterized by two combinations: mid-Power Distance (PDI) /mid-Individualism (IDV), and high Masculinity (MAS) /strong Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI).
The author discusses how each combination relates to the societal perception of diverse students who seem to be outside of the social norm and the difficulties they have faced
1) Combination of mid-Power Distance(PDI) / mid-Individualism (IDV)
Keywords: relationship (Kankei), the need to maintain balance and harmony, prioritizing group interest, and “reading the air” (ability to read between the lines)
Many aspects of Japanese school life observe an emphasis on harmony and group interest. For example, small children are repeatedly taught “Nakayoku-Suru” (make friends and get along with them) in the playground. Playing alone is not highly recommended. There are many group-based activities from the very early stage of education. The more they work together, the more there are expectations to understand the unspoken messages among the members. Those who prefer to play alone and are not good at reading the air are considered “KY” (Ku-ki ga Yomenai: a popular word to describe a person who cannot understand the hidden rules/ collective intentions) and will be excluded from the group, which is often the case with children with the developmental disorder.
2) Combination of high Masculinity (MAS) /strong Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI)
Keywords: constant focus on improvement, pursuit for mastery, Kaizen
The combination of high MAS and strong UAI leads to increased competition for academic grades among students and discipline/rules in schools. For children with ADHD and LD, goals are usually more difficult to achieve unless appropriate individual support is provided, which can lead to a lack of motivation, burnout, and rebellion against school rules.
Keywords: difference perceived as threats, Anshin (reassurance), Anzen (safety).
In his book (6), Geert Hofstede writes “The strong uncertainty-avoidance sentiment can be summarized by the credo of xenophobia: “What is different is dangerous.” and that this tendency becomes more aggressive when combined with high masculinity. We assume that Japan, having the unique combination of very strong scores of both dimensions, consider diversity as “threats” against their Anshin and Anzen. This leads to a tendency, whether consciously or unconsciously, to exclude those who are different from the majority, in the forms such as prejudice and bullying.
Despite various initiatives taken by MEXT and society, the number of futoko students continues to increase. The author hypothesizes that Japanese culture is one of the factors that influence the phenomenon of futoko. Therefore, an inclusive culturally intelligent (CQ) education that incorporates cultural self-awareness and awareness of others program will ensure accessible education not only for children with developmental disorders but also for everyone.
There are several limitations to this article. Future studies can explore interviews with concerned parties, research on other diversities including LGBTQ and non-Japanese students, and more discussion on what inclusive culturally intelligent (CQ) education should be done.
(3) Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Handouts for the 5th Meeting of Researchers on the High School Correspondence System for the New Era of Japanese School Education- Document 2: Clark Memorial International High School Initiatives,” (January 19, 2022) [English translation] https://www.mext.go.jp/b_menu/shingi/chousa/shotou/171/mext_00005.html
(4) National Institute for Educational Policy Research and National Institute of Special Needs Education, “Student Guidance Leaf 14S-Preventing Truancy: Characteristics of Developmental Disabilities and the Risk of Truancy,” (First Edition June 2020) [English translation] http://www.nise.go.jp/nc/report_material
(5) Wursten Huib, The 7 Mental Images of National Culture Leading and Managing in a Globalized World (2019) Hofstede Insights.
(6) Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J., & Minkov, M. (2010), “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind”, 3rd revised edition, (2010) McGraw-Hill
According to Google Scholar, the most cited article of all the papers I wrote about the influence of culture on societal issues is The impact of culture on Education. Can we introduce best practices in Education across countries?http
In this paper, published in 2013, the outcome of ranking countries on the quality of Education was explored. In particular, a report, “The Learning Curve” (2013), published by The Economist Magazine’s Intelligence Unit. In this report, an attempt was made to look for “best practices” – approaches that systematically lead to higher quality education, thereby enabling policymakers and practitioners in other countries to “copy and paste” and work towards educational reforms that have proven effective in raising educational achievement in some countries. The surprising conclusion from this report, however, is that almost no practices were found that could be implemented globally.
Because ideas about Education are constantly evolving, it seemed a good idea to come back to this theme nine years later and ask experienced authors to look at culture and Education again
Abstract: Education is culturally very sensitive. What “works” in one culture might be seen as negative in some other cultures. This paper describes and analyzes the cultural experiences of expat parents from different cultures, primarily of the Indian and Japanese authors of this paper, sending their kids to schools in The Netherlands.
Agata Sowinska: “Dao, Li and Dalton education in China”
Abstract: Mark Clark (Clark M., 2004) once stated that `the modern society is in a deep crisis. Not only moral, spiritual but also aesthetic’. Therefore, there is a need to show the essence of alternative Education in a modern, constantly changing world. The following article takes an an attempt to show the essence of the Dalton Plan as an educational concept for children and teachers to undertake independent, creative, searching, innovative activities that contribute to children’s interests, learning styles and personalities in China.
Fernando Lanzer: What are the objectives of Education in a challenging diverse world?
Abstract: The objectives of Education have been described differently in different cultures by many educators and policy makers. However, often, this has been done without an awareness of the underlying cultural values that support and influence these written concepts.
This paper will examine the formulation of educational objectives and make explicit the respective links to the underlying core values of their cultures, using Huib Wursten’s Mental Images as a reference framework. It will subsequently outline the need for a more comprehensive enunciation of educational objectives that can consider core culture value differences and still offer functional effectiveness across cultures in a challenging diverse world.
Lisa DeWaard: Refections on the state: The public school models of the United States and Russia
Abstract: This paper examines two very different public schooling systems: The U.S. system and the Russian system. An overview of the historical and political contexts that were at work when each was designed is included. While both systems have changed over time, the founding principles guiding them remain largely the same. A thorough analysis of each approach using the Hofstede Six Dimensions of National Culture for each country reveals a strong resemblance between the underlying values of each nation and its corresponding educational system. Strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches are provided and expected outcomes are analyzed. The rather recent development of private schools in Russia since the revolution in 1991 demonstrates a desire on the part of some Russian parents for some deviation from the previous Soviet model; however, although quite popular, private schools are still quite few. Finally, recommendations for teachers working across these two environments are provided.
Jan Vincent Meertens: Gaming in citizenship education
Abstract: As of 2006, Dutch primary, secondary and special education schools have the legal assignment to pay attention to culture and offer citizenship classes. Through this offer, students receive lessons about the fact that the Netherlands has become a country with much diversity. The core focus is on the Dutch state structure and the democratic institutions of freedom, equality, and solidarity. Attention is also paid to cultural competence. Shedding light on the history of current diversity and future diversity expectations can prepare students to be the citizens that the future will require. This article explores the use of gaming in enhancing intercultural awareness games for young students, ages 8 to 12. It will discuss the process of awareness creation through 5 components: Knowledge, attitude, skill, reflection and behaviour. The core of the article will review the inception and development of Empathy Land, how it can contribute to citizenship education and how its impact can be possibly measured. Empathy Land is a game developed by the Connect2Us foundation that focuses on helping children ultimately understand what we have in common and that our differences create opportunities to strengthen the fabric of our society. The article will use the Dutch culture as the context within which I will explore the subject.
Karina Bagration. Huib Wursten, Education in times of war
Abstract: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is displacing millions of people, most of them women and children More than two-thirds of children in Ukraine have been displaced from their homes since the start of the conflict, leading to significant interruptions to regular schooling. Education organization Osvitoria estimates that approximately 5.7 million school-age children in Ukraine are impacted by the conflict. It comes after two years of Covid. Ukraine refugee numbers are estimated to be more than 6 million
In the midst of conflict, Education continues. Political insecurity in Ukraine however has extended the disruptions to Education due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, schools in the country have moved back online. This paper will look at the implications.
Chika Miyamori and Reiko Tashiro: Needs for CQ Education in Japan
Abstract: A 2022 survey by Japan’s MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) found that approximately 10,000 out of 133,310 non-Japanese children living in the country of an age where Education is compulsory are either not attending or are likely not attending school. Even though this number has halved since the last survey in 2019, it indicates that insufficient educational opportunities are available for some foreign children. Compulsory Education does not apply to non-Japanese children in Japan. Still, MEXT is requesting that each local board of Education ensures there are opportunities for those children to attend school based on international covenants on human rights. The article will pursue why it occurs in Japan from national culture perspectives and argues the necessity of cultural intelligence (CQ) education in the country
What are the objectives of education in a challenging diverse world?
By Fernando Lanzer
The objectives of education have been described differently in different cultures by many educators and policy makers. However, more often than not, this has been done without an awareness of the underlying cultural values that support and influence these written concepts.
One of the unwritten objectives of education in every culture is to perpetuate that culture through educational content, teaching students to value the symbols, rituals and heroes of that culture, plus the stated values of that culture. Yet culture perpetuation happens not only through transmitting educational content from one generation to the next, but perhaps even more strongly through the style format of educational activities, as the way education is carried out reflects the culture’s underlying core values, mostly unconscious to educators.
This paper will examine the formulation of educational objectives and make explicit the respective links to the underlying core values of their cultures, using Huib Wursten’s Mental Images (1) as a reference framework. It will subsequently outline the need for a more comprehensive enunciation of educational objectives that can take into account core culture value differences and still offer functional effectiveness across cultures in a challenging diverse world.
When we look up the enouncement of what the objectives of education, we will find collections of very nice words, palatable phrases that seem quite universal (2). It takes some deeper digging to uncover the differences among cultures, often found in nuances hidden behind the plain vanilla coating of official statements on the topic translated into international English, that ultimate varnish attempting to hide the beautiful warts of cultural diversity.
Teachers are “keepers of the faith,” along with priests and Human Resources Management professionals. Whether aware of this aspect of their role or not, they tend to perpetuate the values of their culture. As such, they tend to be conservative in the sense that they are striving to maintain the established values. It is true that there are some teachers who try to “rock the boat” by proposing and practicing approaches that are different from that culture’s traditions. These boat rockers typically get a lot of attention from the media, because they are perceived as threats to the system. Threats always get more media attention than those who are the majority and trying to keep the boat steady. Therefore, one must discount the headlines about revolutions in education. Even when such revolutions are needed and desired (by a minority) they do not represent the mainstream values of any culture.
This “keeping the faith” mentality is not just prevalent in classroom teaching; it pervades the whole institutional apparatus of education sustaining both private and government-run schools at every level. It is quite evident in educational policy-setting organisms existing at national and local levels, all of which have their own “educational objectives” official statements, and all of which are consistent with the prevailing national culture values.
The ultimate objective of education might be described as the development of good citizens according to a culture’s concept of “a good citizen.” This concept can be rather different from one culture to another. And this concept, often unwritten and not quite crystal clear, is what guides, rather invisibly, the ideas about what children and teenagers need to learn at school in order to become “responsible adults” and “good citizens.”
Let’s take a look at what it is that education is aiming for within different types of cultures. In other words, what do kids need to learn in order to fit well within each culture?
Confront, compete and perform
In Contest cultures, kids should learn to confront and compete. This is not the priority among learning needs in other cultures, as we will see. In Contest cultures, also referred to as “the Anglo-American cultural commonwealth” that includes the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, a good citizen is someone capable of “standing their ground” (there is even a specific law in Arizona about that) in terms of confronting others about their point of view, eventually to the extent of physical fighting and using lethal weapons (3). All of this is regarded as a legal right of any citizen, and as such enjoys protection by the State.
Learning to be competent and motivated by competing to win, repeatedly, on a daily basis, is more important than confrontation. Therefore, in Contest cultures kid must learn how to compete at school, in their neighborhoods, at work once they grow up, and basically in every situation. Naturally, the enunciation of educational objectives reflects those values.
The US Department of Education states that “Our mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” (The emphasis in bold is made by the author) (4).
For competitions to be fair, everyone in these cultures should perceive that there is “a level playing field” where opportunities to win are equal for all participants. This is the basis for the concepts of Equal Opportunity Employment and Affirmative Action. It is reflected in the US Department of Education Statement by the expression “equal access.”
The educational curriculum in the US is decentralized to the states and districts; therefore, there is no centralized national curriculum in the sense that one might see in other countries. Yet, anyone familiar with American schooling will attest that in every school there is an abundance of competitions, organized by teachers for their pupils to learn by competing with each other on a regular basis, from the first grade to the end of High School. The underlying concept is that by learning to compete, youngsters will be ready to be successful in the labor market as adults. And since performing is a core value of Contest cultures (in detriment of quality of life and caring), once again the emphasis is placed on competitiveness.
Organize and comply
In Germanic cultures, known as Well-oiled Machine cultures, such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, among others, the objectives of education reflect underlying values by focusing on teaching kids to organize themselves (and the world around them) and to comply to norms through heightened self-discipline. These are seen as the path to excellence, the ultimate goal. Machine cultures are performance-oriented, but they stress planning, organization, structure, and discipline as necessary to obtain the desired results. The focus is on perfecting processes to reach results, rather than on results regardless on how you get them.
Therefore, the objectives of education are to develop specialists who from an early age will learn to be disciplined and well organized. The high Uncertainty Avoidance value dimension underpins the approach to education as it does to life in general. This means also that teachers must be experts on content and follow well-established methods rigorously.
In Germany, the Ministry of Education and Research has a page with 404 words describing its “Objectives and Tasks” (the choice of these terms is already saying something about the culture). None of those words are “enjoy” nor “experience.” Instead, the term “excellence” appears three times. (5)
Question, discuss, and care
When we look up the objectives of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, this is what we find (6):
“The Ministry has the following objectives:
To ensure that
everyone gets a good education
everyone is prepared for personal independence and responsibility
everyone has the opportunity to experience and enjoy culture
teachers, artists and scientists are able to carry out their work.”
The Network cultures’ core values of egalitarianism, individualism and quality of life are clearly visible in that statement. The statement is also very inclusive: it repeats the term “everyone” three times, and then specifically mentions teachers, artists and scientists. This is quite typical of Network cultures: to emphasize the agents and not only the clients.
Note, also, the use of the terms “experience and enjoy culture;” these are hallmarks of caring & quality of life cultures, as opposed to performance-oriented ones.
So, what do kids need to learn in Network cultures in order to be “good citizens?”
In the first place, they need to learn to question. Nothing should be taken for granted, and in an egalitarian environment children learn to question and be assertive from an early age. They also learn to discuss and be persuasive.
Some years ago, ABN AMRO assembled a task force of senior executives to design a set of competences to be used as a standard for leaders in the organization. These competences would be the answer to the questions: “what should ABN AMRO leaders be capable of doing? What competences should they have in order to succeed?”
The task force was made of mostly Dutch nationals, but there was also an Australian, a couple of South Americans and someone from Eastern Europe. The group was presented with a list of ten competences that had been designed by Dutch Human Resources professionals. The group’s objective was to review that list and adapt it, wherever necessary, to be used internationally across the 65 countries where ABN AMRO had its network of branches.
The first item on the list was immediately the subject of heated discussions. It was “persuasion.”
The Dutch members of the task force were quite convinced this competence should be the very first on the list. In their opinion, persuasion was an essential competence for a leader. How else would someone be capable of mobilizing people to follow them, if not by persuasion? The Australian colleague agreed.
The members who came from hierarchical cultures disagreed strongly. In their view, leaders did not need persuasion in order to mobilize people. Leaders were in positions of authority and did not need to persuade anybody to obey them. There were other competences that were more essential to leadership, such as “vision,” “charisma,” or “business acumen.”
The point here is that in Network cultures, being egalitarian, indeed kids need to learn to be assertive in order to engage in the frequent discussions characterized by individualistic and egalitarian cultures. If they don’t learn to question and discuss, they will not succeed in an environment that demands such skills. (“Lack of assertiveness” has been listed as a mental illness covered by health insurance in the Netherlands). At the same time, the emphasis on these skills perpetuates the culture.
The contrast with Contest and Machine cultures is that in Network cultures there is less emphasis on performing and competing to win. While there is a strong emphasis on winning and being “number one” in American schools, for instance, in Dutch schools kids are told to “do their best” and be content with that. There is a lot of emphasis also on living together in Network cultures, and this includes fostering empathy and caring for those who did not come out at the top in school competitions.
Perhaps a way to summarize the difference regarding educational objectives is to say that in Contest cultures kids are taught to argue, discuss and confront with the purpose of winning a discussion. There should be an outcome, with winners and losers. By contrast, in Network cultures kids are taught to question and discuss with the purpose of asserting their opinion and being heard. The expected outcome is that everyone has been heard, but often there is no conclusion and there are no winners and losers. People agree to disagree, and then seek to reach a consensus around something that they all can live with. Regardless to say, this is all happening already since an early age in the family and at school. The “caring” aspect is demonstrated by encouraging discussion without having to destroy your opponent; it is sufficient to state your position.
Make friends, climb and maintain the system
Social Pyramid cultures are based primarily on relationships and hierarchy. The purpose of life in such societies tends to be seen as climbing the pyramid to the highest position possible for each person. Not everybody can get to the very top, and accepting that as a fact, is the very definition of Power Distance.
The path to the top is paved by relationships with people holding positions higher than your own. Make friends with everyone; you never know when one of your friends might help you on your way up.
The objectives of education in Pyramid cultures are usually more explicitly focused on hierarchy, rather than relationships. Sure, kids are taught to avoid confrontation and conflict, but that happens indirectly and implicitly.
An example follows. In my native Brazil there used to be a class-wide award given to Fifth Graders. This award was called “the Best Companion Award,” because it was basically a choice made among peers (a bit like the Oscars, one might say): the fifth graders nominated a classmate and whoever got the most nominations got the award. However, it was not given out to the kid who had the most friends or was the most popular; it was actually given to someone who was thought to be the best pupil: the kid with the best grades and the best behavior in class. What some would call “a teacher’s pet.”
So, the lesson here was not about relationships; rather, it was about obedience to authority and doing your best while not getting in trouble with anybody.
Therefore, the purpose of education in Pyramid cultures can be summarized as climbing the pyramid and keeping it in place… If there is no pyramid anymore, there is no purpose in trying to climb it.
This contributes to explaining why most Pyramid cultures tend towards the conservative side. Keeping the hierarchy in place is part of everyday life, and one of the objectives of education.
Take this excerpt from Charles Darwin’s travel diary during a visit to Brazil in 1832 (7):
“It has been gravely asserted by Brazilians that the only fault they found with the English laws was that they could not perceive rich respectable people had any advantage over the miserable & the poor.”
Since hierarchy is perceived as part of the natural order, it must be maintained or risk the impression that chaos would ensue without it.
When one seeks to find something about the objectives of education in Brazil, as an example of a Social Pyramid culture, the contrast with the websites of the previously mentioned cultures is striking.
The Ministry of Education has an introductory page with 977 words, but none of them mention the objectives of education, nor the mission and vision of the ministry (8). Instead, the text describes the history of the ministry, its areas of responsibility and its structure. In other words: it describes the pyramid that is the ministry, and its history.
The subsequent pages of the website describe (a) the Minister of Education’s calendar appointments (so that people can check who the boss is going to see); (b) the calendar appointments of the Minister’s direct reports (who the other bosses are going to see); and (c) the ministry’s organization chart (shaped like a pyramid of reporting lines).
It is quite clear that the focus is on the history and structure of the institution, plus the people at the top (in order to guide your relationships). The mission and purpose of the ministry are never mentioned, nor the objectives of education. This is not regarded as important; knowing the hierarchy and who is involved, this is what is important.
The purpose of education, implied but not made explicit, is to teach kids to know the hierarchy and the people involved, and to respect it. This is what they will need to know in order to establish relationships and start climbing up the pyramid.
Conceptualize and play the system
In Solar System cultures there is a constant tension between respecting the hierarchy and allowing for individual freedom and autonomy as well. Robust concepts serve the function of allowing people to manage that tension, wherever they are in the hierarchy and whoever they are dealing with.
Therefore, the objectives of education emphasize very much the understanding of theoretical concepts and the accumulation of knowledge content (rather than pragmatism). The accumulation of knowledge also helps to maintain the hierarchy: the more you know, the higher can your position be on the social hierarchy, and you must also frequently demonstrate your knowledge to others as a way of asserting your position. Kids are taught very early that this is important, and they are also incentivized to read and accumulate knowledge as much as possible.
Kids also learn that the social system is actually quite complex and requires more than just the accumulation of knowledge to become successful. They learn to “play the system” by respecting hierarchy and yet finding loopholes in rules and legislation that allow them to get what they want without crumbling the pyramid. They become experts in “savoir-faire” rather than just “know-how.” They learn how to be diplomatic and say things without being blunt; they discuss concepts instead of attacking each other personally; and they become adapt at winning arguments with grace, without making others lose face.
In other words, the objectives of education are for kids to learn the concepts behind the hierarchy and individual freedoms; and to use that knowledge in order to play the system with elegance at all times.
When we look at the French as an example of a Solar System culture, we see that they have a code de léducation (education code) which compiles extensive laws and regulations over the topic, far too extensive (true to form to such a culture) to quote here. However, we can quote a summary from items in that code (Articels L111, L121 and L131) resulting in (9):
“À partir du code de l’éducation, on peut identifier quatre grands objectifs : transmettre et faire acquérir des connaissances, préparer à la vie professionnelle, éduquer les futurs adultes à être citoyens et à vivre ensemble, viser l’égalité entre élèves dans la réussite éducative.”“From the education code we can identify four main objectives: transmit and enable the acquisition of knowledge, prepare for professional life, educate future adults to be citizens and to live together, aim for equality among pupils seeking educational success.”
As stated above, acquiring knowledge comes first. Then comes professional life and after that the values of the republic (égalité, fraternité).
Climb and adapt to changing system
Traditional Family cultures share many characteristics with Social Pyramid cultures. The main differences relate to lower scores in Uncertainty Avoidance, which are linked to greater flexibility and risk appetite.
When we look at China as a prime example of a Family culture, we should remember what Professor Yuen Yen Ang mentioned during her brilliant 2019 presentation at the Camden Conference titled “How the West and Beijing got China Wrong.” She said: “What everyone needs to understand is that China’s strength lies not in brute power, but in its flexibility.”
Chinese culture emphasizes adaptability. Yes, the Chinese perspective on the world (what Freud called Weltanschauung) is that there is always a hierarchy in society, and you need to climb it (much like in Social Pyramid cultures). The difference is that in the Chinese perspective the world is constantly changing, and people need to learn to adapt constantly to the changes around them. The world is perpetually dynamic and the purpose of education is to teach kids to understand and go with the flow. Power is not distributed equally, but the distribution is constantly changing depending on circumstances. This is the essence of Michael Harris Bond’s “Confucian Dynamism” value-dimension, incorporated as Hofstede’s Fifth Dimension: Long Term Orientation (LTO).
This perspective on the world includes the notion that one should focus on long-term objectives and be patient. The path to that long-term objective will be fraught with twists and turns, so don’t worry about short-term deviations and detours; just keep your mind on those ultimate objectives which you will eventually reach if you can adapt to changing circumstances along the way.
When we look up the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Education website, the landing page tells us about a press conference in which the MOE presents a “sea change in China’s educational landscape.” Other aspects of the website are quite similar to the Brazilian example of a Social Pyramid culture previously mentioned: extensive description of the ministry’s scope of responsibility and copious mentions of officials and staff members (the collectivistic aspect). Change is also mentioned when saying that “the CPC’s 100-year history is a journey of seeking happiness for the Chinese people and rejuvenation for the Chinese nation.” The words are carefully chosen in China’s official statements, so it is no accident to refer to change and rejuvenation.
While international educational entities, such as UNICEF and UNESCO, can be praised for their efforts in enunciating “universal” statements about educational objectives, the reality is that different cultures have their own way of expressing these objectives. This includes, albeit unconsciously, the objective of perpetuating cultural values. One should not dismiss the sometimes-nuanced differences between one culture and another’s way of referring to educational objectives. We will find that these subtleties contain the very essence of cultural value differences.
Wursten, Huib: The Seven Mental Images of National Cultures. Hofstede Insights, Helsinki, 2019.
Abstract: As of 2006, Dutch primary, secondary and special education schools legally have to provide lessons on culture and offer citizenship classes. The purpose of this part of the curriculum is to raise awareness of the diversity and multiculturalism in today’s Dutch society.
This article explores the use of a simple board game to enhance cultural intelligence (CQ) for young schoolchildren aged 8 to 14. It will discuss the process of CQ development through 5 components: knowledge, attitude, skill, reflection, and behavior.
The core of the article will review the inception and development of Empathy Land, how it can contribute to citizenship education and how its impact can be possibly measured. The article explores, in the context of Dutch culture, how Empathy Land can contribute to preventing stereotyping and prejudice from being instilled in children before they become teenagers.
Empathy Land is a game developed by the Connect2Us Foundation which focuses on helping children understand what we have in common and that our cultural diversity and differences create opportunities to strengthen the fabric of our society. The essence of the game is to foster dialogue between children. Whilst playing the game, children are encouraged to explore their differences. This exploration, in a non-judgmental fun game, builds acceptance of differences and raises awareness of what they have in common. The short dialogues that take place whilst playing aim to build understanding, not only about cultural folklore but also deeper values and norms. The aim is to nurture positive imaging, and discuss cultural characteristics in an open way from the perspective of equivalence and respect. This will help children understand the relationship between their own and others’ identities, seeing them as complementary and not opposing.
Context: The Need To Build Cultural Understanding and Competence in the Future Generation
21st-century society is multicultural in essence. The Dutch population comprises a majority with long-time Dutch roots and minorities who live in the shadow of the dominant cultural ideology, the “majority culture”. Most minorities have qualitative dimensions linked to their specific cultural and socio-economic characteristics. Such characteristics can produce value systems and lifestyles that are very different from the “majority culture”.
To strengthen democracy, education systems need to consider the multicultural character of society and aim at actively contributing to peaceful coexistence and positive interaction between different cultural groups. Education systems need to be responsive to the specific educational needs of all social groups, including minorities. Among the issues to be considered is how to foster the cultural, social, and economic vitality of such minority communities through effective and adequate educational programs that respect the cultural perspectives and orientations of the learners, while at the same time developing knowledge and (social-emotional) skills that enable them to participate fully in the larger society and contribute to a spirit of solidarity and cooperation among diverse individuals and groups in society. In other words, learning to live together, in a spirit of respect for the values of pluralism.
Educational institutes, therefore, play a major role in promoting social cohesion and peaceful coexistence, especially in this world in which social upheaval challenges traditional ways of life. Citizenship education can make an important and meaningful contribution to tolerant and sustainable communities by fostering dialogue between students of different cultures, beliefs, and religions. Understanding each other’s cultures is key to the reconciliation of group identities within a framework of social cohesion. Citizenship education does not simply address a problem but contributes to the foundations of our society and enables individuals to exercise their freedoms and thus help shape a tolerant society (Eidhof, 2019). Many definitions of the “good global citizen” value empathy as an especially important disposition for understanding others across national borders and cultural divides; however, it may be harder to develop empathy for those whom we perceive as psychologically and physically distant (Bachen et al., 2012). The idea of culture itself is potentially counterproductive as it can easily lead to the fixing of traits, habits, opinions and essentialism, which is still very much present in research on intercultural pedagogy (Dervin, 2016 in Iaboni, 2021). Storytelling and playful cultural exchanges in the context of a game appear to be a promising approach to help students reconsider their ethnocentric framework once they have been aware of it. This Cultural intelligence (CQ) allows assumptions about others to be questioned before being considered the truth. The construct of cultural intelligence does not stem from a cultural way of seeing and interpreting the world, but rather it is an openness to different ways of thinking, behaving and living without a cultural reference.
Within the last decade, European schools for primary, secondary, and special education were ordained by the European Commission to offer a citizenship curriculum and to consider culture when creating the curriculum to ensure inclusivity. The Netherlands, following through on this directive, accepted amendments to several education laws in connection with the clarification of citizenship duties to schools in primary and secondary education. The current core objectives for primary and secondary education that were established in 2006 provide guidance for the educational practice in the Netherlands. They are the legal framework for educational content and outline what is important to teach students. The core objectives are very broadly defined. The legislator thus gives schools the freedom to determine the content of their education themselves.
It is interesting to note that this approach is typical of the Dutch national culture. In the framework proposed by Wursten (2019) the Netherlands fits the ‘Network’ culture profile. Keywords for this culture are consensus, cooperation, co-optation and shared administration. A useful analogy to illustrate the Network culture is that of the shopping mall. The mall hosts many shops which are run independently, with their own profit and loss accountability. However, the individual owners benefit from the unity within the concept of a mall. Although the owners will not accept authority, they willingly participate in discussing and agreeing on mutual interests such as opening hours, security, branding etcetera. This approach is quite prominent in Dutch society, including the school system. Hence the broad definition of core educational objectives. This broad definition can, however, be Often to the dismay of schools that lack time, resources, and knowledge to develop their own curriculum.
Citizenship competencies do not exist in a vacuum. They consist of knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and are often related to a subject – about which, among other things, a pupil needs to have specific knowledge to be competent. A widely used classification of citizenship has four core competencies:
1 Acting democratically
2 Acting in a socially responsible way
3 Dealing with differences
4 Dealing with conflicts
The NL Curriculum and How Connect2us can Assist
In 2019 a series of Grand Objectives were defined by a workgroup named Curriculum.nl. 125 teachers and 18 school leaders identified the knowledge and skills needed (building blocks) for nine learning areas. The building blocks serve as a basis for the revision of the core objectives. For Citizenship, eleven building blocks were recognized.
Th Connect2Us foundation has recognized the gap in the specifics of a school cultural programme in the Dutch school system. The building blocks created in 2019 then allowed the Connect2Us Foundation to identify the ones matching its mission and develop a tool to help schools meet part of the aims of the building blocks.
Connect2Us has the mission to help people recognize, understand, and accept cultural differences so they will see they have more in common than not. Because children have been found to respond more empathically to those who are perceived as similar to themselves than to those who are perceived as dissimilar (Barnett, 1987), Cotton (1992) proposes that children should practice focusing on similarities between themselves and others as these types of exercises can increase affective and cognitive empathy; ongoing practice in imagining/perceiving another’s perspective represents an effective means to increasing levels of empathy. The adoption of this mindset is key to the development of CQ as they help children understand that others might be similar to them in ways they do not expect and can also help them reconsider stereotypes as a dysfunctional way to define others (Iaboni., 2021).
Connect2Us aims to reduce prejudices and its motto is ‘from astonishment to connection’. In the framework of this mission and with the citizenship competency of ‘dealing with differences’ and Curriculum.nl building blocks in mind, Connect2Us designed the board game Empathy Land for specific use in schools with children aged 8 – 14. Empathy Land was developed as an awareness-raising tool for interactive learning aiming at stimulating pupils’ intrinsic motivation to want to win the game and in the meantime inviting them to acknowledge the importance of communication and understanding differences in values and to also recognize similarities.
The game is proposed for students in groups 6,7 and 8 of primary education and 1 and 2 of secondary education, approximately aged 9 to 14 years old (Dutch educational system). The game is detailed below, but in essence, it is a simple board game. As children move around the board they land on a square and have to select a card. Each card contains a statement about society which prompts a discussion amongst the group about that behaviour in their own family and culture. The emphasis of the game is on the routine habits and beliefs of the players: what are we in fact talking about? what exactly differs and where do those differences come from? Do these differences really matter? what is the logic of one versus the other way of thinking and how can we discuss these differences, even being satisfied without necessarily reaching a consensus? Do we need to reconcile these differences? By discussing these scenarios the game ultimately aims to build curiosity about our differences. By understanding our differences we help remove (potential) prejudices and make clearer what we have in common.
Below we have laid out the core Curriculum.nl building blocks and highlighted where Empathy Land can help deliver against core aims:
Building block: Identity
Aim: Students discover their primary and secondary emotions, ambitions, talents, and points of development. They become aware of identity development and reflect on traditions, celebrations, and rituals.
Activity specific to Empathy Land: Students explore their ambitions and future expectations. They explore which group(s) they feel connected to and why. They learn about tensions between aspects of identity.
Building block: Diversity
Aim: Students learn to give words to what others do and want and discover similarities and differences between them. They learn to resolve mutual conflicts peacefully.
Activity specific to Empathy Land: Students explore the diverse society in the Netherlands; paying attention to values and convictions.
Building block: Solidarity
Aim: Students develop ways of looking after their own and others’ interests; as well as recognize and name exclusion, injustice, discrimination, and unequal treatment.
Activity specific to Empathy Land: Students develop an understanding of the principle of equality and of issues of inclusion and exclusion, and justice and solidarity.
Building block: Ways of thinking and acting
Aim: Students learn critical thinking, ethical reasoning, and communication and develop empathic abilities.
Activity specific to Empathy Land: Students develop communication skills, including active listening and providing feedback.
From building blocks to core learning objectives
As discussed earlier in the analogy of the mall, the Ministry of Education, the landlord of the educational system, had defined ‘grand objectives’ for school curricula. On 1 August 2021, the Dutch law clarifying the citizenship mission came into force. The Act obliges schools to formulate a targeted and coherent offer for citizenship, forcing schools into action. Despite these legal requirements, citizenship itself does not have its own grand, let alone core, objectives. The SLO (2021), an institute that, in the analogy of the mall can best be described as the janitor of the Dutch educational system, did however identify core objectives from related learning areas that correspond to citizenship. For primary education, the core objectives that most closely relate to citizenship can be found in the learning area of ‘orientation towards yourself and the world’ (OJW). Some core objectives can be directly and concretely linked to certain citizenship aspects, while other core objectives are more remotely related to citizenship. In addition, there are core objectives with skills that are important for participation in a pluralistic democratic society. These can be found in the learning area of Dutch (NL).
Specific to Empathy Land we can identify the following core objective: OJW 37: The students learn to behave with respect for generally accepted values and standards.
Methodology: knowledge, attitude, skill, reflection, and behaviour
With the building blocks of curriculum.nl and the core objective OJW 37 in mind, Empathy Land is designed to generate shorter and longer discussions between participants.
To be able to properly discuss cultural differences and to prevent stereotyping, three five things are important:
Deepen: do not only discuss “cultural folklore”, such as eating habits and celebrations but also deeper values (knowledge)
Positive imaging: discuss cultural characteristics in an open way and from the perspective of equality (attitude)
Navigate variation within cultures (skill)
Exchange views respectfully and develop cultural sensitivity (reflect)
Develop a positive, inclusive and empathetic presence in the community (behaviour)
The cards of the game have statements that prompt players to address the issue at hand in a playful manner, respecting their cognitive and emotional development. Not only will the players be able to exchange little nice-to-knows but they can also get ahead of the game if they have a lucky roll of the dice. Observers have seen children discuss habits from one home to the other with remarkable depth. Facilitators listen in at the different tables on which the game is played and collect cards they feel are interesting to use in the plenary debrief.
Theoretical Framework: Key Concepts of Cultural Theory
Facilitators of Empathy Land and citizenship development, in general, may benefit from a basic understanding of cultural theory. Three insights of cultural philosophy are important to relate to and understand somebody from a different culture. First, our ways of being, our ideas, and our convictions are not universal. Second, our thinking is based on several core values that influence our worldview and the way we act. Third, the subject, the I, is part of and a product of an environment, a tradition, and a variety of interactions with other beings. Approaching reality from a completely neutral or objective point of view is impossible (Gadamer, 1960).
Social anthropology has developed the conviction that all societies face the same basic problems, only the answers differ. Social scientists Alex Inkeles and Daniel Levinson suggested that the following issues qualify as basic social dilemmas:
Relation to authority.
The relationship of the individual to the group.
The individual’s concept of masculinity and femininity.
The way people deal with conflicts, including the control of aggression and the expression of feelings.
Exploring this concept further we can include the work of Geert Hofstede, who found empirical evidence that these problem areas represent dimensions of cultures. He named these dimensions power distance, collectivism versus individualism, femininity versus masculinity and uncertainty avoidance. Dimensions that can be measured relative to other cultures (Hofstede 2010). Wursten (2019) combined these dimensions into cultural profiles, mental images as he named them. These profiles give a practical framework to Empathy Land facilitators. Understanding this concept, the Empathy Land facilitator will be better able to anticipate the potential cultural gaps between the participants. Although this framework cannot predict individual behaviour it does provide more context to different habits and values indicating possible cultural differences between the Empathy Land players.
As discussed earlier, The Netherlands has a ‘network’ profile. The key characteristics of this profile, which is shared with Scandinavian countries, are:
Co-optation (trying to get the opposition onboard).
Sympathy for the underdog
Downplaying winners and heroes
Decisions are based on shared interest
Reflect before you act
Spare the praise
Reluctance to enforce rules
To Dutch Empathy Land facilitators, it is important to remember that these cultural preferences are often those of the Dutch majority. The network profile is the dominant profile in The Netherlands and most likely also in the classroom. This is the perspective that most of the players will have in an average Dutch school class. It is also often the perspective of the teacher. This awareness is important in order to understand that, as the player progress, other, divergent, views emerge in a cultural context and not just as a personal view.
The Netherlands has a multicultural society. After the Second World War there were different episodes of immigration into the Netherlands. The first was the former Dutch colony of Indonesia in the 1940s and 1950s. The second episode was when labor from EMEA countries (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Morocco) was attracted in the 1960s and 1970s, coinciding with the arrival of immigrants from the Dutch colony of Surinam. Starting from the nineties, the Netherlands accommodated asylum seekers from different countries such as Iran, Iraq, former Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Afghanistan and more recently Ukraine. In addition, there are migrant workers from Eastern European and India. Furthermore, individuals from most other countries have settled temporarily or permanently in the Netherlands. There are 180 nationalities in Amsterdam alone. In practice, this means that Empathy Land facilitators may have participants from all seven cultural profiles.
In summary, according to the Central Bureau for Statistics (CBS), 4.652.927 people with a migration background were living in the Netherlands on 1 October 2022. This represents 26.2 per cent of the Dutch population. Of the total Dutch population, 11.5 per cent have a western migration background and 14.7 per cent have a non-western migration background. The top 4 culture profiles of migration background are:
Pyramid (Turkey, Morocco, Surinam, Middle-East)
Family (Indonesia, India)
Well-oiled Machine (Germany, Central Europe)
Solar System (Poland, Latin Europe)
The remaining profiles are Contest (Anglo-Saxon countries) and Japan.
The significant cultural differences
Let us first consider the significant cultural differences that may emerge between schoolchildren from the network culture and the four main culture profiles present in the migrant communities in the Netherlands. It should be noted that these general characteristics apply to the culture, but not necessarily to individuals. In the context of groups, such as family and friends, individuals often tend to show behavior and cultural preferences in line with values predominant in that culture.
The first profile, Pyramid, applies to children with a Moroccan, Turkish, Portuguese, and Surinam background.
The Pyramid culture is highly collectivistic. Family and in-groups are very important and loyalty to these groups essential. The Network culture, in contrast, is very individualistic. People are focused on their smaller inner circle and create or join (music, sports) groups based on their personal preferences.
In Pyramid cultures hierarchy is respected and enforced by a centralized authority. Inequality of power is generally accepted. There is a need for structure and clear instructions. In the Network cultures, and therefore the Netherlands, equality and autonomy and hence personal freedom are the foundation of society. In Network cultures hierarchy is accepted only to coordinate matters. Autonomy is important, the individual can complete the tasks to the best of her or his abilities.
People in pyramid cultures value an intellectual and expert approach to issues. Intellectuals and experts have a high status. An academic background is very important for the credibility of people, it creates followship. Wisdom comes with the years. In Network cultures, intellectuals and experts are respected but do not necessarily have a high status. Equality prevails and age does not automatically contribute to earning higher esteem.
People in Pyramid cultures prefer a deductive, epistemological, approach to finding solutions. In a Network culture an inductive, best-practice approach, is the common thinking style.
The top-down approach and deductive thinking style lead to a ‘guru’ learning style in Pyramid cultures. The teacher sends and the learner receives and copies.
The preferred communication style in Pyramid cultures is high-context, indirect, with respect to the listener and subtle face-saving strategies. In Network cultures communication is very direct, it is a low- context. This concept will be elaborated on below.
The Family culture profile applies to children with Indonesian, Indian and Chinese backgrounds. This culture profile is largely congruent with that of Pyramid. The same differences with the Network culture apply. For Asian cultures, it is important to take Confucianism into account. This philosophy has a great influence on most Asian cultures – it is a system of behaviours and ethics that stress the obligations of people towards one another based upon their relationship. The collective good is prioritized above individual needs. Family is the strongest collective and the cornerstone of society. Respect is usually shown to those with status, power, position, and age.
There is one other, significant, distinction: people from Family cultures can adapt more easily and are more flexible to changes than people from Pyramid cultures. They have less need for predictability. Bureaucratic rules are unimportant; it is the boss who decides everything. Usually, it is easy to gain access to the boss if you have a good idea. This relaxed attitude toward predictability we also find in the Network culture.
Network cultures differ strongly from Family cultures on the hierarchy and individualism dimensions, as with Pyramid cultures, but are more in tune with a more relaxed attitude towards predictability, rules and bureaucracy. This suggests that Network cultures have fewer core differences to reconcile with Family cultures than with Pyramid cultures.
Solar System profile
The Solar System culture profile applies to children with Spanish, French, Greek, Italian and Polish backgrounds. This culture profile is largely congruent with that of Pyramid. The variation is on the individualism dimension. This profile shows a special mix of value dimensions with a high acceptance of hierarchy in combination with high individualism and a high need for predictability. There is a tendency to look first at all available expert information before actions are taken. Deductive thinking (theory first then practice) is the preferred approach. In Solar System cultures being called an intellectual is very positive. However, if the authority overplays its hand, then the people will rise, driven by their individualistic traits.
Network cultures differ strongly from Solar System cultures on the hierarchy and need for predictability dimensions but are more in tune with individualism.
Well-oiled Machine profile
The Well-Oiled Machine culture applies to children with a central European, mostly German-speaking, background. This cultural profile is, like the Network profile, egalitarian and individualistic. Unlike Network culture, however, the culture is characterized by a relatively strong drive for competition and a high need for structure. Expertise is highly valued, and the preferred thinking style is deductive (theory first, then practice).
Storytelling is a strong way of sharing thoughts and beliefs and exploring the common ground between cultures. Empathy Land invites players, through random prompts, to share their stories on a certain aspect of life. Communication itself is subject to cultural bias and Dutch facilitators should be aware of communication patterns common in the cultures described above.
The Empathy Land player creates an idea of what (s)he wants to share and transforms his or her thoughts into words that will transmit the meaning. The listener converts the information into his or her ‘own’ meaning. This decoding is subjective. We hear things as we are, depending on our cultural profile. Two predicaments have been widely seen as the most influential on the style of communication: the dilemmas of how to deal with authority and how to deal with the relationship between the individual and society. These two dilemmas can be linked to two contrasting communication styles introduced by anthropologist Edward Hall in his book ‘Beyond Culture’ (1976). He distinguished the ‘high-context’ style and the ‘low-context’ style. Hall argued that some cultures prefer communication through inference and implied ideas (high-context), while other cultures entertain more explicit, low-context, communication. Low-context communicators tend to, based on the belief that there is always objective truth, emphasize logic and rationality. This allows for an inductive and linear, monochronic, process of communication. High-context communicators will contemplate an issue with circular logic, polychronic and deductive thinking, accepting that there may be more than just one single truth. (Würtz, 2006; Hofstede 2010). In high-context cultures, therefore, intimate relationships, well-structured social hierarchy, and social norms serve as a broad context in which interpersonal communication takes place. Most communication relies on the physical context or is presented non-verbally, and less information is contained in the verbal part of the message such as in words, sentences, and grammar (Hall, 1976).
The individualistic and egalitarian Network culture is low context, whilst Pyramid and Family are high context. This also applies to the Anglo-Saxon profile. Because of its more individualistic nature, the Solar profile is high context relative to the Network profile, but lower relative to the Family and Pyramid profiles.
Linguistic diversity is a reflection of cultural diversity and is central to concepts of education. Linguistic competencies are fundamental for the empowerment of the individual in democratic and plural societies, as they condition school achievement, promote access to other cultures and encourage openness to cultural exchange. The use of language teaches us how people communicate. Are they direct or indirect? Do they pay much attention to form or rather to content? What about the context in which things are said or not said? The use of language says a lot about how people interact with each other, including whilst playing Empathy Land.
Empathy Land is a bilingual game. The prompts are in Dutch and in English. This allows Dutch and English language teachers to use the game in the context of their lesson. English is commonly referred to as the lingua franca of the world. And it is true, there are many English-speaking people. The Dutch are known for their relatively good command of English. However, it is the English through the minds and cultural filter of the Dutch. There are not only lexical and linguistic skills, Dutch speaking English are (unconsciously) influenced by own cultural filter, they speak with a cultural accent so to say. And People listening to the Dutch speaking English will also listen with their own cultural filter. Expats from India, for instance, speak English. However, it is most likely their second language, as there are dozens of mother tongues in India. It is an English that the Dutch often understand but struggle to really comprehend. In addition to the English words, communication is via gestures, silences, adverbs and facial expressions as communication in India is high-context. The addition of non verbal communication adds to the challenge of true understanding. It is very different from Anglo-Saxon, low-context English. But even then, when conversing with an Anglo-Saxon, aside from lexical and linguistic issues, people in the Netherlands tend to be more direct and explicit. The Dutch need everything on the table and to be transparent; it is not so much how it is said, but what is said. The Dutch look for meaning, not always the beauty of the language.
A common language may open doors, but behind the doors, there might not be a common (mental) space.
Summary: Key Differences Between Dutch Culture and other Minority Migrant Groups
In summary, we can distinguish the following broad cultural differences between the Dutch and migrant communities.
The Dutch have a very direct, low-context, communication style. What you read or hear is what you get. The Dutch do not like hidden messages and expect people to speak up if they have something on their minds.
Equality and autonomy are non-negotiable. Authoritarianism and collectivism are the dimensions that provide the most aversion to the Dutch. Culture is always reciprocal and the (negative) impact of a strong need for equality and autonomy to people from Pyramid, Family and to a lesser extent Solar cultures can be quite strong.
The need for predictability in the Netherlands is much more contextual and negotiable than in the Well-oiled Machine, Solar and Pyramid cultures. The seeming carelessness for structure and expertise may upset people from Pyramid, Solar and Well-oiled Machine cultures.
Finally, the strong need of the Dutch for a well-balanced private and work life, with only a selective drive for excellence and achievement (sports) can be excruciating to the strong achievers from the Well-oiled Machine (and Anglo-Saxon) cultures.
The table below summarizes the framework in which Empathy Land was developed and the prompt cards were designed. Understanding this framework will help facilitators to better manage the dynamics of the game and have meaningful discussions around these central themes of culture.
Practical application: How Empathy Land Bridges the Cultural Differences
Empathy land is an interactive board game in which students reveal at-home habits, and the others guess whether the habit is true or false for the student’s home life. The game will be followed by a teacher-led class discussion.
Cultivate an understanding of differences and similarities
Insight into the diffused existence of differences; subcultures; grey areas
Habits and behavior are often (not always) an expression of deeper cultural
Empathy Land can be played with up to six players per board. The game will take around one hour for a class to complete and allow learning objectives to be met. The game itself will take up to 30 minutes resulting in one ‘winner’ reaching Empathy Land first. The teacher can use the remainder of the time to debrief and facilitate a discussion between the children. Cards that generated interesting discussion can be laid aside to use during the debrief.
The teacher has the option to remove cards from the deck if (s)he feels they may be too abstract, complicated or confrontational for the players at their particular stage in life. As children grow older or become more experienced with the game the card deck can be expanded. The card has a prompt on one side and some basic explication on the other.
One, designated, player draws a prompt card from the set of cultural statements and reads it aloud to the other players. The other players indicate whether they believe the statement is true or false for the reader’s family. The reader and all other players who guessed correctly are allowed to roll the die and move their game piece according to the number on the die. The person on the left of the reader gets to play next, beginning by drawing a card from the pile of cultural statements, and then the game continues in the same way as above, until a player lands on space “50”. The players will encounter obstacles and bonuses along the way. If they land on a space with a happy smiley, they follow the green track and airplane to advance to the allotted space. If they land on a space with a sad smiley, they follow the red track and submarine to go back to the allotted space.
The plenary discussion can be initiated with open questions posed by the teacher. What did you notice? Are there things that have surprised you? Was it always the same for everyone in your group? Where were the differences?
Once the class has identified a behavioral difference the following questions are examples of creating a dialogue between the participants. How did you discuss these differences at your table? How did you avoid exclusion? How did you respond if you were in the minority? What do you think of those differences? Where do you think the differences come from?
The more than 100 cards have prompts that invite players to talk about a range of cultural topics connected to everyday life but also connected to the deeper value differences discussed above. The prompts will likely reveal cultural differences that manifest themselves in day-to-day habits and activities. Below are several examples showing the prompt, the cultural dimension it is mostly linked to and the profiles that are likely to show the highest difference with the Network cultures, the Dutch in particular.
Related to dimension
Related to profile
When I speak, I also use my hands to express myself
Communication style (high-context vs low context)
everyone eats from his / her own plate
family usually comes a little less often
we have pets as “companions” at home
my parents think it’s best that children remain at home until they marry
I often spend time with my cousins
my parents trust me in what I watch on TV
we respect each other’s personal space
Individualism vs. collectivism (I vs we)
father (or mother) make the important decisions
children do not contradict parents
older children are expected to be responsible for younger children
the teacher is right
we wash our hands before dinner
we recycle at home
there is a difference in clothes we wear inside and outside the house
as a family, we are generally very punctual if we have an appointment, we will be on time
my parents are overprotective about who I date
we only drink bottled water
Need for predictability (UAI)
Father helps more in the household
my father or mother is a volunteer
I can talk easily to my family members when I’m feeling sad and lonely
Empathy Land is in the early stages of roll out and Connect2us are dynamically collecting data to explore its impact.
The aim of the game is to contribute to social and emotional learning (SEL), in particular to cultural sensitivity and empathy. SEL involves teaching children to effectively manage their emotions and interactions, become effective problem-solvers, gain a better sense of self, and learn empathy.
To date, we have had anecdotal positive reactions from both students and teachers. Next, we need to build a body of data to measure the short and long term impact on CQ. We are in the process of building the research methodology to measure if the board game Empathy Land does indeed foster cultural intelligence?
SEL skills can be measured through a mixed-method approach at both the student and classroom levels. We are looking to build studies that include quantitative data collected through a questionnaire and qualitative data collected through participatory observation have been combined to answer the research question.
Three key initiatives are underway to build this evidence base:
Game facilitators are feeding back qualitative data on reactions to the game at the end of each session. These observations include:
Facilitator observation during the session
Teacher observed impact in the short and medium term
The University of Groningen is currently preparing a study with clear and actionable data on students’ social and emotional skills to determine the impact of Empathy Land.
Francesca Laboni conducted her Master Thesis on Empathy Land (2021) and posed the following four hypotheses
Pupils refrain from drawing assumptions about their schoolmates (Metacognitive CQ; the mental capability to acquire and understand cultural knowledge).
Pupils acknowledge cultural differences between themselves (Cognitive CQ; knowledge about cultures and cultural differences)
Pupils are interested in learning more about their schoolmates and their differences (Motivational CQ; the capability to direct and sustain effort toward functioning in intercultural situations)
Pupils adjust their behaviour with schoolmates with different cultural backgrounds (Behavioral CQ; the capability for behavioural flexibility in intercultural interactions, which includes verbal and nonverbal actions resulting from mental processes).
Connect2us are working to develop four statements to measure these dimensions that schools could incorporate into an annual survey.
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Jan Vincent Meertens (1959). Meertens was born in the Netherlands and went to school and university in The Netherlands, Colombia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He lived in Colombia, Guatemala, and the United States and is currently based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Meertens has managed worldwide public-private partnerships. He is currently an author, speaker, and trainer in intercultural communication and Chairman of the Connect2Us Foundation.
“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.” – Kofi Annan
If we look at education as a process of socializing a human being to develop certain values and traits, instilling knowledge and skills, and generally preparing individuals to become productive members of society, we see a few distinctive figures that play a role in that process. Parents and extended family, educational institutions, teachers, peer groups, and society at large, including governing bodies, cultural institutions and the media. How much of a role these particular figures play in a child’s education and development can be very different depending on which part of the world you live in. Particularly interesting is how people who move from one culture to the other process these differences. One of the authors of this paper is an Indian expat in the Netherlands. According to her, “I was a much cooler parent when I lived in India than now that I live in the Netherlands. In India, I could relax a bit because I know that the school and society take on a large part of the responsibility of educating children and instilling certain values in them. Here in the Netherlands, I feel that it is entirely up to the parents and kids.”
The underlying cultural values that create such an atmosphere of participation in the development of the newer members of society warrant study and reflection. “It takes a village to raise a child.” This famous African proverb was quoted by a Dutch head of school recently at an event attended by one of the authors. Curiously, in Europe, the saying came to the forefront of the education discussion at an international Oslo conference in 2018, titled “It takes a village” – aimed at developing optimal service responses to children growing up in dysfunctional families.
The way education –formal and informal – is approached in different cultures is the objective of the study of this paper. Who are the primary educators in a child’s development in different cultures? How do we distinguish between the approaches to education? What are the underlying values that determine these distinctive approaches? And more importantly, what can we learn from each approach?
This paper uses several anecdotes from different cultures, interspersed with cultural explanations by the authors.
Role of Parents as Educators:
Autonomy vs. Protection
Anecdote 1: An American parent relocating to India complained to one of the authors that the relocation company did not understand the needs of families – “We were given one bedroom for my husband, myself, and our 16-month-old daughter!”
Anecdote 2: Upon visiting a Dutch household, one of the authors heard their infant cry constantly from the other room. The author asked if they wanted to go check on the baby. The Dutch parent replied: “No, she’ll go back to sleep eventually. She needs to learn that we can’t be there all the time.”
Anecdote 3: An Indian expat parent living in the Netherlands is quoted as saying the following to one of the authors: “Parents here don’t care as much for their children as we do in India. In India, we go to the children when they cry and pick them up when they fall. Here they don’t show that much care and consideration.”
There is no one better or one worse parenting style – parents typically try their absolute best in every culture. However, here you see distinctive approaches to educating a child from the American and Dutch cultures on the one hand and the Indian culture on the other.
The American and Dutch cultures are known to score high on Individualism – a cultural value that stresses a higher degree of independence and self-regulation in individuals. In these cultures, newborns are typically given their own rooms right from day one and are taught to self-soothe and go back to sleep when they wake up at night. A long and lonely (to the collectivist eyes) path to independence lies ahead of the child from then on.
Conversely, the underlying value is interdependence and harmony in collectivistic societies like India. To start with, placing a newborn in a room separate from its parents would be unheard of and a horrifying idea, signaling an unhealthy family situation. The Indian author of this paper even felt judgment from her own family when she chose to let her newborn baby sleep on a bed separate from her! In collectivist societies, parents typically dote on their children, support them in every way and show protection. The idea is to raise their young with all the confidence that they can count on their elders no matter what happens in life.
Anecdote 4: A Dutch parent proudly stated that his 9-year-old son could make his own lunch to take to school. An Indian parent’s reaction was: “why would you do that to your son? That’s what parents are for. Why don’t you let your child enjoy his childhood rather than give him additional responsibilities?”
Expat parents in the Netherlands often feel that Dutch parents take enormous risks in the freedom they give their children. Bicycling to school unattended, without wearing a helmet, is an example. The New York Times paid attention to another one of these practices: “droppings” – taking groups of kids to the woods (sometimes blindfolded) in the evening and asking them to find their way back themselves.
The Alpha and Omega of understanding Dutch society is the emphasis on “autonomy”. The Dutch pedagogue Martinus Langeveld, (1905-1989) exemplifies this attitude. His theory had a prominent place in the training school for teachers in the recent past. In his book “Beknopte theoretische paedagogiek” he mentions three attributes of adulthood, the end result of education: the first and most important one – Self- responsible self-determination. Children should learn to make their own decisions and define their path in life. Overly protective parents and teachers are in the way of this learning process. The second and third attributes give a social context for the first one:
To be a constructive participant in society. The emphasis is that your freedom ends where it interferes with the freedom of others
Langeveld held the opinion that all adults had a certain room to deviate from what, in general, was defined as constructive participants of society. In line with this self-responsible self-determination, parents allow their kids to take risks. But, of course, this has limits. The Dutch author reveals a secret about “droppings.”“Unbeknownst to the kids, we were watching them from afar to be sure nothing serious could happen. I urge you not to reveal that secret to keep it interesting for the children!”
Interestingly, though self-reliance and independence are equally important values in a culture like the United States, the idea of children riding bicycles without a helmet or the concept of “dropping” would not work there. Being a highly legalistic society, a parent can be sued for negligence in the United States if they even allow children to play in a park unattended. An American expat in the Netherlands asked one of the authors if there were rules around children touching other children or taking others’ toys. He said that in the United States, parents could be sued for their child’s (mis)behavior. This would never be an issue in the Netherlands (or in India or Japan, for that matter). However, this is a sign of the highly legalistic culture in the United States rather than intended to limit independence.
Contrary to Langeveld’s philosophy of education is the one followed in India, influenced by thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda. The principal goal of Indian education philosophy is creating an essence of universal humanity and the unity of existence. Closely following this primary goal is establishing harmony between creeds and religions. Though the Indian education system has undergone several transformations and influences from different parts of the world, the purpose has always been directed externally to the individual rather than internally focused. Education helps develop the nation or enables an individual to achieve unity with the universe. According to Tagore, “cooperation, selfless activities, love towards fellow humans, and responsibility towards nurturing social relationships is the main purpose of one’s informed mind. This enables the individual to live as a worthy being.”
Early childhood education on self-reliance vs. counting on/serving the other is one of the most important drivers in creating and maintaining a culture’s individualistic vs. collectivistic aspect.
On the other hand, you see an interesting mixture of self-reliance, counting on/serving the other, and reliance on authority in Japan. For example, Japanese primary school children between 6 and 12 who live in the neighborhood form a “going to school together” group and walk to school without parental guidance. One of the oldest children is the group leader and is responsible for the safety of the younger ones.
Authority vs. Collaborator
Anecdote 5: A child living in the United States is quoted to have threatened to call the police if his Indian parents were too strict with him. The parents promptly booked a ticket back to India and are said to have given the child a good thrashing on their way from the airport to their home in India.
Anecdote 6: While shopping in the Netherlands for some hobby items, a child turned to her Indian mother to ask for permission to buy something. The Dutch shopkeeper promptly stopped her and said, “It’s your money; you decide, not your mother.”
In high Power Distance societies like India, there is a definite hierarchy within a parent-child relationship. The parent is the decision-maker and ultimate authority in the family. Good education in a child means obedience and good manners when dealing with adults, even after adulthood. Seva, equivalent to the Chinese Xiao, refers to “long-term bonds of intergenerational reciprocity and affection, in which juniors provide care for their senior parents in old age and after death, as ancestors in return for all of the effort, expense and love their parents expended to producing raise them in infancy and childhood.”Seva is central in the Indian parent-child relationship, requiring support and care from the child to the (grand)parent and the filial duties of a son for his parents.
In traditional Indian society, visible even today, children often do not make decisions that may go against the wishes of their elders. This includes what university to go to, what line of education to pursue, and what career path to choose. In addition, arranged marriages (where the parents choose the spouse for their child) are still a common practice in Indian society.
In 2018, Insider carried an article titled “Dutch parents haggle endlessly with their kids, and teach them an important life skill in the process”. The author writes: “We are bringing the famed “polder model” into our home – in other words, decision-making by consensus). Everyone in the family, including the youngest, has a say. Consensus and compromise make for a happy home. And Dutch children will grow into Dutch adults, and in the workplace, in the Netherlands, anyone and everyone is entitled to their own opinion.”
The Japanese author of this paper mentions her observation of Dutch parenting – a child’s own opinion starts early, grows stronger, and is appreciated. Very early on, a Dutch child is asked, “which color do you want, blue or yellow?” Or, “what do you want, chocolate or vanilla ice cream?”. When a child is able to make a decision, onlookers acknowledge the successful parent with “he/she has his own opinion; you must be proud!”
This entitlement to opinion is about having autonomy, of course, but it is also a sign of the very egalitarian culture that is the Netherlands. Contrary to Indian society, in the Netherlands, parents are not expected to have the last say. Children are certainly not expected to carry out requests without negotiating with their parents.
Caregivers and Providers
Anecdote 7: The Japanese author of this paper reflects on the many aspects of parenting roles she sees in Dutch society. Unlike in Japan, in the Netherlands, fathers are equally involved in dropping and picking up their children to and from school and involved in all the parent-teacher meetings at school. “It is also quite acceptable for male managers to take a week of paternal leave (they have the right to this, and they use this right) when their wife has just given birth.”
Anecdote 8: At a conference that the Indian author of the paper attended, she was shocked to see that the Dutch (male) CEO stopped talking at 15.00 and said, “I need to leave to pick up my daughter from school.”
Each parent’s roles in a child’s upbringing are culturally very different. In Masculine societies like India and Japan, the mother is still the main caregiver, and the father is the main provider. It is quite rare in these cultures to see fathers staying at home to take care of their young or even taking up an equal role in child-rearing. In traditional Indian families, the father’s role was (as is) often that of a provider, protector, teacher, and moral guardian to children. This trend is, of course, changing (albeit very slowly) in both of these societies, thanks to the rise of feminism and the continual attempt to balance gender roles.
However, in more Feminine societies like the Netherlands, both parents take a relatively more equal role in child-rearing. It is quite common for the father to take a break from his career to be the primary caregiver to the child while the mother continues working. Comparatively speaking, one observes more fathers in the playgrounds in the Netherlands than in India or Japan.
Role of Educational Institutions:
Casual and fun vs. formal and serious
Anecdote 9: The Indian author reflects upon school celebrations in India – parents and teachers attend in their best clothes, and the head of school walks in once everyone is seated, usually along a red carpet or escorted by student body heads. In the Dutch school, her children now attend, the head of school once came to a school celebration dressed as a clown!
Anecdote 10: Another reflection by the Indian author: Everything used for the purpose of study or work is given a certain amount of dignity in India – even if they are mere objects. Books are not to be trodden on, and tools for learning are supposed to be treated with respect. Rommelpiet is a celebration in the Netherlands where this naughty mythical character comes in and makes a mess in the children’s classrooms. Children walk in one day to find books, pens, tables, and chairs strewn all over the class floor and covered in toilet paper (luckily, unused). They are then supposed to clear up everything in return for presents. But, of course, it is the teachers themselves that make this “disrespectful” mess – which makes the whole situation even more shocking!
Anecdote 11: In a Dutch school, one of the expat students reported that the language teacher and a boy in class had engaged in a verbal insults competition to see who knew the most insults in the Dutch language.
Though the Dutch anecdotes are quite specific to the Netherlands and not necessarily seen in other societies in the west, the culture of informality is quite visible in the culture. In the Netherlands, very few things cannot be mocked – taking things too seriously is simply not Dutch. The combination of being an egalitarian (low power distance) and collaborative (feminine in Hofstede’s terms) culture makes for a level of casualness that can be a bit too much for those who come from more formal cultures.
In countries like India and Japan (also Germany, Switzerland, Poland, and others), there is an expectation for more formality in the educational space. Teachers are authorities who command respect and carry themselves apart from their students. A teacher seen as bringing himself down to the level of the students simply would not be taken very seriously by their students, leading to a rather chaotic classroom and poorer results.
Anecdote 12: Children in the Netherlands are tested on their English, Math, and Dutch levels continually from the age of 10-13 years of age, which will determine what level of education they will pursue in high school. While this would be considered a major public exam in most countries, taken very seriously and prepared for very thoroughly so that the child attains the best result possible, in the Netherlands, parents are encouraged not to prepare their children for these tests. Instead, they are simply advised to sleep well the previous night and eat a good breakfast before their tests. In addition, children are encouraged to bring candy to snack on during the tests. In some cases, music is played aloud to make the atmosphere more relaxed.
It’s no wonder that research shows that Dutch children are the happiest in the world!
Rote learning vs. Independent thinking
Anecdote 13: The Dutch primary school where the children of the Japanese author attended had a system to develop the autonomy of young children. The system works as follows: the teacher first explains the new materials, and then the children start working on assignments using what they just learned. What surprised the Japanese mother was that children may not ask questions for a certain period of time. They need to solve the situation by themselves first.
In more traditional education systems worldwide, “rote learning” is still the reality. Simply put, rote learning is the memorization of information by repetition. In traditional Indian schools, this is quite prevalent and students are judged based on how accurately they can reproduce the information they have learned. According to an article in India Today, a popular Indian publication, rote learning promotes convergent thinking. “While both divergent and convergent thinking are essential in problem-solving, our education system is more inclined towards testing knowledge than knowledge development.”, says the article about the Indian education system.
To counter the resulting lack of creativity, the Central Board of Secondary Education of India (CBSE) recently announced that “Design Thinking and Innovation” would be incorporated as a core subject from Grade 7 onwards in all Indian schools.
Contrary to the rote learning that is so prevalent in cultures like India and Japan, in the Netherlands, an important skill of a potential university student is the ability to formulate their own opinion on a particular topic- especially when it comes to non-technical subjects like economics, history and geography. In effect, students do not just study a topic. They apply the concepts and are expected to have enough understanding to form their own opinion. In exams in the Netherlands, there are questions to test “reproductie” (knowledge of facts), “toepassing” (application of concepts), and “inzicht” (insights into the facts and concepts).
This can be quite challenging for international students who are used to teachers telling them what to study and how to address a certain topic!
Work, work, work vs. work-life balance
Anecdote 14: According to the Japanese author of this paper, the purpose of the summer holidays is entirely different in Japan and the Netherlands. In Japan, children receive special summer holiday homework – a lot of workbooks and a special project where children can choose their own topic, from creating artwork to making a report on climate change. It is always a stress and struggle for both children and parents to finish all the homework. The Japanese author was shocked to hear from her son that his Dutch teacher had told the class on the last day before the summer holiday, “Everyone, empty your head during the summer so that you have a space to learn new things in the fall. Enjoy your summer!”
In more masculine cultures like India and Japan, people are expected to work hard all the time with little space for leisure and relaxation. On the other hand, in more feminine cultures like the Netherlands, people feel entitled to take care of themselves by having downtime and indulging themselves in enjoyable activities without having any specific objectives. In fact, there is a concept called “Niksen” in Dutch, meaning “Doing nothing”.
“Niksen “literally means to do nothing, to be idle or doing something without any use,” says Carolien Hamming, managing director of CSR Centrum, a coaching center in the Netherlands that helps clients manage stress and recover from burnout. Practicing niksen could be as simple as just hanging around, looking at your surroundings, or listening to music — “as long as it’s without purpose,” she says, and not done to achieve something or be productive.
Anecdote 15: The Indian author of this paper was quite concerned when she first moved to the Netherlands. Her children were used to doing pages of homework every day in India right from when they were six years old. In the Netherlands, she had no idea what was being taught in primary school since the children seldom brought back work! “I was concerned that they would be at a disadvantage because, in the Netherlands, they are simply not used to hard work as seen in Indian schools!”
In cultures like India, there is tremendous pressure put on children to perform well in school, leading to burnout even at ages 14 or 15. In fact, according to the latest report from the National Crime Records Bureau of India (NCRB), suicide rates amongst students were at a five-year high in 2022. In addition, most students cited “failure in examination” as a reason for their choice.
Role models vs. Individuals
Anecdote 16: In Dutch schools, it can happen that teachers, during their breaks, stand outside and smoke. This is quite shocking to expat parents, as teachers are supposed to act as role models to their students in their cultures.
Anecdote 17: An Indian parent chanced upon her children’s teachers at a discotheque in the city, drinking and dancing the night away. While it is perfectly normal for youngsters to have some fun, the fact that they were teachers caused a bit of discord amongst the parents.
In the traditional Indian education system called the “gurukul”, students were entrusted with the care of a “guru” who would take care of their cognitive, physical, emotional, and spiritual development. The “gurus” were highly revered as wise, knowledgeable people, almost akin to the gods. In modern Indian society, while this concept of a “guru” has changed drastically, the respect for a teacher and their pivotal role in shaping future generations remains firmly etched in the people’s psyche.
In fact, Teacher’s Day in India celebrated on September 5 every year, is a day when teachers are honored. Students, old and new, make it a point to wish their teachers and thank them for the role they have played in their development by making little gifts of cards or flowers. The teacher is a figure that is expected to be a role model to their students by displaying exemplary moral values that are then transferred to the students by example.
The situation is slightly different in Japan. The teachers are supposed to be teacher-like 24/7, but their social status is no longer so high. Since the education level of the average parent is as high as that of the teachers at many schools, the teachers are not seen as the intellectual authority. This is also changing slowly in a country like India, but the expectation is that the teacher behaves impeccably in the presence of their students.
This is quite different in a country like the Netherlands, where the teacher is solely expected to show competence in transferring the knowledge and skills to the students in an understandable way, using language and examples that fit the level of students and showing empathy for the diversity in interests and personality of the students.
One-size-fits-all or Child-specific
Anecdote 18: Expat parents in the Netherlands are often surprised that their children branch off into different levels of education right from twelve years of age. They worry that putting them in boxes early in life will deter their future prospects.
Unlike in most countries around the world, the Dutch education system is very much child-specific. As mentioned in Anecdote 12, children who go to the Dutch public school system are continually tested on their English, Math, and Dutch levels right from age 10 to age 13. How they do on these tests determines what level of education they will pursue in high school.
The Dutch education system is divided into multiple levels children can follow according to their capabilities. The highest level, VWO, is meant for children who want to pursue a university education. The middle level, HAVO, is for those who wish to pursue a semi-academic, practical course. Finally, the lower levels, like MAVO, VMBO, etc., are designed for those who want to pursue vocational education.
Many international parents feel concerned that age 12 (when a child moves from primary school to high school) is too early to determine this level for a child. However, Dutch pragmatism permits mobility amongst levels if the child puts in the effort required to stream up from a lower level to a higher one. The child can also go to a lower level in high school if they realize that the other suits them better.
In many ways, the Dutch have made life simpler for those students who don’t necessarily have to go through the stress of a high level of math or science if they would like to do vocational training, for example. This way, students do not have to go through the same stress level since each child has his/her own capability.
This attitude would be unheard of in a culture like India or Japan, where all the children are expected to pursue the same level of education, compete and pass or fail. There is no question of branching off to different levels until at least age 16 in these education systems. This often proves stressful for those children who are not necessarily cut out for a higher level of academics and, in many cases, results in early depression in children.
The competition in India is not limited to the students but exists between schools too. Schools are known to weed out poor performers to maintain a high ranking in the school system, achieved by churning out high-achieving students!
Like in India, graduating from a couple of top-level universities is still a secure ticket for a successful corporate career in Japan. The competition to pass the entrance exam to such universities starts early. There are “cram” schools for prestigious kindergartens and primary schools, and the competition continues through the high school years. As these prestigious schools are concentrated in Metropolitan areas and are very expensive, they are not accessible to many families, so one may say that the competition is not played on a level playing field.
Role of Society:
Free speech vs. Responsible communicator
Anecdote 19: On Valentine’s Day in 2020, an advertisement for the Dutch dating app “Second Love” was published in all tram stations all over the country. The ad openly advertised the possibility for married men and women to have an exciting love affair outside their marital boundaries. While most Dutch turned a blind eye to the ad, a Christian political party in the Dutch province of Groningen made news for being “intolerant” to free speech and liberal thinking.
Anecdote 20: Meanwhile, in India, February 14 always sparks news of protests across the country, with Hindu nationalists condemning the westernization of society and the promotion of immoral values like pre-marital love.
The role of society at large in the education of the young is very different depending on where one lives. In India, for example, any material considered remotely adult is strictly kept for late-night TV shows, adult magazines, and websites to prevent children from being exposed to them. This censorship is used to maintain the desired Indian culture of conservatism and modesty. In fact, one of the guidelines of the Advertising Standards Council of India is to ensure that any advertisement is “not offensive to generally accepted norms and standards of public decency”.
In contrast, the European Advertising Standards Alliance only prescribes in very general terms, that advertising is legal, decent, honest, and truthful, with a due sense of social responsibility, conforming to the principles of fair competition and not impairing public confidence in advertising.
The definition of “decency” and what is considered “social responsibility” are already culturally quite subjective topics but the amount of policing involved in ensuring that advertisements follow societal standards is worth noting. The more important consideration for this paper is how responsible society at large feels about the messages sent out to their youth by public institutions.
Anecdote 21: A Dutch broadcaster, NTR, sparked controversy across the country by interviewing a pro-pedophile activist on prime-time television. The activist shared that he wanted to set up a political party to make sex with children legal. He also openly stated that he was attracted to boys between the ages of 4 and 14 and believed that toddlers as young as 2 or 3 years were developed enough to decide if they wanted to engage in sex.
While this sparked outrage in the Netherlands, the broadcaster stood by their decision to show the episode, with the rationale that subcultures like these exist and hardly came to light. The pedophile activist was also invited by the University of Amsterdam to share his thoughts on pedophilia – “about what it means to live with it, but not act on it.”
Most other cultures that the authors have spoken to have shared disbelief at the broadcast of an interview of this nature because it “normalizes” such behavior in society.
According to the Dutch author of this paper, a structural cultural issue at work is interesting to understand in the context of the rule of law. The Netherlands is situated in The Network cultures in the Culture Clusters as defined by Huib Wursten. The Network Cultures are characterized by low power distance, high Individualism, low masculinity, and medium uncertainty avoidance.
Here are some rules of the game as seen by Network cultures
It all starts with the acceptance of the autonomy of all stakeholders. In the political field, this is called: “autonomy inside one’s own circle”. The societal “common good” is translated in Network countries as: “shared interest”. A related issue is the concept of truth – in the Netherlands, there are sayings like: “Niemand heeft de waarheid in pacht” (Nobody owns the truth) and “waarheid ligt in het midden” (truth lies in the middle)
These are secular societies with no generally accepted references about what is good or bad as defined by holy books.
Instead, these are postmodern societies: influenced by language philosophy and positivism. The core of this lies in the following statement: “The meaning of a proposition is ( derived from ) the method of verification.” In other words, if generally accepted methods can verify a statement, one can conclude if something is right, just, true, or valid. For example, a statement like: “this is a good hammer” is verifiable by agreed-upon methods – measuring impact, weight, grip, etc. On the other hand, a statement like “God is good” is not verifiable because no agreed-upon methods exist even to define concepts like God and good. This thinking can lead to cultural relativism: Who am I that can contradict people’s statements if they refer to a holy book, a revelation, or a tribal tradition:” it all depends on where you are coming from.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the moral cornerstone of all individualistic cultures. Starting in the Renaissance in Europe and fully developed in the “Enlightenment,” the individual is the focus of all thinking about morality. All individuals have equal rights. This also extends to minority groups. The formulation explicitly says that the rights are for everybody, not regarding color, race, gender, religious affiliation, and sexual preference.
This all affects morality and policymaking in a postmodern society of autonomous stakeholders.
The way this is taking shape is that, in principle, all societal stakeholders discuss the policy limits and claim their rights. Especially if they feel that the group they identify with has been denied rights in the past and present. In an individualistic Masculine society like the USA, this takes the shape of “identity wars”: minority groups who assertively claim their rights: Afro-Americans, women, Latin Americans, and the LGBTQ communities. They all claim not to be taken into account by the white, heterosexual, male, Anglo-Saxon majority.
This is also happening in the Network cultures. But, because of the feminine culture, the polarization is more moderate than in the Contest cultures. As a result, the decision-makers in postmodern secular feminine societies have difficulty defining boundaries of the belief in “shared interests”. How does one determine what is acceptable and not in societal discourse? How does one arrive at a shared interest in a multicultural society?
The same is the case in discussing sexual preference. The consensus is that it not only concerns the accepted way of lovemaking between men and women in traditional societies. It also extends to the preferences of the LGBTQ community. This is getting more difficult considering the preferences of people attracted to prostitution, porno, or SM practices. The postmodern dilemma is: who are we to define what is normal?
In the case of pedophilia, it is easy to contradict the claim that a two-year-old can choose to have a sexual encounter. This is also the general reaction in society and the media in the Netherlands.
Considering this cultural relativism in the Network Cultures, one could argue that, like in other societies, the Dutch society also educates the young in tolerance rather than moral absolutism.
Permissive Regulation vs. Regulated Permissiveness
Anecdote 22: According to the Indian author of this paper, the Netherlands is a great place for having sensitive conversations since everything is so in your face.
“For example, we visited museums in Amsterdam recently and found ourselves having to explain weed, prostitution, and other things that would be taboo to talk about in India. The kids are surprisingly open to these discussions and we can have very productive conversations with them. One funny case: we had to cross the red light street at one point, and I explained it to them. I told them that some women find themselves in these situations because they simply don’t have other options about trafficking, etc. And….the Indian twist to it…I told them this was why they had to work extra hard and get a good education!”
Anecdote 23: A Dutch parent says: “It was in Antwerp that my 10yr old son was first exposed to the Red Zone. I explained the trade there a bit. My wife said: I’ve never been in such a neighborhood. My son responded, ” Oh, where did the two of you meet then?”
Anecdote 24: The Indian author of this paper refused to send her children to a school with a red light street adjacent to it, while her Dutch colleague cheerfully joked that her teenage son bicycles to school every day through the red light district in Amsterdam!
The pragmatism of the Dutch culture is sometimes very shocking for the expat parent. The prevalence of coffee shops selling marijuana, the red light streets, and the many sex shops and museums in Amsterdam is somewhat of a wonder to many expats who raise families in this country. How do I protect my children from these lurking dangers? Do they need protection from them? Why are these even freely available?
According to the Dutch author of this paper, the rules of the game in Network cultures as the Netherlands continues with law enforcement and the concept of “gedogen”.
In Network societies, people are reluctant to accept strong law enforcement. In the Netherlands, this is manifested in the shape of “gedogen” – tolerating a certain phenomenon instead of forcefully intervening. The reasoning behind it goes back to the perceived experience in the times of bootleg in the US. If you forbid something, it happens anyway, but in secret. Often these activities get in the grips of criminal gangs profiting from the “forbidden fruits”. By “gedogen“, you can control what is happening to a certain extent. International statistics show that, in many cases, this is successful.
It gets even more interesting if we take the “Indulgence” dimension into account. In his book: “The Civilizing Process” (Elias, 2000), Norbert Elias described the process of civilization in terms of the development of self-control. The higher the level of civilization, the higher the level of restraint, stability and flexibility. You can see how things have evolved by looking back in time. In his book, “Goede manierlijcke seden (1546)”, Erasmus made the following recommendations for good behavior
“Do not blow your nose with the same fingers with which you reach into the shared dish;
Vomiting is no disgrace, provided you don’t get it over other people.
Our view of what is acceptable has come a long way since then. By making some “forbidden fruits” easily available, people tend to lose interest in it. For example, pornography in Denmark was made freely available in the sixties, and in spite of predictions of doom and hell, it did not lead to excessive interest. The same is true for the “soft drugs” in the Netherlands.
Topics like sex, drugs, pornography, prostitution, etc., are sensitive topics in most cultures. In countries like the Netherlands, these topics can easily arise in conversations with your children because of society’s permissive view of them. In fact, in another Network, Culture Denmark, sex is a topic that children openly discuss as young as five years of age. A Danish author, Per Hom Knudsen, published a book titled “How a Baby is Made” as early as 1975, complete with graphical drawings of the act of sex and birth.
This poses the question – who educates the young about sex? Parents? Schools? Or Society?
Anecdote 25: The Indian author of this paper admits to learning about sex while sneaking into her aunts’ romance novels and through teen magazines. However, when it came to educating her children, she took advantage of the fact that they had been exposed to farm animals early on in life.
Anecdote 26: The Japanese author of this paper does not recall having talked about sex with her parents in her youth, nor had she learned about it officially at school. She mostly learned it from friends. She also did not explicitly talk about it with her children, but her children gladly shared what they learned at school with her.
In many cultures where there is a certain awkwardness regarding discussing topics like sex, parents often conveniently leave it up to the school biology lessons or conversations that children have with their friends to get them up to speed.
Anecdote 27: A mother of the classmate of the then 5-yr-old son of the Japanese author was a surrogate for a lady who could not bear one. “We all knew each other. This surrogate mother explained to the children, “A baby of Mrs. X is sleeping in my belly. When the baby wakes up, it will go home with Mrs. X. ” Children totally accepted this.” The Japanese author was impressed by this age-appropriate matter-of-fact way of communication by a Dutch mother.
Competition vs. Collaboration
Anecdote 28: An expat student in the Netherlands complained to her mother, “We all got medals. What’s the point of that? Why did I work so hard if everyone was going to get a medal?”
The level of competition against others or living your own life encouraged in a society comes from every level – parents, educational institutions, and society at large. Compared to the number of competitions that a student in Masculine societies like the United States, India, or Japan go through, there are very few in more Feminine societies like the Netherlands. Despite this fact, many Dutch are quick to point out that the Netherlands brings home the most sports medals per capita during the Olympics.
The difference lies in the expectation of society. In extremely competitive societies like Japan, perfection is a never-ending goal to be constantly aspired to, and anyone stopping short of perfection is less than worthy of society. The Japanese term “karoshi” meaning “overworked to death,” got international attention a few years ago about the culture of extreme competition leading to overwork. In India, competition stems from an overpopulated country struggling over limited resources and a centuries-old struggle with class and caste differences. Education and competition are the only ways to overcome some class and caste boundaries.
Comparatively speaking, countries like the Netherlands seem to have a more relaxed attitude towards achievement due to a combination of employment demand and workers’ rights. In the Netherlands, one can be competitive if one wants to be (intrinsic motivation), but it is also perfectly alright to stay out of the rat race and focus on work-life balance instead. And when someone works very hard and makes long hours, it is not to over-compete with others but more for the joy of using one’s capability to the fullest. This means that educational institutions and society at large do not inculcate competition in the young. Instead, it is entirely up to individual households, parents, and children. In fact, the Dutch culture prescribes an attitude of not standing out in a crowd. “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg”, goes the Dutch saying, “Be normal, and that is crazy enough”.
This is quite a contrast to, say, the United States culture, which prescribes for its citizens an attitude of standing out wherever they go. This is taught in children by parents, educational institutions, and society at large.
Every society educates its young to become productive members in its own way. Parents, educational institutions, and society at large play varying roles. Depending on where you come from, you see the weight of education being carried by one party or the other.
How much weight a particular party carries in educating the child and what values are passed on through the education process differs drastically across cultures. Parents who raise their children in a multicultural environment or as third culture kids need to be aware of these differences.
This paper has tried to touch upon the various roles that parents, educational institutions, and society at large play in educating younger members and the cultural factors that play a role in the values instilled. This has been done through anecdotes collected from different expatriate families who have cared to share their experiences.
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Divya Susan Varkey is an Intercultural trainer, coach and lecturer based in Den Haag. Born and raised in India, she has lived in the Middle East and now raises her children in the Netherlands with her Spanish husband. Her other published articles include “The Great Indian Democracy” and “A Global Pandemic in India”.
Masako Kato is an intercultural trainer and coach based in Tilburg, the Netherlands. Born and mainly raised in Japan, she has lived in the US as an expat kid and an exchange student and currently lives and works in The Netherlands, where she brought up her two children with her German husband. She published a series of articles on “How to work in corporate Netherlands” for a Japanese audience in the bi-monthly magazine of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in The Netherlands.
Huib Wursten is an internationally recognized cultural expert. He consulted private and public organizations in 85 countries. He wrote 26 articles on the way culture impacts organizational behavior. His 2020 book “The 7 Mental images of National Culture. Leading and Managing in a globalized world” was highly acclaimed.