Networked learning : Cross-cultural learning : Creativity & Innovation

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25 July 2003


I’ve written elsewhere about how people learn in different cultures, and particularly about how this impacts elearning. But learners are only one part of the learning ecosystem. Organisations, tutors, communities and parents all profoundly influence how people learn.


It’s struck me recently, although this is by no means hot news, just how much the cultural attributes of a society or culture influence its basic philosophy of learning and education – indeed, of what knowledge is.


In a report for Scottish Enterprise, Martin and Jennings say this: “In countries such as the US, rationally-based, behaviourist and cognitive approaches to learning tend to dominate education and training. Such approaches are strongly rooted in the individualist nature of US culture.” Then they contrast this by saying: “Constructivist learning theories and approaches to learning that see knowledge created through social practice are more likely to inform European knowledge production and learning.”


It makes perfect sense that a culture, like the US, that is highly individualistic, has a short-term orientation and relatively masculine views of gender roles (from Hofstede’s data) should embrace behaviourism so completely, and be so reluctant to let it go. Take Sweden as a contrast: more collective than the US and with very low masculinity scores, it would make little sense to adopt behaviourist approaches to learning. Putting it crudely, based on the main difference between the two cultures’ dimensions, Swedes are more willing to fail, and are more likely to need intrinsic interest in a subject in order to learn about it. Americans want to win, and may need extrinsic motivation. So looking at Swedish elearning providers (try Celemi) it’s not surprising that they have so few similarities with US companies in the same sector. Swedish, and Scandinavian learning systems in general, are more commonly based around exploratory, simulated environments where learners can experiment, fail, chat and find things that are of interest to them.


This kind of contrast may also be one influence on elearning’s “failure” - or lack of immediate acceptance - in various parts of the world. Very few of the early predictions of market growth have come true in Europe, and there have been some damning reports (e.g. by the UK's CIPD) about elearning hype and let-down. But it’s hardly surprising, if our culture so influences our view of learning, that certain European countries, (even the UK with its close links with north America), should reject elearning in the model imported from the industry’s “inventors”: the US. Educational method strikes deep. It’s not the same as fashion, fast foot, or TV shows. Our experiences of education affect, and are affected by our values; fast food and fashion operate at the level of symbol or sign.


Why is this? One useful perspective is to see cultures as formed by the way societies answer the main problems they face, such as problems of power, truth, virtue, gender and identity (these, incidentally, form the basis of Hofstede’s dimensions). Cultures respond to these problems differently, because of their environments, climate, social systems, historical accident and so on.


Likewise, educational systems respond to different problems in their environments, and they do so in contrasting ways. So why should learning systems created to respond to specific problems be fully exportable when other societies face different problems, or choose to deal with them differently?


It will be a sign of elearning’s maturity when north American methods of learning and views of knowledge are but one colour in a broad palette, rather than the industry’s substrate.

8:15:54 AM    Any comments?  []

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