Executive Insider

The Influence of Culture on Learning Styles

Education reflects the social, political and cultural patterns of society. What we are taught and how we are taught it greatly influences our ideas and how we express them through life. Across cultures, tutoring styles may combine multiple approaches or rely on one main methodology. These approaches are guided by the social and cultural determinants in a specific school, institute, organisation, country or even region.

Different teaching tactics will stimulate varied learning attitudes: from a directive delivery style that promotes learning through listening and following directions; an interactive approach that promotes learning through lively discussion; to a socially inclined system of group work and peer feedback.

Each of these teaching methodologies assigns varying levels of expectations and assumed responsibility between the teacher’s role to educate and the recipient’s role to learn. Ultimately, learners of all ages are products of nature and nurture; our innate personality combined with our learned cultural traits ultimately shape how we learn.

Learning cultures in the workplace 

With the knowledge that culture influences how people learn and teach, businesses cannot bypass the fact that multicultural teams call for a combination of approaches to the creation of learning experiences.

Sam, a Training and Development Manager at the Australian office of a large German business, called me with grave concerns about the suitability of a leadership training program imposed upon her management team in Australia. The program was designed by her organisation’s regional headquarters in Singapore for rollout across the Asia-Pacific region. After an ‘immensely successful’ pilot launch in Singapore, a trainer had been appointed to lead the delivery in Australia. The dates were set and booked.

During Sam’s few interactions with the trainer, she had developed a hunch that the trainer’s unexpectedly standoffish communication style was not going to suit his management group. Relatively new to her job, Sam felt responsible for the delivery of the pro- gram. Anticipating a less-than-smooth experience ahead, she asked me to sit in on the training session and provide independent and objective feedback on the content and facilitation.

Training day arrived. After a few quick introductions and an overview of the agenda, the program commenced. A barrage of narrated slides was occasionally interjected with a question from the team. Visibly awkward, the facilitator deflected the actual questions and continued to ‘talk at’ his audience.

It was apparent that one quarter of the room was attentive while the rest of the group was twitching between eye rolls and restless fingers reaching out for devices to entertain themselves. I was struggling to stay focused as the words ‘death by PowerPoint’ echoed in my mind.

The oversight here was that decision-makers assumed the regional training needs could be addressed by one program with a singular approach. The Asia-Pacific region comprises a diverse set of cultures, from India to New Zealand and Japan to Fiji. Was it fair to assume that each culture would relate to the content and delivery with the same level of ease as the Singapore team?

The learner’s perspective

Educational systems differ in terms of their teaching style, delivery method and student expectations. Different cultures have varied approaches to learning. Numerous studies on this topic highlight that approaches to teaching and learning in Western and Eastern educational systems are fundamentally different. I should interject here to explain that I am not entirely comfortable with the broad definitions of East and West. Is Australia in the West? It’s down to perspective, and it could be argued that it depends which map you are looking at. While Australia has its European roots in the cultural and economic West, geographically it is about as far away from the West as one could get. However, in this instance the simplification provides a straightforward approach to illustrate some general differences and stimulate thought.

Based on this classification, let’s look to the East. In countries such as China, Japan and India, the emphasis is traditionally on conformity with rules and regulations that students are expected to follow. Lectures are the main mode of instruction, with the teaching method being predominantly a one-way direction. As a consequence, memorising and retaining information is the goal, with a focus on examination results and grades. Formality prevails in these cultures: teachers are revered and seen as authoritarian. The method commonly associated with learning in these parts of the world is known as ‘rote learning’ – a technique based on memorisation and repetition.

In Singapore, students rely on rote learning and extra tuition to get through exams. This is believed to be driven by the Singaporean concept of kiasuism – in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect, it means ‘afraid to lose’. A desire for continual betterment through strong academic results is entrenched in the collective mindset.

On the contrary, a teacher acts as a facilitator in Western education systems (in this case we are looking to the Australian and German cultures). Open discussions, debates and sharing of ideas are encouraged in the classroom, offering a sense of ownership to the learning experience. These systems encourage individual talent, creativity, assertiveness and critical thinking.

We know that culture and learning are connected, but it would be unreasonable to assume that each learner is a product only of their learning environment. Let’s also be aware that many people pursue further education opportunities outside of their home country, so their learning experiences are further nuanced through a combination of styles. It would be more beneficial to understand the expectations of the learning process from the learner’s perspective which is fundamental to the instructional design of workplace learning.

Going back to our story, the Asia-Pacific training program failed to engage everyone effectively. It was a one-way methodology of telling rather than open discussion and discovery to suit the diversity in the room. It also represented a missed opportunity to provide broader context and deeper relevance to the leadership team. The investment in a regional training program is considerable. Failure to deliver on learning objectives due to cultural differences is a costly oversight.

There are some fundamental considerations when planning learning and development programs for multicultural groups. Awareness around cultural influences on learning styles is important in enabling the transfer of skills and knowledge. Those responsible need to consider how to create a learning culture that exposes all participants to multiple perspectives and connects them with alternative views of the world.


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Gaiti Rabbani
Gaiti Rabbani is the author of Curious about Culture, a book about cultivating cross cultural understanding and. She is a Cultural Intelligence Specialist, an Executive Advisor People and Culture and founder of Rabbani Collective, a company that enables businesses to harness the potential of their people.

Gaiti is passionate about fostering self awareness and personal effectiveness amongst her clientele, helping individuals and teams reach their full potential. Her approach is personal, collaborative and bespoke to each situation, person and brand.

Books by Gaiti Rabbani: Curious about Culture: Refocus your lens on culture to cultivate cross cultural understanding (Major Street Publishing; March 1, 2021)

Gaiti Rabbani is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.