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How Cultural Norms in Education Differ Around the World

Different cultures have different norms when it comes to education. Today, Letitia Zwickert, a high school teacher at Naperville Central High School and a K-12 Education Advisor to the University of Illinois' International Outreach Council, explores.

By guest blogger Letitia Zwickert

When was the last time you, as a teacher, went out with a student's parent for karaoke or witnessed your students scrubbing your classroom floor? Or took a coffee break with your students during class? If this sounds a little foreign to you, that's because it is! There are many cultural variances between norms in education systems around the globe, and some of these differences, besides giving us fun new ways of doing things, could offer us real benefits here at home.

Japan: Parents take teachers out

In Japan, some communities take the parent-teacher relationship to a whole new level. Ichiko Matsui traveled to the US as a participant in the State Department's Study of the U.S. Institutions (SUSI) participant in 2012. (SUSI programs are for foreign undergraduate students, scholars, and teachers which promote a better understanding of American people and the US). Among the differences she noticed between American customs and her own were the interactions of teachers with the school community. "In towns like mine, parents and teachers hang out until midnight, many times enjoying karaoke and drinks." Perhaps a new way to spend a parent-teacher conference!

What's the benefit?
Studies have shown any positive interaction between school and families, or constructive work toward building a strong rapport between parents and teachers helps to support student achievement. Though drinking with parents might not work for you and your school, there are numerous ways you can achieve better communication and ultimately stronger connections with your parents. Take a look at Harvard's Family Research Project to find more ways to improve your relationship with parents and your school or district.

United Kingdom: Students who wear slippers have better grades

A recent article in the Telegraph highlighted children wearing slippers at school instead of their street shoes to improve learning. The children change into their slippers once they get to school and keep them on during class. Schools across Scandinavia and Asia have a similar custom of changing into "school shoes." In England, one primary school that instituted this slipper option came across research that suggested this approach, and their experiments have led to better behavior and improved grades.

What's the benefit?
There is research that supports that either more comfortable footwear, or going shoeless, actually works! It improves the comfort level of students, which increases attention spans and receptivity to learning. Improved behavior and increased scores are proven outcomes. "Shoeless Learning Spaces" offers more information on shoeless learning and the research behind the slippers.

If you give this a try in your classroom, let us know how it goes!

Korea and Japan: Napping during school is encouraged

Sleeping in class in the US is seen as lazy or as a potential health concern. However, in South Korea and Japan, napping during lessons is encouraged. According to the Korea Times, almost 50 percent percent of students in Japan and about 30 percent in Korea student nap during class! You might even see teachers napping in their communal office during off periods! 

What's the benefit?
students napping.jpgWith students in the US getting less and less sleep, and too much screen time reducing the quality of the sleep they do get, student health is being impacted. Napping is scientifically been proven to improve mental health and academic achievement, according to the Japan Times. In fact, the Japanese Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry recommends 20-30 minute naps daily.

We know sleep is essential for physical health and emotional well-being, as well as memory and learning. Perhaps a structured approach to keeping napping as a part of school beyond preschool might work in the U.S. too, and offer a real solution to modern problems of getting enough sleep. And, some US school are already catching on! Is your school ready for "sleep pods"?

Wales: Loosening playground regulations

A recent article in the Atlantic pointed out that American kids are overprotected compared to children in Wales. The description of an "adventure playground", called The Land, includes youth starting fires, rolling tires into a creek, creating structures out of wooden pallets, and workers who oversee everything but rarely intervene. No parents are allowed.

What's the benefit?
Students playing in adventure playgrounds learn to be independent, navigate difficult situations, and interact with their peers. Most of our current American playgrounds have no element of surprise for kids and are built purposefully to shield them from any possible risk of injury. Helicopter parents are often buffering kids from any possible danger or social challenge. New York City has built their own such playground called play:groundNYC, designed to allow children to benefit from the effects of risk. New York Magazine highlights this approach to letting children learn while playing. The piece shares the ideas of Norwegian scholar, Ellen Sandseter, who found "children benefit from, if not actual danger, the feeling of danger and related sensations that result from activities like climbing up to get a bird's-eye view, playing with dangerous tools, or exploring on their own."

Finland/Sweden/Iceland: Calling teachers by their first name

How do your students address you in class? Now, how would you feel if your students called you by your first name? In Nordic countries, first names are the standard for student-teacher communication. Exchange students in these countries can find the practice very hard to get used to.

What's the benefit?
In the UK, this approach is surprising parents, but still catching on in some schools where teachers have embraced the new policy as a way to create stronger bonds with their students. Australia is also beginning to change their norms, and use first names for teachers to help support student engagement. Even in the U.S., many charter schools use first names in the classroom. Here's a study on preference by country.

Denmark: Coffee/tea break during class

Teachers are often lining up in the morning at the coffee machine to grab their cup of joe before running off to their first period. What if that wasn't necessary? What if every day had built-in coffee breaks? In Denmark, they do! Alex Hayler, who was on a Fulbright student PhD research grant to Denmark for 2015-2016, was delighted to find breaks were a norm in schools. And, not only do teachers and students alike take the breaks, they do so during class! "Every class period, we always went and got coffee as a break at some point. It was completely normal and expected that the whole class went to get coffee/tea/water."

What's the benefit?
Studies show drinking green tea positively impacts spatial learning and memory, consuming hot cocoa keeps the brain young and helps to enhances cognitive performance, drinking water improves mental function, and having a cup of coffee after learning helps "memory consolidation". All great reasons to have a coffee/tea/water break during the class period!


Please let us know what fun cultural differences you have experienced in other education systems and write it as a comment on this piece!

Connect with Letitia and Heather on Twitter.

Photo credit: Flickr user enixii.  Used under Creative Commons license:  CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15848017

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