College Quarterly
Fall 2006 - Volume 9 Number 4
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Individualism versus Collectivism in Schools

by Gheorghita M. Faitar

Abstract

In the multicultural environment of typical American schools, teachers and educators are challenged by communication problems with both students and parents. Very often, the conflict is caused by the use of a different scale of values when the student is educated at home by parents, and in school by teachers. Strong “collectivist” educational approaches, used by many minorities in USA, are not always compatible with the preponderant “individualistic” style of teaching in the majority of American schools. Addressing the differences in the societies’ embedded moral and cultural values, teachers and educators fight to establish the optimal common ground necessary for a better learning experience. This article emphasizes the implications of individualistic and collectivist perspectives upon student achievement. Analyzing different examples of conflict situations caused by unilateral “individualistic” approaches, it becomes obvious that a balancing strategy is needed in order to attenuate the effects and remove the causes of dysfunctional tension. Some possible solutions are also discussed in the paper.


Introduction

In classrooms which exhibit a variety of cultures and beliefs within the current generation of young Americans, teachers face a big challenge when they first try to identify, and then to find ways to bridge the cultural differences among their students. Their success in solving this problem will subsequently have a great impact on the process of learning. Teachers find out that the cultural framework is a powerful tool for understanding how the students’ educational expectations may conflict with their families’ values.

As educators, we acknowledge the implications of the individualism-collectivism dimension upon school achievement. These two contrasting value systems differ in their relative emphasis on both independence and success perceived from the individual’s versus the group’s point of view (Hofstede, 1997). It is difficult for many students coming from a collectivistic society to adjust to the classroom’s realities in a competitive individualistic setting. For example, children from Russian, Hungarian, Chinese, or Japanese families have backgrounds where personal success is not as important as the collective accomplishments. They may be more persistent in their efforts to achieve high educational results, but they are also more reluctant to talk about their own success, because they come from a culture mostly concerned with goals oriented toward developing and sustaining a stable, mutually dependent society. They know how to work hard without waiting for individually formulated motivational counselling, and they have a good sense of how their personal efforts translate into final achievements. For example, a Hungarian student, analyzing his own situation when facing an appraisal from the American teacher, who had made many corrections in “red” on his paper, did not understand the meaning of professor’s subsequent encouraging gesture. For him it was clearly a distorted reality. In the American classroom setting, however, it is natural for a teacher to try to raise a student’s spirits and display confidence that a poor performance could be followed by improvement and eventually excellence. Above all, a negative evaluation should not lead to lower self-esteem, which is among the most important values in an individualistic society. By contrast, a Chinese student, in spite of the fact getting the highest grade in a mid-term paper, was acutely aware that she could have done better. Her attitude is based on the fact that “wisdom” and “persistence” are the most refined values from a Confucian perspective.

Some have characterized collectivistic communities as “agrarian”, whereas individualism is associated with what we call “urban-industrial” or “modernized” societies. For our purposes, this generalization can be accepted, even though these categories do not perfectly coincide with empirical reality. For example, the United States is a highly individualistic society; however, many immigrants, especially coming from rural backgrounds, as well as the Native American population, reflect highly collectivistic values. As well, the individualistic-collectivistic dichotomy often mirrors social structures that have been labeled “high-power” versus “low-power”, or described as “masculine” versus “feminine” in terms of human relationships. In American society, human relationships are derived from the more important personal achievement status, while in many Asian or East European societies, interpersonal relations within a group are considered very important and the system of mutual reliance that brings a sense of community and communal prosperity within social groups is the “true soul” in some nations.

There is a technical argument of significance to researchers focused on the importance of the parental orientation and beliefs inculcated in the children’s cognitive development. Collectivism and individualism reflect fundamentally different concepts of knowledge and cognition (Trumbull, Rothstein-Fisch & Greenfield, 2000). Collectivistic societies tend to be socially hierarchical, and social interaction is strongly defined by age and gender. Children in such societies are less likely to formulate and share their opinions or comments about what they learn in school and parents seem to offer more support. Psychological and physical closeness within families are highly valued. In contrast, parents in more individualistic cultures often encourage children to solve their problems independently and discourage them from requiring constant adult attention. This perhaps is one of the most reliable explanations for cases of highly depressive behaviour in school-age children spending too much time in front of big, colourful computer and television screens. Even the role of toys is different in collectivistic and individualistic societies. The explanation for the different perceptions of reality at any level, especially in a school format, may be traced to childhood, where new computerized toys and games in individualistic societies are sources of independent activity, fostering highly valued technological skills.

These opposite views lead parents to prepare children for school differently. US schools encourage children to become independent thinkers and doers, focused on their own individual needs. It is therefore not hard to understand the underachievement of many Native American or Hispanic pupils, who are representative of more collectivistic societies. Coming from a home background that emphasizes the importance of knowing and recognizing their place in the community hierarchy and from affiliation with the group, they often perform poorly in competition with the other students. Their behaviour in class is supposed to show speech prominence and individual assertiveness, while at home they are taught a modest way of thinking, which requires resource sharing and cooperation. Therefore, when children with this orientation are asked to publicly assert their opinions in the classroom, they remember the home lesson: listen carefully and do not express your misunderstandings quickly, because the teacher might be bothered by your questions and your lack of knowledge. For them and their parents, the role of sharing opinions and knowledge is reserved for people with higher status.

These two opposing orientations also lead to different organizational patterns for the educational process. Collectivistic cultures tend to teach the whole group and allow students to learn one from the other, whereas individualistic societies tend to teach by focusing on the individual. Western societies emphasize personal responsibility for learning, even when instructions are given to the whole group. In order to achieve the best results in school, teachers have to balance their approach toward formulating a collectivistic-individualistic general framework that can be useful in many ways and could be the most important tool in identifying and avoiding potential conflicts.

Researchers in the education field have been able to identify several areas of ongoing conflict that teachers may observe in the classroom or when interacting with parents. Of course, people with the same cultural background may also show wide variations in behaviour, based on their level of formal schooling and their socio-economic status, with higher educational achievement and socio-economic status being generally associated with greater individualism. These variations can largely be explained by the triple disadvantages of family poverty, peer group privation and underfunded schools, all of which contribute to limiting progress and arresting development. Nonetheless, home background and socio-economic status are still less influential on childrens’ futures than the factors of “individualistic” or “collectivistic” culture. Children are often caught between different expectations from home and school, and eventually forced to choose one over the other, which generates an inevitable loss. In the process of schooling, parents, teachers, administrators and students all need to acquire a basic knowledge of conflict-resolution in order to generate potential solutions. By identifying and solving potential problems in the early stages, teachers are especially well positioned to build bridges between home and school and better support the students in skill development.

On a more philosophical note, school is also an appropriate place to develop a higher understanding of people’s daily concerns and struggles. Moreover, through a process called “conscientization”, students should learn to question society, seek versions of “truth” that teach people to resist unfairness and inhumanity traits, and become empowered to define and work toward a more humane society (Freire, 1985).

In conclusion, in order to maintain the balance between the “individualistic” and “collectivist” approaches, a generally therapeutic educational strategy should mainly rely on the coordinates emphasizing the teacher’s preference toward school practices that foster children’s independence from their parents while encouraging a permanent dialogue among parents, students and educators. Such a strategy could also promote formal or informal methods of bringing students together in collaborative settings to help and support each other. In addition, teachers should be prepared to ask for parents’ advice and assistance in solving classroom problems and responding to classroom needs. In the process, they should always take into consideration the cultural differences, and try to establish a climate of respect, acceptance and cooperation. The uniqueness and rich heritage of each student can be harvested into treasures of inclusive knowledge, understanding and practice.

References

Freire, P. (1985) The politics of education: Culture, power and liberation. South Hadley: MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Hofstede, G. (1997). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. London: McGraw Hill.

Trumbull, E., Rothstein-Fisch, C. & Greenfield, M. P. (2000), Bridging Cultures in Our Schools: New Approaches That Work: A WestEd Knowledge Brief. Available at <http://www.wested.org>.


Dr. Gheorghita M. Faitar teaches in the Department of Education at D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York. She can be reached at mfaitar@yahoo.com

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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology