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Culture and uncertainty

March 16, 2008

Hello again,
Uncertainty avoidance, Hofstede (2001), is “the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations.” Members of high uncertainty avoidance nations feel a stronger threat from uncertain and unknown...

... situations than do members of low uncertainty avoidance nations (Hofstede 2001). High uncertainty avoidance countries need rules, absolute truths, and structure and have a stronger degree of rigidity.

Thus in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance organizations have more formal rules and expect longer-term commitments. They look to structure in all areas to help make events interpretable and predictable.

For teachers in schools in such cultures, it is expected that they are experts in their field, who know the answers. Teachers are there to make everything clear and to give unambiguous instruction. Learners will expect that there will be a right and a wrong answer to all questions and may feel uncomfortable with suggestions that issues are multi-dimensional and nuanced.

In contrast, in cultures with low uncertainty avoidance, organizations may be more informal and tolerant of many perspectives. Teachers are advisors rather than gurus and do not have to know all the answers. They can have open-ended discussions.

So how can teachers adapt to each of these cultures? For the former, teachers will have to go cautiously with any activities requiring group work and discussion. Learners are likely to put their trust in the teacher rather than each other. Teachers may find learners are slightly suspicious of them as outsiders, preferring teachers of their own nationality whose attitudes they can predict and thus feel safe with. If the teacher attempts any sort of consultative process, the learners may lose respect for him or her because such an approach might be interpreted as lack of confidence on the teacher’s part. They should not be too casual in their classroom behaviour: if they ask learners to address them by their first name, the learners will be reluctant to do so. It could be difficult for teachers to persuade learners to try new methods as innovation involves uncertainty about outcomes. Indeed. Learners will be motivated by fear of failure so will appreciate activities that involve following instructions for a sure outcome.

At the other end of the scale, teachers in low uncertainty avoidance cultures can expect much a more flexible attitude from learners. Learners are less likely to see the teachers as the source of all knowledge than as a guide. It will be possible to be more casual and to use group activities and to make decisions by consultation. New ideas and methods will be easier to introduce, as learners will be unafraid of experiment and will enjoy problem solving and tasks with uncertain outcomes.

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