How well do you really know your students?
Richard Mast
By Dave Stanfield, Head of Research & Development at CIS & Peter Welch, Independent Consultant

As an international educator, you have likely experienced firsthand the profound impact that students’ cultural identity has on learning. Various cultural theories exist that attempt to explain differences between cultures. Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory is one of the most established and commonly cited in literature. The theory consists of five cultural dimensions—power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance index, and long-term orientation—which are useful concepts to understand cultural differences. There is even a handy website called Hofstede Insights that allows you to compare country-level results across the dimensions. But, how transferable are these findings to an international schooling environment? 

Results from the CIS Cultural & Learning Survey call the suitability of Hofstede’s and other cultural theories into question. The rationale will resonate with experienced international educators. Many of our students are exceedingly multicultural. Like the student that holds a British passport but has never lived in the UK; grew up in Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong, attended international schools, and made friends with other students of equally diverse cultural backgrounds. Should we be surprised that cultural theories derived from studies of monocultural groups may not accurately capture our students’ cultural dispositions?

From the survey results, for instance, students from international schools that identified strongly with Dutch culture indicated a preference to learn in teacher-centered classrooms, which is surprising given that the Netherlands is a low power distance country. Whereas, students from Kazakhstan, designated as a hierarchical society, preferred a student-centered classroom. In another example, Bulgarian students that completed the survey had a strong sense of individualism in a collectivist society.

The study is already providing robust evidence that international schools that label students with a nationality may be creating a stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson,1995) that can limit the expectations we have for our students. So, for example, a receiving teacher may be told that they have a new Japanese student arriving next Monday. This one descriptor may be the worst possible information as the teacher may communicate in a more formal and polite way, following a stereotype, when the new student actually prefers to communicate in a very different way. What conclusion should teachers and leaders draw from our initial results? Simply put, don’t assume you understand students’ learning and communication preferences based on the nationality (or nationalities) listed in your enrolment database.The initial results from this survey tool are both fascinating and counterintuitive. Though results from some students did align with their cultural heritage, many did not. This challenges the idea that students in international schools conform to the national stereotypes for cultural communication proposed by established cultural theory. The initial data indicates that mobile international students often develop cross-cultural preferences for communicating and learning. This ongoing research will support schools in understanding how students in international schools are able to develop these skills.

The CIS Culture & Learning student survey helps teachers pay attention to very different learning and communication cultural styles and also to individualize teaching strategies as a result. We designed the survey as a tool to confirm students’ preferences across categories critical to effective teaching and learning:

  • Expectations of teachers/students in the classroom
  • Students’ sense of individuality
  • Students’ motivations to learn
  • How students like to work with other students
  • Communication styles
  • Cross-cultural understanding
The survey only takes students a few minutes to complete and provides actionable results that teachers, leaders and parents can use to improve learning outcomes.

For more information about using the CIS Culture & Learning Survey please email