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Culture and Learning - A new and engaging questionnaire tool to support international educators


by Peter Welch, Director, International School of Helsinki, Finland

This year, CIS continues its groundbreaking research into the relationship between culture and student learning and communication preferences. Working in partnership with my school, International School of Helsinki, our shared ambition is to provide students, educators and school leaders with relevant, accessible information on the cultural dynamics in our communities. We want to provide an engaging, practical tool that helps us work effectively within culturally diverse schools.

Last year, about six thousand students worldwide piloted a new online questionnaire. This questionnaire draws from cultural theory and applies this to common learning and communication situations in our schools.

The responses were compiled into an interactive data dashboard that could be explored in many different ways:

  • By participating, students gain valuable insights into their personal culture and identity. They can understand that culture is not delimited by one’s national background and can change through life experience.
  • A North American math teacher, for example, can see a new Japanese student’s norms for working with their teachers, for direct communication or offering personal ideas and opinions. Teachers can adapt their approach to get the best out of that student. Equally, they might see that such a Japanese student does not always conform to the national stereotype for indirect, polite communication.
  • As a personal example, I could see how a Theory of Knowledge (ToK) student in my IB Diploma class preferred receiving honest, direct feedback from teachers; whereas, when communicating back to teachers the student preferred using the opposite—diplomatic and respectful—approach. This insight helped me understand how to make a better teaching connection with her.
  • Working in a bigger picture, a principal can see how their students interact with diversity and whether they develop more skills in cross-cultural communication over time in their school. Our international schools should be claiming we are getting students ready to thrive in the wider world. Now we have a way to show how and in what ways we are able to make this claim to our parents.

At the end of this pilot year, we sat down as a team at the CIS Leiden office to reflect on the experience. As crucial input to this conversation, we worked with an expert on questionnaire design and analytics, Caroline Vuilleumier (Doctoral Candidate, Boston College, Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation). Caroline provided an excellent analysis of the results. To simplify her detailed and impressive findings, we could see that most of the individual questions were working well, that the students were engaged taking the test with very little missing data, but the internal consistency of the categorization of the questions needed reevaluating. In other words, within each of the five categories there were different aspects of cultural theory that were not always internally consistent. There was a general consensus that we needed to also describe the question categories with clearer language.

So, in the light of this conversation, we have updated the structure of survey, improved its clarity while maintaining what we believe is a very engaging and manageable model. The new version available to schools this year will explore seven different cultural issues:

    1. Working with Your Teachers – expectations for the roles teachers and students play in classrooms
    2. Your Sense of Individuality – how students value their individual opinions and ideas in relation to others
    3. Working with Other Students – how students like to work with their peers in class
    4. Motivations to Learn – what motivates students to learn at school
    5. Working Preferences – student work habit preferences
    6. Communicating with Others – students’ communication styles
    7. Cross-Cultural Understanding – students’ attitudes towards working within diversity

Responses to these questions will feed into an updated data dashboard that can be explored in different ways. School leaders can break down responses by age, gender, length of time in the school, or in international schools generally, as well as by cultural identifiers. Each of these data splices contains fascinating correlations. One of the most useful data views is to see all of one student’s responses graphed together. At a glance, a teacher will be able to get an overview of each student’s learning and communication preferences. This one-pager can be a great resource for parent-student-teacher conferences, for example. My hope is that students get to ‘own’ their own summary page to promote their self-awareness as learners and build their advocacy for how they want to communicate.

Teaching above all else is a massive effort of communication. Great teachers are constantly modulating and adapting their communication style to build bridges of understanding to their students. We hope that this research project can support colleagues in this endeavor in a most practical, inspiring and supportive manner. We do hope that your school will want to participate in our Culture and Learning Questionnaire this coming year.
CIS Members schools can fill out a brief form to receive additional information.

My sincere thanks go to the CIS team for their partnership in this project. In particular, I would like to thank Dave Stanfield, Head of Research & Development, for his leadership, commitment and co-presenting skills at the CIS Symposia. Alejandra Neyra has done super work as the Data Analyst at CIS, continually improving the data dashboard. Caroline Vuilleumier was exactly the right person at the right time to improve the questionnaire model. My thanks also go to Robin Schneider, formerly Deputy Head at ISH and now Head of School at Fukuoka International School in Japan, for his great support and insight into this project since the beginning. 

Posted by CIS on Thursday August, 31

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