Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Culture-Neutral Instructional Design – Fact or Fiction?

As an instructional designer and learning specialist, I like to believe that I am aware of the cultural difference between me and my intended audience. I also believe that I try my best to ensure that my training design and developed content is devoid of any cultural bias and the instructions are unambiguous.

However, can instructional design ever be culture-neutral?

The Meaning of Culture

To begin the discussion, let’s probe a little about culture and what it means. The Wikipedia definition of culture says:
“Culture (from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning "to cultivate") is a term that has different meanings.”

This statement is enough to let us know that the definition and understanding of culture is changing.

Culture can be defined as “the sum total of ways of living, including values, beliefs, aesthetic standards, linguistic expression, patterns of thinking, behavioural norms, and styles of communication” (Powell, 1997, p. 15).

The above statement clearly reflects that culture plays an important role in our daily lives. It is all pervasive yet not very obvious. The way we are and the way we perceive situations and react to them is a product of our culture. Culture is therefore learned behavior; it is not genetic.

The Need for Culturally-Neutral Learning
In the 21st century, all training and content providers and educational institutions want to ensure that they provide culturally-neutral learning environments. As more and more learning moves online, the audience has become global and widespread rather than local and captive. The boundaries separating cultural groups are now getting blurred. To be successful, training and content providers and educational institutions are sensitised to the impact of culture on learning.

Learning is a social phenomenon and it pervades culture. Learning is embedded in everyday situations. There is enough research to prove that learning is best achieved when it is used and applied in real-world contexts.

But as I am drawn to the paradigm – context (and not content) is king – I face these questions:
• How can I build the right context without incorporating the element of culture?
• Isn’t context culture-specific?
• Aren’t popular instructional design models themselves a product of a particular culture?
• How can I as an instructional designer be immune to the effects of culture – my culture and that of my learners?

Culture and Instructional Design
Culture not only affects how we behave and think but also how we learn. There is a growing recognition that learning strategies and tactics are influenced by culture.
According to Henderson (as cited in McLoughlin & Oliver, 2000), “Instructional design cannot and does not, exist outside of a consideration of culture”. Aspects such as the perceived role of the facilitator, usage of technology towards learning, type of assessment systems, more lectures versus more hands-on learning, various types of rewards of learning etc. are some of the factors that are deeply influenced by our culture. While we talk of inclusive design and culture-sensitive learning strategies; there isn’t enough or concrete research to help us design instruction that can help cross-cultural learners learn in ways that map to their culture, their values, beliefs and styles of learning.

Culture and learning both are evolving. There is not enough discussion about models that can help us design courses that are culturally-neutral. However, in my research, I came across one particular model proposed by Henderson. Henderson (1996) has argued that instructional design is about the creation of cultural identity and cannot be culturally neutral. Henderson proposed the multiple cultural model of instructional design. This model proposes a design approach that considers various cultural realities or zones of development. These include designing learning interventions that reflect multicultural ways of learning and teaching.

Application of Multiple Cultural Model on Instructional Design

Application of this model calls us for being culturally-sensitive and develop a global perspective about learning and teaching.

• Based on this model, we ought to adopt not one particular but multiple pedagogies that provide flexibility and a variety of learning approaches to learners based on their cultures and contexts.
• We should utilize learning and assessment strategies that can help minimize cultural misunderstandings between diverse audience groups.
• By using more constructivists’ approaches to learning, we can ensure that the learner is the centre of all learning and we offer increased flexibility and interactivity in all learning interventions.
• By becoming more aware of our own ‘implicit’ assumptions about culture and by appreciating the differences, we can design and develop learning interventions that are more culturally-sensitive.

So, can instructional design be culture-neutral? Perhaps not as much we would like it to be. But by adopting a more diverse view about learning and the differences in cultures, we can surely design and develop culturally-sensitive training that is more meaningful to our learners.


  1. Interesting post Taruna. I would like your views on culture and learning styles. Do members of high context relationship driven societies respond with a different learning style as opposed to people from low context societies? Does background play a role e,g do rural people like to learn from skits, enactments and folklore , story telling as opposed to pedagogic channels ?

  2. Sid, thanks for reading my blog.

    I do believe that certain learning styles and preferences are promoted implicitly or explicitly in certain cultures. I don’t have a ready research for high context relationship versus low context relationship societies but for example, research shows that American students show high levels of visual and spatial skills and do less well on tests of verbal ability in English. However, there is no research that says that Caucasian or African-American children cannot exhibit this learning pattern - they just may not do it as a group, in general. Another research shows that Confucian Asians, as learners, have a strong preference for abstraction. The Latin Europe and Anglo cultures, on the other hand, exhibit preference for concreteness over abstraction. So yes, some cultures may show a specific learning pattern but that does not mean they only learn in that way or others can't learn in the ways they do.

    I would tend to agree that ‘background’ plays a role in our learning abilities because our background is largely an amalgamation of our socio-economic, cultural and political environment. And all these elements have an impact on our values, beliefs, and the way we perceive and process information.

    When drawing out relationship between culture and instructional design - over-generalization is probably the thing to watch out for. This is where by applying more constructivist approach to learning and by utilizing multiple instructional strategies and approaches (to cater to different learning styles); we can take better care of our learners.

    For detailed notes on various researches, here is a place to start:

  3. Interesting post, TG! However, I would not be able to comment much, because I believe that Online Application trainings, what I specialize in, are intrinsically culture-independent. But yes, I'll keep watching this space for thought-provoking responses, which will educate me.

  4. Thanks Sandipan for your comment. Well, technically speaking, culture has an impact on the instructional strategies and tactics - the approach to teach/learn - more than the content. So, whether you teach application-based content or soft skills courses - culture will have an impact on both. The degree of impact may differ because one is more factual and the other is more conceptual.

  5. Taruna,
    I have found your perspectives on cultural issues in instructional design very interesting. However most of the research is focused on technology and online considerations. Could you point me in the direction of research that discusses appropriate guidelines that a developer should address to be sensitive to cultural differences in the classroom

  6. Thanks for your comment Mr. Bessler. I can't say I have read a lot about culture and classroom but there are some interesting web links that I came across. Perhaps, these can be of use: