The recently published Instructor's Handbook provides instructors with the tools and guidance required to successfully deliver training. It reminds us of the need to understand and be aware of trainee differences. Eye-contact, questioning and discussions are three key components of instructing; however the 'norm' for these may be very different depending upon your cultural background. To assist us instructing culturally diverse groups, this article provides some points to consider for these three skills.
Firstly, eye-contact. There are several reasons to make eye-contact with trainees: to keep them engaged, to display confidence in our subject matter and to scan the room to check that they are paying attention. In numerous cultures, however, persistent eye contact is considered a negative type of body language. Some Asian cultures view it as an intrusion or a challenge, and in Australian Indigenous culture sustained eye-contact can be regarded as a sign of bad manners and even of hostility. Similarly, in other cultures, uninterrupted eye-contact could be interpreted as a love declaration. As such, it is not unusual for members of diverse groups to not look directly at a speaker, but to focus on their words instead. An instructor should not immediately interpret a lack of eye-contact from trainees as a sign of disengagement.
Secondly, as instructors we usually dedicate some of our class time for an opportunity for trainees to ask questions. If no questions are asked, we assume the trainees have understood the material presented. However, for cultural reasons, some trainees may hesitate to ask questions. In some cultures, a question asked by a student could imply an instructor is not doing their job properly as clarification is required for the material to be fully understood, and questioning is sometimes viewed as a challenge to the instructor, thus can be deemed impolite. Instructors should make it clear that they are available and expect questions either during the training session or afterwards.
Lastly, we are told to encourage discussions amongst our trainees. In some cultures though, either debating or putting forward a different point of view can be interpreted as a challenge to those involved in the discussion. If a trainee originates from a culture where consensus and smooth social relations are considered more important than learning, this trainee may be unwilling to voice a differing opinion. An instructor’s role is to promote the idea that an open and respectful discussion enhances learning.
In conclusion, when working in a culturally diverse environment, we should not make assumptions on either the best teaching practices or our trainees’ reactions. We should view these teaching practices as appropriate and applicable to an overwhelming majority of trainees, while keeping in mind that these techniques may be interpreted differently and elicit a range of reactions from other trainees. A lack of eye-contact may not signify a lack of attention, not seeking clarification does not automatically mean material has been fully understood, and finally an unwillingness to contradict may not be the result of agreement.