One of the things I do for fun is teach in a master of business administration (MBA) program. My students come from all over the world, and English may or may not be their first language. In one of my recent classes, a student was having trouble communicating something in a way that made sense to the rest of the class. An American-born student, clearly frustrated and impatient, said something nasty under his breath. The speaker stopped, looked the other student in the eye, and said, “Just because I speak with an accent does not mean I think with one.”

This comment is the kind that sticks with an instructor forever. It cut the other student to the core and made me look deeper into my own cultural tolerance and self-awareness, both as an instructor and a learning leader.

How We Think About Culture in L&D

In learning and development (L&D), we often think about culture in the context of the environments where we train. We are good at linking culture to overall employee engagement and the ability to learn. However, the U.S. (and much of the rest of the world) is more culturally integrated than ever, and we need to think beyond corporate culture. Culture is about how we behave and think about things and people. It is about how we were raised, and it shapes and influences how we see and understand the world. It includes how we communicate with others, and it impacts both learning and training facilitation.

In his book “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently,” Richard Nisbett describes the differences in worldviews of Asian and American children. American children, he writes, tend to see the world as classes of objects that are defined by sets of rules, while Asian children tend to see the world based through relationships.

This example demonstrates the importance of thinking about how cultural influences impact learning success, especially as we consider microlearning or experiential simulations. A quick Google search reveals numerous theories about how culture impacts learning, but the takeaway should be that culture impacts how learners participate in training. For example, some cultures believe in active discussion, while others believe that remaining quiet is more respectful. Unfortunately, in a multicultural classroom, many trainers believe that learners from the latter cultures either are not understanding or have an attitude problem.

Engaging Diverse Learners Through a Multicultural Lens

To engage learners, trainers must understand their biases and cultural assumptions, as they impact the connection and relationship they form with learners. Additionally, learning professionals must consider these biases as we create training objectives and design elements.

Do your assumptions impact the success of your learners? Instead of answering with a quick “no,” consider whether you have a picture in your mind of the ideal student. Then, answer these questions honestly:

  • What does this student look like?
  • Is this image founded in your own personal narrative?
  • Do you have a preconceived notion about students based on their appearance?

Depending on how you answer these questions, you may have some work to do. Being aware of your biases is the first step in overcoming them:

  • Take the implicit associations test to see where your blind spots are.
  • Practice empathy to understand your learners’ perspectives and emotions about the training. Try to learn something new about each of your learners.
  • Practice kindness. It reduces stress and helps you be more open.
  • Broaden your network of friends and colleagues. It will help you change how you think about social hierarchy.
  • Find members of underrepresented groups whom you admire, and follow them on social media.

We all have biases. In order to be effective learning leaders, we need to understand where we are right now. Then, we need to work on our own thinking and challenge assumptions in our learning environments and circles of influence. The more we can embrace learners and their differences, the better we will be at ensuring training sticks.

It all begins with you. Will you take the first step?