Cross-Cultural Communication: A Professional Development Learning Center

Why this Learning Center?

American schools may be the envy of many nations, but a large portion of our students are not learning what they need to learn. There are many reasons for this, including curriculum that does not relate to their personal or ethnic histories and stereotyping that damages students' self confidence and lowers teachers' expectations of them.

But one reason that is common to both immigrant and Native American students can be fixed: difficulties that arise because the students are thrust into a cross-cultural situation. Learning the content that is expected of children is challenge enough -- but when you heap on top of that the requirement that students do so in a way that is uncomfortable or foreign to them, and add to that the fact that students are expected to figure out the communication system on their own without the guidance of adults -- you have a recipe for failure.

This can be fixed. First, teachers can learn to understand their own communication styles, then learn some tools for recognizing when students or other adults are used to different styles. What cultural groups do you encounter in your classroom? A check with your school guidance counselor can provide some inside information on both the groups and their preferred communication styles.

The last step is for the teachers to learn ways to bridge the gap between their own styles and those of their students. We designed this Learning Center to offer some helpful tools.

The ECHO partners (click here to learn about the partnership) are dedicated to discovering, modeling, and communicating best practices in cross-cultural communication. This quest comes naturally to us: we are six diverse organizations from four states, embodying dozens of different cultural heritages. Each meeting of our group is a challenge in cross-cultural communication.

As educational institutions, we are especially interested in helping children from diverse backgrounds stay engaged in school as they learn what it means to be contributing adults. Working with children can be challenging if the teachers' backgrounds are different from that of their students, because every day brings new opportunities for cross-cultural communication and -- invariably -- cross-cultural MIS-communication.

Over the ten years of the ECHO partnership, we have learned some valuable skills about interacting in respectful and meaningful ways across cultures in educational, institutional, personal, and social situations. This Learning Center, created by one of the partners (the North Slope Borough) with assistance from the other five, is dedicated to students and teachers everywhere who seek authentic ways to learn about the world through others' perceptual lenses.

Enduring Understandings

  • All humans communicate through language, body movements, and behavior.
  • Humans learn how to communicate by observing and copying those around them; in other words, communication is cultural.
  • Humans can learn more than one communication style.

Essential Questions:

  1. How do people communicate?
  2. How does communication vary in different cultures?
  3. How can I learn to communicate better in various cultural situations?
  4. How will this knowledge improve my teaching?


If you complete this Learning Center and undertake the suggested activities and readings, you will be able to:

  1. Describe your own cultural background and its effects on your personal communication style;
  2. Recognize when communication break-downs are caused by cultural differences;
  3. Explore scholarly and popular literature about cross-cultural communication;
  4. Teach your students how to recognize their own cultural communication styles;
  5. Repair breakdowns in communication caused by cultural misunderstandings;
  6. Illustrate communication styles with examples from a variety of cultures.

In this Learning Center . . .

you will explore your own comfort zone through seven exercises that can broaden that zone, depending on where you are and whom you're communicating with.

To begin: these two women met each other on a street corner in a village in rural France. It took no time at all for them to position themselves directly facing each other no more than elbow-distance away.

Now consider: Is this the way you communicate when you encounter a friend or acquaintance?