Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Cultural influence on learning

Does culture influence learning? And if it does, is it significant enough to make a substantial impact on the learning outcomes? In my right as a learner and an individual my answer to both the above question would be ‘yes it does’. But before I venture into further endorsing my stand, it would help to limit the scope of this blog by defining what I mean by ‘culture’ and ‘learning’, as you would appreciate that both these terms have a wide scope. The dictionary meaning of culture is “the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society”. This can range between culture that is specific to an individual, family, community, society to region or nation. For our understanding we will consider culture in the broad context of a nation. And learning would mean “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience resulting in the formation of behavior.” Now that the delineations are clear, I can go ahead with substantiating my stand.

The Halo effect of parents in most Indian families and the way this gets transferred from generation to generation is strikingly different from many other cultures. The dominance of parents or elders in families gives limited freedom when it comes to chasing a dream or following a passion. This could influence the choice of subject and style of learning. This phenomenon was aptly demonstrated in the Hindi movie 3 idiots. The scene where Farhan’s father tags him an engineer within minutes of his birth is classic representation of this. Often individuals hailing from this culture end up being what they are expected to be rather than what they want to be. The fact that this trend continues into the following generation is the reason why I claim this to be a part of the culture. This could also explain the emergence of community specific profession or trades wherein legacies get passed on to the next generation.

Another characteristic feature of the link between culture and learning is evident in our formal education system. Being focused on the score rather than empowerment, non-experiential theoretical memorizing, and choice of vocation based on income generating potential rather than true passion are significant weaknesses in our formal education system that needs to be addressed if we need to raise our bar in education. These could be developments that have evolved over a period of time due to various contigent factors. For example post-independence, with limited resources and economic backwardness, the thrust would have been to pursue a career that could economically support the nation rather than a passion. Similarly with a large population and inadequate opportunities, the basis of benchmarking would have to be something as objective as the score. Having said that, isn't it time we realign ourselves to a higher order, now that the reasons stated above are no longer relevant in the present scheme of things?

While all these arguments point to a strong link between culture and learning, what we need to question ourselves now is whether this influence of culture on learning is beneficial or detrimental.

The linkage between culture and human behavior is inevitable and to a large extend this influence is mutual. However should we allow this culture to take control to such an extent that we lose sight of the true purpose of learning? May be not! What we need to realize in this context is that learning is a culture in itself and any tampering or adulteration would dilute its essence rendering it ineffective or below acceptable standard. Learning requires an open, uninfluenced, creative environment to build and take shape. Else what we would end up in the name of learning would be an ineffective, redundant and obsolete output.
At the end of the day, our potential can be maximized through effective learning only. Therefore apart from influencing human behavior in general, learning is critical in harnessing human potential as well. Hence it is imperative to provide learning with the unadulterated  environment it deserves.

About the author
Neeva is a corporate learning specialist and currently works with People Equity HR consulting as Principal Consultant. She has extensive experience in designing and delivering innovative learning initiatives. She can be contacted at 9686113578 and