How to train in the culturally diverse classroom

Training a culturally diverse group can be daunting. But with the right preparation, even the most diverse classes can be successful ones.

When a training class brings to mind the classic Coca Cola commercial that has you humming the tune, “I’d like to teach the world to sing… er… program, in perfect harmony,” then chances are you’ve got a diverse group of people in your classroom. But never fear, there are ways to handle the pressures of teaching a group made up of different cultures, different backgrounds, and differing classroom views, and you won’t even have to buy them each a Coke—although you’ll still leave them with a smile.

As a trainer, you might find yourself in a foreign locale where YOU are the one who’s “different,” you might have one student from another country in your session, or you might have a globally diverse group in front of you at the start of your next workshop. Beyond these situations, many contract trainers or consultants find themselves in different organizational cultures as well. The concerns and considerations in these situations may be subtler, but they can be just as difficult to deal with as the more blatant differences such as language barriers.
This series explores how trainers can have success in a culturally diverse classroom. Part 1 covers the preparation that is required to handle training room diversity.
Be prepared
My advice could be distilled into two words: Be prepared. But that would make for a very short article. So, in the spirit of thoroughness, let me explain some factors you will need to prepare for when faced with a diverse crowd.

Foreign location
If you’re going to facilitate training in a foreign location, you need to do your homework. If you’re from Moscow, Idaho, and your next session is in Moscow, Russia, you would certainly want to learn all you could about:
  • The group you’re going to be training
  • Their expectations of the training
  • The cultural norms and expectations concerning education
  • Information technology in their culture

When presented with foreign training assignments like this, these actions and preparations seem obvious. However, it’s just as important to start doing your homework when you first recognize that your organization is becoming more culturally diverse. Ask yourself, “What backgrounds and cultures will be more prevalent in my future training sessions?” The answer to this question gives you a starting point. From there, you begin your learning process.

Language differences
To begin, you need to recognize any language hurdles you might have with a culturally diverse classroom. A long-term learning goal might be to learn another language—but for most of us in most situations, that just isn’t feasible. Besides, even if you learned the language, you most likely wouldn’t teach your sessions in that new language. But there are still language skills you can learn to be more effective with a diverse classroom.

Learn a few phrases. When teaching in Guatemala, I took the time to learn a few more phrases in Spanish. Saying “Buenos Dias” each morning as people gathered might have been a little thing, but it helped develop a relationship with the group. By saying this phrase, I was letting them know that I was a learner just like them. It also let them know that I honored their culture and language. This was even more powerful when, during my session closing, I learned some Spanish phrases to communicate the key objectives and points we learned from the session. The expressions on the group’s faces and the comments I received months after the session spoke to the positive impact of my simple learning task.

It’s important to keep in mind that this different language doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Spanish or Russian, the “new” language could be subtle as well—like the “legalese” spoken by the legal department group you’ll teach next month.

Cultural norms
Different cultures have different norms and assumptions that they operate under. Spend some time learning something about any new cultures in which you will teach. Research those cultures and their specific traditions, such as eating rituals and interpersonal etiquette. A better and possibly quicker way to learn these things is to find someone with a cultural background that you need to know more about, take him or her to lunch, and pick his or her brain. Find out as much as you can about that culture, and learn how you can effectively honor, understand, and communicate with folks from that background. This learning process relates not only to working in a different region, but with a new client organization and/or a new department within your organization as well.

Expectation differences
This is an area that I think is highly critical, and it may be harder to learn up-front. You need to know about the educational expectations of your groups. One way to do this is to arrange interviews with knowledgeable people from the group you’ll be training. Adults from Canada and the U.S. have roughly similar experiences throughout their schooling. The roles of teachers and students are relatively equal in both countries. This is less true for people from other parts of the world. Even if the training sessions you lead are much different from any childhood classroom, adults still bring their classroom experiences and expectations to your sessions. Since those experiences might be very different for some of your typical groups, it’s important to know things such as:
  • How do they feel about participation, group work, and/or interactive sessions?
  • How do they see their role in a learning situation?
  • What is the role of the teacher (i.e., are they seen as a facilitator or the person with all the answers) in their experience?
  • What are their issues about making mistakes, especially when it might be seen or noticed in a group?

As I mentioned, these questions may be harder to find answers to, but even if you can’t learn about these things beforehand, be mindful of them during your sessions.

Reap the rewards
If you take the time to prepare for the cultural diversity of your students, then you’ve taken the first step toward creating more effective learning, making your work easier and more enjoyable, and making your students significantly more comfortable and successful.

Kevin Eikenberry is president of the Discian Group , a learning consulting company in Indianapolis. If you would like to comment on this article, please follow this link to write to Kevin .

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