We at the CEF pay a lot of attention to learning. When designing our learning initiatives, we do not only consider different approaches that would be most relevant for discussed topics, but we also put great emphasis on in-class participation, stimulating interactivity by including participants as much as possible. We also monitor what works better and what does not, as not all learning styles can be applied to everyone.
The work of our in-class facilitators allows us to observe different learning patterns of the participants. Their approach to learning varies on many factors. This makes it hard to compare on an individual basis, while some general observations can usually be drawn. We acknowledge that there is a great impact of culture to their behavior in class and their learning preferences.
In general, we can distinguish participants from South East Europe (SEE) that stem from comparable cultural environment to those from other regions. In SEE, the school system is still predominantly traditional, where the teacher/professor is the main (or only) source of knowledge, i.e. as part of cognitive learning or transmission of knowledge, and the participants take a passive role and wait for the lecturer to reveal all the answers. In a complexity of public financial management and central banking and public sector reforms, where different solutions are not equally applicable in all environments, this approach is certainly not suitable and can only be resolved through discussion. While also constructivism, where participants for example work on different case studies, is not unknown to them, we cannot claim this in the same degree for more social learning approaches. On the other hand, we notice changes in returning participants, who have experienced also other CEF initiatives and are thus much more familiar to our approach to learning. This makes them more likely to adapt to our approach.
Being used to the system makes it more difficult to break the mindset of how mutual interactivity and their own inclusion might contribute to the enhancement of their learning journey. Therefore we strive to include them from the very beginning. We have already discussed the importance of icebreaker activities at the beginning to allow a time-efficient transition to the events. Moreover, we monitor their satisfaction and how they feel during the event, as a relaxed atmosphere is much more likely to stimulate social behavior.
Hofstede has developed five dimensions on cultural differences: power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, masculinity vs. femininity, uncertainty avoidance, and long-term orientation. Drawing from Wursten & Jacobs (2013), who compared the dimensions and cultural impact on education, we can also apply it to the characteristics of the SEE region.
When speaking of the Power Distance Index, the region has a somewhat higher power distance culture, meaning that status and hierarchy are regarded more important than in the US or Scandinavia. By promoting informality among participants and lecturers, the CEF wants to reduce power distance to encourage people to participate in discussions more openly. Given that they might not be familiar with the concept at the beginning, we observe positive feedback after they acknowledged it.
It is harder to give a clear-cut picture of individualism or collectivism in the region. The tendency not to speak up unless called on by the lecturer directly and feeling much more comfortable speaking in small groups rather than in front of a larger audience is common to collectivist societies. We have this in mind when asking for their feedback in order to ask more directly, and we normally share this with our lecturing experts. When there is a need to work on a case study or discuss in group, we normally opt for smaller groups of people to make them more comfortable and included. On the other hand, they might not restrain from confronting (in smaller groups) and face consciousness might not be strong either, which is more common to individualistic cultures. In general, the SEE can be placed somewhere in the middle.
In South East Europe, being an average student is more of a norm than standing out as best in class. This might derive from more egalitarian social arrangements and the common perception that sticking out might not be appreciated, which is why students tend to behave more modestly. This puts SEE into a more feminine group of countries.
We have observed that our participants expect the agenda and the learning event to be well structured and they like to be informed about the details in advance. Similarly, they wish to get precise instructions for any assignments. They might not feel comfortable with a flexible agenda or even when the lecturer wants to leave the content more open to their expectations and interests. Furthermore, a lecturer is expected to provide all the answers and disagreement might be perceived as disruptive to the learning process, although we see this changing through time. We need to be aware of strong uncertainty-avoidance culture when setting up our learning initiatives.
We see no strong sense regarding long-term orientation in the region, while they tend to have a lower score than typical Asian cultures. This is most representative in their tendency to find a single solution to their challenges rather than more. There is also awareness of the importance of enjoying the present and leisure time. Analytical thinking is appreciated, as well as rationality and cognitive consistency, while sometimes the focus is on quick results, which are traits of lower long-term orientation. On the other hand, there is awareness of long-term processes and of the need of adaptation to circumstances and learning from others, which is characteristic of more long-term oriented cultures.
These characteristics give some general understanding of how participants from the region might behave in a learning environment or what they are more comfortable with. It is good to be aware of these aspects, while we should also acknowledge individual differences. We should notice different reactions to similar learning stimuli and environments. Thus, we must continuously monitor and adapt our approaches to find the most suitable options.
- Wursten, Huib & Jacobs, Carel (2013). The Impact of Culture on Education. Available at: http://geert-hofstede.com/tl_files/images/site/social/Culture%20and%20education.pdf.
- The Hofstede Centre (2016). Available at: http://geert-hofstede.com/.