Individual Preferences And Adult Learning


The challenges trainers and educators have reaching students within their own cultural context are magnified when they lead classes or workshops with students from other cultural backgrounds. It can be hard to frame information and organize activities in a way that connects with the learning preferences of diverse students. However, with the help of the Cultural Orientations Approach and its constituent Cultural Orientations Indicator, instructors can understand the different preferences they and their students may have so that they can tailor their lesson plans to their particular audience.

Individuals’ preferences fall somewhere along a continuum between two cultural orientations. There are four cultural continua, or preference sets, that have the most direct link to cultural variations in adult learning.

Equality-Hierarchy (sometimes called power distance) – Equality-oriented cultures minimize social stratification, while hierarchical cultures emphasize the importance of rank and status. Northern European and English-speaking countries are generally equality-oriented. In such cultures, participants in training events tend to expect to learn from each other, and they expect dialogue. They typically see their instructors as peers and coaches, and they feel free to speak up in class. In addition, they’re generally comfortable with self-directed activities.

By contrast, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries are usually more hierarchical. In such cultures, participants expect to learn from the expert, the trainer, and want more of an instructor-centered design. Participants are unlikely to speak up unless called upon and aren’t likely to be comfortable with emergent designs.

With hierarchical audiences, the facilitator or trainer should make the goals and structure of the workshop clear ahead of time. If the facilitator wants dialogue in the session, he or she should create a structure for it because it’s not likely to happen on its own. When forming small groups, the facilitator needs to pay attention to participants’ status; senior-level people are likely to dominate. Last, the facilitator should consider whether his or her materials engender a participative management style that may not get results well in a hierarchical society.

Individualistic-Collectivistic – Individualistic cultures value autonomy and seek self-actualization, whereas collectivistic cultures value belonging and seek group harmony. People in collectivistic cultures want to work together for the benefit of the group and tend to form groupings of their own quite easily. Trainers in such cultures should emphasize small-group activities and be mindful of pre-existing relationships. On the other hand, trainers are likely to find that participants in individualistic cultures would rather work on their own in parallel with others, but not necessarily with them. They may want to come to their own conclusions and be rewarded or recognized singularly. 

Cooperative-Competitive – Competitive cultures value material achievement, assertiveness, toughness and winning, whereas cooperative cultures value quality of life and interdependence, and they’re sympathetic to failure. North American cultures are usually competitive, while Latin countries are more cooperative.

In competitive cultures, learners tend to seek recognition and expect rewards for performance. People in such cultures go to training hoping to further their careers. If they fail to pass the program, it can be disturbing to them. In cooperative cultures, learners are likely to avoid competition and expect rewards as a team. People tend to go to trainings because they find the subject matter interesting. If trainees fail to pass the program, it’s disappointing but rarely causes great stress. There is less gender-role differentiation in cooperative cultures.

Flexibility-Order Flexibility cultures are tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity, whereas order-oriented cultures avoid risk and value predictability. Northern Europe, North America, and much of Africa and Asia are flexibility cultures, whereas Latin America, the Middle East and Southern Europe have predominantly order-oriented cultural structures. In cultures with flexibility orientations, trainees value innovative answers and envision many ways to solve problems. In order-oriented cultures, trainees expect to learn the single best way to solve a problem, and they value accurate answers. Instructors are expected to be experts who freely use the jargon of their field, even if the participants don’t fully understand it.  

The best way to ensure that the content and methods of a program are appropriate for local expectations is to have a local partner, preferably a bicultural one, to act as a co-trainer who assists the instructor with the design and presentation. The local partner can also act as a “shadow facilitator,” reviewing the instructor’s materials in advance and helping him or her prepare for the event. If it’s not possible to work with a local partner, trainers must spend extra time doing cultural due diligence, that is, learning as much as possible about the local preferences ahead of time. Using the Cultural Navigator Country Guides and Cultural Orientation Indicator profiles of the target group, in conjunction with speaking with people who are from or who have spent time in that culture, is the best way to learn about attendees’ preferences on the four cultural continua listed above. The more time spent preparing, the more likely the session will be effective.

Cheryl Williams