Respecting global mindedness and being aware of personal and cultural blindspots.

Respecting global mindedness and being aware of personal and cultural blindspots.
James Hatch

As a Catholic international school, SIS is situated within a triple Venn Diagram. On the one hand, it is a school; on the other, it is an intentional school; and arguably most importantly, it is a Catholic school grounded in the teachings of the Gospel and the Church, which we believe is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Its international setting is also in Tokyo, Japan, with a long, complex, rich culture. Student-centred learning is a cornerstone of international education; this notion means individualism for many. It is this notion of individualism that I wish to explore in this GM+IC Theme. 

The Catholic teachings, contained within such encyclicals as Rerum Novarum (1891), Quadragesimo Anno (1931), and more recently, Centesimus Annus (1991) offer a rich perspective on the notion of the "individual" versus 'individualism". On the one hand, these teachings generally acknowledge the dignity and rights of individuals but also emphasise the interconnectedness of humanity and the need to balance individual freedoms with responsibilities toward the common good and the well-being of society. Indeed, the mass is a primary example of where the individual connects with the Divine but is also expected to be in common union (communion) with those gathered "in His name". Far from being a semantic sleight of hand, the distinction is essential. God made individuals in His image. Therefore, the Church acknowledges the importance of individual rights and freedoms while cautioning against excessive individualism that might neglect the common good or undermine social relationships. 

In an international school, a similar approach may be necessary. Within such a setting, the emphasis on individualism, while having its merits, may inadvertently neglect the diverse cultural backgrounds of our students. Indeed, there can be within school an assumption that we have fundamental agreements of such core values as social norms, success and relationships. However, the research consistently warns against such oversimplification and assumption. While some may point to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights or UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is evident that despite most countries signing such declarations, their implementation and meaning vary from place to place. Indeed, it is one of the significant challenges that those engaged in social justice, development or any cross-cultural work can attest to: humans are complex, and that complexity increases when they interact with other groupings. I have seen how one person's 'terrorist' may be another's 'freedom fighter'. 

While not without its limitation, Gerard Hendrik (Geert) Hofstede's (2 October 1928 – 12 February 2020) Cultural Dimensions Theory sheds light on this phenomenon. Individualism, valued in some so-called 'Western' societies, champions personal achievement, autonomy, and self-expression. However, in international schools where students come from various cultural backgrounds, solely focusing on individualism can lead to cultural insensitivity and exclusion.

Hofstede's theory identifies individualism-collectivism as a critical cultural dimension. An alternative to societies with strong individualistic norms is a collectivist culture where group harmony, interdependence, and shared values precede individual aspirations. Examples of such worldviews may be found within the Japanese concept of "WA (和)", the Bantu notion of 'ubuntu' or the role of 'clan' in Gaelic societies. When an international school promotes a strictly individualistic approach, collectivist students may feel alienated, as their cultural identity emphasises teamwork, respect for authority, and maintaining group cohesion. Moreover, rather than be set in stone, most individuals, regardless of their cultural setting, will have a personal spectrum regarding acceptable individualism and collective responsibilities.

Additionally, Hofstede's power distance dimension is relevant. This dimension reflects the acceptance of hierarchical structures within a society. In high power distance cultures, students might need help with the individualistic approach if it clashes with their cultural norms of deference to authority figures. They may feel uncomfortable challenging the teacher's perspective or expressing dissent, which is more valued in individualistic cultures. 

Cultural differences also extend to uncertainty avoidance. Some societies prefer structured environments and clear guidelines, while others embrace ambiguity and risk. If an international school solely champions individualism, it might inadvertently disregard students' preferences from uncertainty-avoidance cultures that thrive in environments with well-defined expectations and structured frameworks.

Incorporating Hofstede's dimensions into the educational approach can enhance inclusivity. An optimal approach would blend individualism with aspects of collectivism, recognising and valuing cultural diversity. Group projects that encourage collaboration while respecting individual contributions can bridge the gap between cultural preferences. Also, nurturing an environment where students are educated about cultural norms and sensitivities can foster cross-cultural understanding.

An exclusive emphasis on individualism in an international school setting might not align with students' diverse cultural backgrounds. Indeed, specifically at SIS, with its grounding in the Catholic faith, an overreliance on individualism may unintentionally distance our mission from the student's daily experience. Church teachings and Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory underscore the significance of integrating cultural sensitivity and awareness. By recognising the preferences of collectivist cultures, understanding power dynamics, and acknowledging uncertainty avoidance tendencies, educators can create an environment that embraces all students and prepares them for a globally interconnected world.

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