Collectivism & Individualism in Education (May 2014)


Unedited content from May 2014

Respect. Acceptance. Cooperation. Safety. This is the environment that all 21st century classrooms require. In fact, all workplaces should require this, as well. “Culture and diversity impacts communication, learning, and teaching,” (Wardle, 2013). These things need to be respected, accepted, and safely contained.

All cultures are different in terms of how we learn and reasons that motivate us to learn. Sometimes all we, as educators, need to do is put a book in a student’s hands and say, “Read this, then write a paragraph as to what you perceive the theme to be,” and it works.

Sometimes we ask that kids to be able to share their successes with the class, but  some students will not respond to this sort of attention. Some will even collapse within that environment and we would never be any wiser as to why this situation may have occurred. This is especially true with some immigrant students or students from immigrant families. Having stated this, there are two main types of cultures in our world, though no culture is singularly one or the other: individualist and collectivist.

This is a link to the multimedia presentation I put together for this particular discussion:

Overview of Individualism

Individualism is a theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over the collective control. It is the habit of being independent and self-reliant– especially in education. So, who are these students? Most students that are born in North America come from individualistic cultures. Mainstream cultures from Austria, Australia, England, New Zealand, Ireland, and Sweden also would be considered to be individualistic within their societies. In this culture, people feel loosely-linked to one another. Personal goals are valued far beyond that of the group’s agenda (Faitar, 2006).

Individualistic societies push for self-expression and creativity. This culture is considered more “masculine” and appears to seem of higher power in American society. The individualist associates highly with upward mobility, or the ability to move forward in life and climb the proverbial ladder (Trumbul, Rothstein-Fisch, & Greenfield, 2000).

“The U.S. view of family reflects the individual nature of its culture. The nuclear family has been the norm. Older parents are expected to live independently or in senior housing, and when children graduate from high school, they are expected to leave home and fend for themselves,” (Wardle, 2013).

In an individualistic culture, children are raised with social interaction predominately revolving around the individual self (Faitar, 2006). Children interact socially with other children in manners that could be considered self-centered. Other kids give each other ego boosts when a child sees that he or she is better at something than someone else. Online websites like Facebook and Twitter focus on the individualist society. It is a game to see who is the most popular online, which also feeds ego to the self. Individualist societies teach their children and students to be competitive– in some cases, ultra-competitive, and sometimes to a fault (Faitar, 2006).

“Students work independently only; helping others could be considered cheating,” (Rosenberg, Westling, & McLeskey, 2010). Students from an individualist cultures will be more engaged in discussions and arguments. This teaches them how to think critically in the society’s eyes. We teach from kindergarten up that personal property is personal property. Students may not touch one another, or another students’ things without proper permission (Rosenberg, Westling, & McLeskey, 2010).

One thing that is customary here in the United States is “schools encourage children to become independent thinkers and doers, focused on their own individual needs,” (Faitar, 2006). This type of culture tends to teach by focusing on the individual, hence the term: individualism.

Overview of Collectivism

Collectivism is the principle of giving a group, or family, priority over the single individuals within it. The unit is the most important thing and everyone plays a vital role to the group. These students often are from, or have families from: Japan, Russia, Hungary, China, Korea, Mexico, and other Central American countries. This culture believes everyone has a role to play within their groups or families, and everyone shares that burden equally. The group’s agenda is valued far beyond that of any personal goals (Faitar, 2006).

Unlike individualist societies, collectivists do not promote self-expression in the school system. However, in education, families from collectivistic cultures require and promote “adherence to social norms, respect for authority, and group consensus,” (Trumbul, Rothstein-Fisch, & Greenfield, 2000). This type of culture is also known for being much less competitive than the individualist culture. In fact, American society (the individualist side of the society) views collectivist cultures as near Communist, more feminine, and much more low-power than the individualist (Trumbul, Rothstein-Fisch, & Greenfield, 2000).

“Coming from a home background that emphasizes the importance of knowing and recognizing their place in the community hierarchy and from affiliation with the group, they often perform poorly in competition with other students,” (Faitar, 2006).

The collectivist cultures typically rely on social hierarchies. These hierarchies are usually based on age and gender. The same rule applies to social interactions, save for family social interaction. Having said this about social hierarchies and their importance, “personal success is not as important as the collective accomplishment,” (Faitar, 2006). These students prefer to work for the group’s benefit, or the family’s benefit. These students are not ones to put down others for getting a question wrong. Generally, these students will be the first to assist others in the group.

“Students are inclined to work with peers and provide assistance when needed,” (Rosenberg, Westling, & McLeskey, 2010). Students from the collectivist societies are generally quiet, sometimes silent (from personal experience) and respectful in class. Other countries, and some schools in the United States, create communal property. Parents all bring in resources for the group and everyone is allowed to use the resources they need at the time. This is unacceptable to the individualist (Rosenberg, Westling, & McLeskey, 2010).

“More collectivist [culture] students are persistent in efforts to achieve, but reluctant to speak of their own successes,” (Faitar, 2006). When asked to write reflections on themselves, these students will often write how others helped them get to the success. Or, when called on to share, they will often refer to the “we” of the group instead of taking credit, even if they did all of the work on their own.

Inclusionary Practices

Inclusionary practices need to be considered for both individualist and collectivist students in a single classroom. Keep in mind, not all cultures are perfect models for individualism or collectivism; there is always a combination of the two. Any society can, however, be more extreme to one side or the other.

It’s also necessary to understand customs and signs of respect for both sides. Many countries and cultures with an individualist point of view see eye contact as a sign of respect. Many cultures of the collectivist viewpoint see direct eye contact as a sign of disrespect and aggression (Rosenberg, Westling, & McLeskey, 2010).

The same goes for participation. Students from collectivist cultures participate quietly and amongst one another. Students from individualist societies expect open discussion, active participation, and engagement at all times. This is just another small difference between the two types of cultures (Rosenberg, Westling, & McLeskey, 2010).

As educators, we also need to know and understand our own personal cultural contexts.

“These influences include family, culture, race and ethnicity, language, gender, education, and so on. Further, we individually integrate these various influences into our own identity, making each one of us unique. While we are all unique, we also embrace the values, expectations, and worldview of various cultural contexts,” (Wardle, 2013).

Furthermore, as educators, we also need to understand the American Educational system and public school values and cultures. While each school essentially has its own culture and norms, there are many micro-cultures that exist within the macro-culture. The macro-culture of a public school is generally the one predominant in the society in which it is built: the United States (Wardle, 2013). To prevent students from falling behind, or falling through cracks, we have to keep in mind both sides and understand how to effectively reach both at the same time.

Individualist students need to know that they are doing a good job. These students like to complete individual assignments and have personal recognition for doing so. A pat on the back is often sufficient, but sometimes it will not be enough. These students also need to be able to express themselves in their work. Oral expression usually comes easy to students from an individualistic sort of culture, as well.

“Collectivist cultures tend to teach the whole group and allow students to learn from one another,” (Faitar, 2006). Collaborative learning, group environments, etc. are extraordinarily successful with students from this background. It also helps teach individualist students to “share the burden.” Group work and recognition will go a long way with these children. Students will typically enjoy working in a diverse group with various and rotating roles.

For example, literature circles and writing workshops work well for collectivist and individualist students alike. Both work well completing work as a group, but also have individual roles and assignments within the overall project. Peer review of their own work is greatly appreciated, as well. It is also a good idea to promote helpfulness and teamwork within the environment during collaborative assignments (Trumbul, Rothstein-Fisch, & Greenfield, 2000).

One thing that has also worked for me in the past–when it comes to teaching collaborative skills– is teaching via role-play. When students are engaged with each other, after a proper model of expectations, they immediately dive deeper into their learning. We have to face it. Our students do not come to school willingly to see us. Their prime motivation is to see their peers and friends and socialize. It is evident in every class I have ever taken myself, and every classroom I have had the opportunity to teach in. Role-playing allows students to open up to each other, work together, learn about one another, and socialize at the same time.

Collaborative skills are important for today’s society whether in the individualists’ world or the collectivists’. For individualist cultures, collaborative skills may not be as advanced as those coming from a collectivist background. Therefore, skills need to be introduced slowly. The point is to make the learning deep and meaningful, otherwise students will forget or feel overwhelmed and give up on themselves. This is the very opposite of what we want from our students as educators. Most importantly, collaborative skills are integral to the 21st century workforce, educational system, and life in general. Therefore, collaborative skills are worth the time it takes to develop them in all students regardless of cultural background.

“Class norms represent the behavior expectations that support the core concepts of trust, sharing, belonging and respect. Collaborative skills are the specific ways in which students are expected to behave in order to achieve class norms. After norms have been developed, collaborative skills are assessed, prioritized and taught,” (University of Vermont, n.d.).

Parent & Community Involvement

With individualist families, parents are more likely to “encourage children to solve their problems independently and discourage them from requiring constant adult attention,” (Faitar, 2006). This is also a massive reason for American children being “addicted” to television, video games, and computers,” (Faitar, 2006).

“Psychological and physical closeness within families are highly valued,” (Faitar, 2006). These are the parents that will want to know more about their children and how they are doing in school.

Though individualist parents take this view, parent-teacher conferences need to be balanced with both collectivist and individualist reporting. Educators should explain what the student is doing well, what opportunities the student has, and then allow the parents to comment or ask questions.  Having a quick warm-up conversation about the family and what they value most is a good exercise to complete with families and students in order to get to know who they are and what they want for their children and themselves, as well.

Getting parents and the community involved is a key to success for both cultures. Ask parents to participate in culture and heritage days where students can showcase who they are and where they come from. We can also ask for “parents’ advise and assistance in solving classroom problems and responding to classroom needs,” (Faitar, 2006). Schools and teachers may also setup partnerships within the community for students to learn more about where they are now. The library, local museums, etc. are great places to start.

Education should mainly rely on the coordinates emphasizing the teacher’s preference toward school practices that foster children’s independence from their parents while encouraging a permanent dialogue among parents, students and educators. Such a strategy could also promote formal or informal methods of bringing students together in collaborative settings to help and support each other. The uniqueness and rich heritage of each student can be harvested into treasures of inclusive knowledge, understanding and practice,” (Faitar, 2006).


Faitar, G. (2006). Individualism versus collectivism in schools. Retrieved from

Rosenberg, M., Westling, D. & McLeskey, J. (2010). The impact of culture on education. Retrieved from

Trumbul, E., Rothstein-Fisch, & C., Greenfield, P. (2000). Bridging cultures in our schools: new approaches that work. Retrieved from

University of Vermont. (n.d.). Collaborative skills. Retrieved from 

Wardle, F. (2013).Human Relationships and Learning in the Multicultural Environment.  San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.

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