Teaching and Learning Across Cultures: A Guide to Theory and Practice

Written by Craig Ott Reviewed By Duane H. Elmer

In his book, Teaching and Learning Across Cultures, skilled academic and experienced cross-cultural teacher Craig Ott draws deeply from extensive social research and the experiences of other global colleagues. It is a fruitful confluence of theory and practice resulting in a reliable reference tool for those entering the teaching profession outside their own culture.

Ott considers five categories that, when taken as a whole, provide a current understanding of the contours of cross-cultural teaching: Cognition, Worldview, Social Relations, Media and Environment. In each of the sections the author follows a consistent pattern allowing the reader to follow easily. Starting with definitions of each category, he explains the major contributions from relevant literature, ending with implications for teaching. Practical examples and illustrations keep the reader grounded in real situations. With an eye to fairness and detail, especially in debatable topics (e.g., learning styles), Ott promotes an informed caution in assessing varying approaches to teaching and learning.

Perhaps the most important caution is the author’s repeated insistence on pedagogical humility. Ott urges cross-cultural teachers to recognize that even as they are teaching, they must always retain the posture of learners. We do great diligence to learn a topic before we teach it. So it should be with culture.

The most prevalent disappointments among young cross-cultural teachers come from having unrealistic expectations. Unfulfilled expectations usually cause frustration which can undermine the joy and effectiveness of one’s ministry. In each of the five sections noted above, the reader will find healthy doses of realism to temper such unrealistic expectations. Thoughtful reading of Ott’s book will cultivate realistic expectations and stimulate the cultural curiosity necessary for improving pedagogy and avoiding frustration. Those preparing for a ministry of cross-cultural teaching would do well to return to the lessons of this book time and again in an effort to expose and refine presuppositions carried in from home.

In attempting to help readers understand the cultural patterns in each of his five categories, one might be inclined to think that the Western ways are useless or rejected. Ott, however, argues for a discerning prophetic role (my term) for the outsider: “There can be distinct advantages to help learners develop new learning strategies and expand their cognitive abilities” (p. 89). Hence, we are simultaneously teaching and being taught as it ought to be in the body of Christ.

The author’s sensitivity to the reader appears in his suggestion that readers may want to skip chapter 4 (a bit heavier on the research) to the more applied chapter 5. I would add that the less experienced reader might want to read selectively using the index guide as an aid for which sections seem most appropriate. The experienced cross-cultural teacher will want to devour this book because its insights cast new light on bewildering situations common to cross-cultural teaching.

Most teachers in a new culture aspire to helping people change their worldview. Ott recognizes the pitfalls and aptly warns us. “Cross-cultural teachers who seek to facilitate worldview change must begin with a spirit of humility” (p. 161). He adds, “Humility is required from all parties in this process” (p. 161). Then he tells us why: “We are quick to assume others are just wrong…No world view is perfect. We must have the humility to learn from others the distortions and imbalances in our own worldview” (pp. 161–62). Westerners, Americans in particular, readily succumb to judging worldview differences to be inferior to their own when there is an unfulfilled expectation. Such a negative assessment short-circuits an opportunity to learn by assuming one’s own worldview to be right, virtuous, and moral while the other culture is wrong, defective, or lacking. We often do this unconsciously but it is a sure signal that pride maybe be operating (p. 188).

Chapters 11–13 provide rich teaching methods that consider the values and traditions of many collectivistic cultures. My wife, an international trainer, found much success in utilizing skits, role plays, simulations, songs and drama. (Note that much of this gets modified by online teaching, an emerging strategy likely to continue growing in practice and influence well beyond the pandemic.) Ott helps us here too.

Were I to offer suggestions for how Ott’s book could be improved, I would recommend future editions of this book include some treatment of the wealth of brain research (acknowledging the author’s disclaimer to this point on p. xiii). For example, negative emotions tend to impede learning. While Ott’s work is to be commended, it would be strengthened by including recent scholarship on the brain, emotions, and the effect on learning.

I urge cross-cultural teachers to read and reread this book. In heeding the pedagogical suggestions offered therein, we will learn to communicate more clearly the character of the God who loves and the Jesus who humbled himself for our salvation.

Duane H. Elmer

Duane H. Elmer
Trinity International University/Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois, USA

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