Below the tip of the iceberg…

Culture is often compared to an iceberg which has both visible  and invisible  parts. The tip of the iceberg represents the elements of culture which we can see, such as food, language and customs. Those elements which are less obvious, such as values, beliefs and world view, comprise the much larger portion of the iceberg underwater. We discussed this model recently when planning a Year 4 unit of inquiry on understanding other cultures.

In Desiree’s class,  students classified their questions about other cultures into ‘above and below’ the tip of the iceberg. They were surprised to discover that all their early questions related to the tip of the iceberg, but have gradually developed an understanding that there’s more to culture than the 3 F’s. (food, flags and festivals!)

To further support their learning, they have opportunities to interact with people of other cultures. Raj, his son Aditya and a colleague Deepali chatted with them and answered their questions live from Chennai, India via Skype last week. Next week they will Skype with Corinne in Japan. Another class will engage with students in New Zealand, some of whom are Maori and Pacific Islanders. (Remember the days when you could only learn about other cultures from books?)

After the session with Raj, students explored some differences and similarities. While Hindu beliefs and customs and the way of life in Chennai are very different from theirs, they found plenty of commonalities. We too have a festival of lights, we too eat traditional foods at festivals, we too have an interest in sport and in particular they could identify with the relationship between father and son!

I was reminded of a presentation by Ruth Van Reken at the IBAP conference. In her talk on inter-cultural understanding, she  suggested adding a third level to the iceberg, the qualities that make us human. She further suggested turning the model upside down. By starting with the human qualities, finding what we have in common, we can more easily relate to and connect with people of different cultures.

Rather than focusing only on the tip of the iceberg, we need to make this kind of understanding our goal in teaching and learning about other cultures!

14 thoughts on “Below the tip of the iceberg…

  1. I remember the days! My Social Studies text book was strong on eskimos building ice block homes, and women in long dresses swimming out to rescue shipwrecked victims. But I found that living in another country, actually working, shopping and partying there was the very best way to gain a true understanding of a different culture. Close behind must come skype and then some of the wonderful children’s literature available nowadays, the stuff that writes it real.


  2. Hi Edna,

    I love this blog entry!
    The concept of “culture” is complex in itself – let alone making connections between cultures therefore the inquiry you described above is an excellent path to make cultural understanding an authentic acquisition for students.
    It would have been ideal to see how the teacher would have tackled the issue without having technology at her (and students’) disposal.
    Thanks for posting this one!



  3. Hi Edna,
    this is wonderful. I am about to tackle a unit on understanding and appreciating cultural diversity, with a class of grade 1 and 2. We are also leading towards learning about culture through art, culminating in the school art show. I would love to skype your class to ask questions.
    I am slowing building my knowledge and use of IT in the classroom.

    Thanks for your blog
    Verona Gridley


  4. This is the ideal relevant learning forum all foreign language teachers dream about for our classrooms. It is so wonderful you have shared these ideas with us. Many times I have taught about cultural differences. This classroom has made the learning alive. I am looking to incorporating skyping next year into my classroom. Thanks for the post. I feel inspired!


  5. this is great Edna…

    havve you seen Ethan Zuckerman’s Ted talk (from 2010) on Global Voices… if not – i think you will really like what he has to say.. worth a listen for sure.


  6. Hi Edna,

    I love the way you’ve opened up this discussion. I wish I had got involved sooner but I’ve only just returned to it, now that I’ve met you! And I wish we could have had more time to talk when we met up in Sydney recently.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s