They might speak our language, but they’re not like us …

15 Aug

Over the last two weeks I’ve been reminded of an experience I had four years whilst attending a conference in Boston during the Beijing Olympics. Like most academics at a conference I was never far from my laptop, and so was able to check on Olympic results many times during the day. Subsequently I had the odd experience of sitting in a hotel bar in the evening watching apparently ‘live’ Olympic TV coverage of the events where I already  knew the results. As we’ve discovered again this week NBC, the American Olympic TV broadcaster, recorded all of their coverage and then showed it during ‘prime-time’ as if it was live. This made me think about cultural differences between the UK and the US, and how to get students to think about them.

My own discipline (Psychology) is dominated by American research, and it is often difficult to get my UK students to recognise that they need to question conclusions drawn from studies using American participants. It would seem that the universality of America music and television makes UK students think that they culturally indistinguishable from Americans, and thus they have no reason to question US research. At a very simple level, just asking a UK student what they think would happen if the BBC decided to only show Olympic events several hours after they had taken place should lead students someway towards recognising a very obvious cultural difference. Equally I would imagine that with a little rephrasing the same question would be illustrative for US students. This type of thinking is vital for UK psychology students, as they spend so much of their time evaluating research conducted using US participants. For example, I’ve previously written about a study suggesting that certain types of music may make you racist which I suspect may be a good example of a cultural skewed piece of research.

A couple of recent news story also look like a good way to illustrate these UK/US cultural differences. The story is a truly bizarre one, in which a US political party comes out against Critical Thinking. The 2012 platform document for the Republican Party in Texas states:

“Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabelling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that had this paragraph been published by any part of either of the UK’s leading political parties, those responsible would have been very rapidly disowned by the parties national leadership.

One final anecdote also nicely illustrates a surprising UK/US cultural difference. Some months ago I was editing a paper that I wanted to be accessible for a US audience and I was thus doing through it removing UK-centric references. At one point in the paper I had referred to David Attenborough, a UK naturalist and broadcaster who has been making award-winning TV Natural History documentaries, and suggested that he was a universally trusted figure. I asked an American colleague what I  thought at the time was a very straightforward question, the name of an equally universally trusted US figure. She came up with Walter Kronkite (a newscaster who retired over thirty years ago), but struggled to think of anyone of a more recent vintage !!! Indeed, we ended up having an interesting discussion about what the absence of figures of trust said about US culture in general.

One Response to “They might speak our language, but they’re not like us …”


  1. Trying to think rationally about US gun laws « Teaching Rational Thinking - January 4, 2013

    […] Since the dreadful attack on The Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut just before Christmas I’ve been thinking about the debate that followed might be integrated into my rational thinking teaching. I’m sure that for those teaching in other disciplines there will be other parts of the debate that will seem relevant, but for my students (who are studying psychology) I’ve settled on two points. Firstly, the idea that the attack was ‘evil’, and secondly the question of the cultural differences between Europe and the USA. […]

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