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Culture Is Like an Iceberg


Learners will examine features of culture to determine which are visible and which are invisible, and how these features affect each other.


  • Learners will be able to distinguish between the visible and invisible aspects of culture.
  • Learners will be able to explain how the invisible aspects of culture influence the visible ones.



Before beginning this lesson, remind learners that:

  1. Metaphors often help us understand big ideas by relating something we don't know to something we do know. Ask learners to think of a metaphor that helps them understand something. A useful metaphor for culture is an iceberg. Ask learners what they know about the size and shape of icebergs. How much of an iceberg is above the water? How much is underwater?
  2. Make the point that only about 10% of an iceberg is above the water. The rest is below the surface. Culture is very similar to an iceberg. It has some aspects that are visible and many others that can only be suspected, guessed, or learned as you grow to understand cultures. Like an iceberg, the visible part of culture is only a small part of a much larger whole.
  3. Ask learners to look back at Worksheet #1, Features of Culture. Explain that the numbered items on the list are all features of culture. Ask learners to complete the worksheet by working in pairs to identify features of their culture. Ask them for examples, or provide examples if needed.
  4. Provide learners with a copy of an outline drawing of an iceberg with a clear line delineating the part of the iceberg that is above the water's surface and the larger part that is below the surface.
  5. Divide learners into groups of four. Ask them to bring the Features of Culture worksheet with them. Have them discuss in their groups which features of culture they think are visible and which are invisible.
  6. Ask learners to look at both their outline drawing of the iceberg and their Features of Culture worksheet. Have them review the features one by one and decide as a group if a particular feature belongs above the line (i.e., is "visible") or below the line (i.e., is "invisible"). Ask learners to write above the water line the numbers of those features of culture that they consider to be observable features. Ask them to write the numbers of the "invisible" features below the water line. Assist or show learners a few examples if necessary, e.g., values cannot be directly observed; holiday customs are visible.
  7. After learners have had time to work in groups on the remaining features, have each group pair with another group and compare their placement of features. Learners must be prepared to say why they placed a particular feature where they did. (Note: In the list of features, the numbers that should appear below the water line are #3, #4, #6, #8, #9, #10, #16–18, #22–24, #26–30.)
  8. Ask learners whether they see any item below the water line that might influence or determine any item above (e.g., ideas about modesty might affect styles of dress; religious beliefs might influence holiday celebrations, painting, and music). Ask how some visible features of culture influence or reinforce invisible features of culture.