Introducing Culture

Students will begin to analyze what it is that constitutes culture.

When teaching about culture, keep in mind that culture is just one of numerous influences on behavior. People can differ from each other in many other aspects; e.g., personality, age, gender, level of education, abilities, and any other personal features that make each individual a unique human being.

We need to be careful of over-generalizing or making statements like: "She's an American, so that explains why…"; or "He's from New York, so that explains why…"; or "He's a Canadian, so that explains why …."

Cultural groups do have certain characteristics in common. But within each group, there is always a broad range of individual differences. Students might ask why people from the United States would need to have their culture revealed to them—isn't their own culture pretty obvious?

But people within a culture are in many ways the least able to see it. Cultural beliefs, values, and behaviors are so ingrained that we are often unaware of our own.


Students will be able to describe how the concept of culture relates to their own experience.

  1. Ask students to imagine that they are extraterrestrials—peaceful, intelligent creatures from another planet who have been given the mission of spending a week researching life in your community and school. Their mission is to find answers to the following questions: What is unique, different, or interesting about your school and community? What explains why humans in your community and in your school think and act the way they do? The extraterrestrials are expected to return to their home planet to report their observations and findings.
  2. Ask students to work in groups of three or four to discuss and write down observations extraterrestrials would make about life in their community. Provide several examples, such as:Tell students that an important part of the extraterrestrials' mission is to answer these questions:
    • "People live in small groups in houses or apartments. Children live with older people."
    • "Young people spend their days together in buildings in large groups."
    • "Young people dress in several styles that are different from each other."
    • "Older people dress differently from kids."
    • "Older people teach younger people what is expected."
    • "People eat together, usually sitting around a table."
    • "People look at watches and clocks a lot."
    • "There are lots of cars. They drive on the right side of the road. People seem to know when to stop and go by obeying colored lights."
    • "When people meet, some hold hands and shake them up and down. Others put their arms around each other."
    • What is important to human beings?
    • Why are some things about human beings the same, and why are some things different?
    • Why don't all people think and act the same way?
    • What are the rules? How are they learned?
    • What shapes how human beings see the world, themselves, and others?
  1. Once students have shared their observations and questions in class discussion, ask them to step out of their role of extraterrestrials and now think about themselves. Ask students to take home the following questions and discuss them with their families. What explains
    • How and why they dress the way they do?
    • How and why they celebrate certain holidays?
    • The foods they eat and the way they've been taught to eat them?
    • What is the polite thing to do?
    • The traditions in their family?
    • What is important to them?
    • What influences and shapes the way they think and act?
  1. The following day, have students discuss their answers in class. Explain to the students that we call these types of influences in our lives "culture." Introduce students to the enduring understanding: Everyone has a culture. It shapes how we understand the world, ourselves, and others (link above).

Frameworks and standards

Enduring understanding

  • Everyone has a culture. It shapes how we see the world, ourselves, and others.

Essential questions

  • How does my culture shape me?
  • How does culture shape the way we see ourselves, others, and the world?
  • Why is it important to understand culture?

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