November 29, 2005 Feature

Diversity and Learner-Centered Education

Learner-centered education (LCE) is a pedagogical framework that positions learners at the heart of the instructional process, not as passive recipients of information as in a traditional teacher- or content-centered approach. When instruction is learner-centered, the focus shifts from instructors only delivering content and controlling the learning environment to actively engaging students in creating their own learning.

Being learner-centered is about promoting a collaborative, supportive classroom culture, not a competitive, individualistic one. In the learner-centered instructional environment, professors and students learn together through stimulating, interactive, and thought-provoking experiences. Assessment practices in this learning environment are related to learning outcomes, and the climate is safe for all students.

An Ideal Approach for Teaching About Diversity

Cultural competence is an essential component of clinical competence and is a critical element of academic preparation and training of students in communication sciences and disorders. Teaching individuals about diversity issues is imperative because we live in a multicultural society and serve clients who are culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD). Recognizing this, ASHA's Council for Academic Accreditation has implemented new standards for accredited programs, requiring coursework and clinical experiences that address cultural and linguistic diversity (Standards 3.1 and 3.2).

Learner-centered instructional techniques are particularly effective for instructing students about multicultural issues that necessarily expose students to diverse viewpoints about values. In diversity training, sensitive issues often arise, kindling strong emotional responses from students. The goal of the learner-centered approach is to create an environment in which everyone's viewpoint is acknowledged and students feel safe because their perspective is respected. The learner-centered approach facilitates the building of intercultural skills through equal participation of experts and learners.

No instructor can be an expert on all cultures; therefore, it is essential that students and instructors learn from each other. For instance, a Latino graduate student may not know as much as an instructor about ethnographic assessment techniques yet can offer excellent first-hand suggestions for how to communicate effectively with the Latino parents of a child with a language disorder.

Content is important in a diversity course, but process is just as important. Course activities that involve students working in pairs or small groups help them discover their own cultural beliefs and those of their peers. The instructor has a responsibility to engage students in meaningful discussions in which they can safely express opinions and share experiences. Evaluation is ongoing throughout the course through formative and summative elements that include teacher, peer, and self- assessments. These assessments, in a learner-centered environment, must be related to the learning outcomes.

To increase cultural competence, students and professionals need to acquire specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Learners must have knowledge of their own cultures as well as the key characteristics that differentiate the major cultures of the world and the variability within these groups. Learners need to acquire the skills of being good interculturalists who are knowledgeable about others' unique cultural beliefs and come to understand how beliefs influence behavior. Finally and most importantly, individuals must acquire an attitude of valuing diversity.

In this article, we describe a hierarchical, learner-centered, instructional model for teaching students and professionals about cultural and linguistic diversity that emphasizes acquisition of intercultural communication skills. This model is based on our collective experiences working with CLD clients and colleagues, conducting diversity training for professionals, facilitating faculty development workshops on implementing LCE, and developing and teaching courses on multicultural issues for undergraduate and graduate students in speech-language pathology and audiology. This model has been successfully used in courses on diversity in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at the University of Arizona, and more recently in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at California State University-East Bay.

Learner-Centered Model for Teaching About Diversity

The model comprises five sequential stages.

Stage 1: Learning key parameters that characterize cultures

At the outset, the instructor must establish ground rules that govern the classroom, among them turn taking, avoidance of inflammatory language, willingness to paraphrase the viewpoints of other students, and committing to tolerance when differences of opinion exist. We recommend that the instructor provide examples of desirable verbal and nonverbal responses that should be used when conflicts arise. Activities that enable students to become acquainted with each other, such as sharing their backgrounds and goals, will help defuse conflicts that may arise later in the course when students discover that their values differ from those of classmates.

Having established ground rules, the focus of our course turns to defining culture, identifying its overt and covert components, and becoming aware of key parameters that uniquely characterize a culture. We use Brislin's (1994) eight parameters that include:

  • collectivism versus individualism (focus on group or individual)
  • orientation to time and space
  • verbal and nonverbal communication patterns
  • class and status
  • roles
  • values and belief systems
  • rituals and superstitions
  • attitudes toward work

Students are given numerous examples of how cultures vary in terms of these parameters and are provided structured opportunities to analyze them through the use of video clips and case studies.

Stage 2: Defining one's own culture

A critical step in the process of increasing cross-cultural competence is the development of cultural self-awareness (Adler, 1975; Chan, 1990; Harry, 1992). Martin and Nakayama (2001) suggest that students be engaged in the practice of self-reflexivity, a process by which individuals come to understand themselves and their position in a society and learn to recognize the strengths and limitations of their own intercultural experiences. We guide students in developing cultural self-awareness by having them break into small groups and identifying all the cultures to which group members belong.

Then each group is asked to report on the cultures identified by group members. As each group shares its findings, the instructor makes the point that each person belongs to many cultures and introduces the concept of macrocultures (for example, the shared way of perceiving, evaluating, and behaving in the United States) and microcultures (subgroups with which we identify by virtue of our age, sex, religion, ethnicity or race, class, and geographic region, among others). An overview of the characteristics of the major cultural groups (African American, Hispanic American, Native American, Asian American, etc.) follows using Brislin's eight parameters.

Another useful learner-centered activity is having students pick a culture different from their own and describe how it differs from their culture using Brislin's eight parameters that distinguish cultures. A third exercise, which can be conducted in groups or individually, is to have students identify the cultural values of their families. Often, these values can be revealed in the sayings their parents repeatedly used. For example, the Japanese American father of one of the authors often admonished his young children by saying, "shame, shame," thus underscoring cultural values about shame and honor. These instructional activities allow learners to deduce the to-be-learned information and gain cultural self-awareness. Lynch and Hanson (1998) have developed a list of questions useful in leading students on their personal journeys to discover their macro and microcultures.

Stage 3: Recognizing how stereotypes and prejudice influence our own and others' behavior

In the third stage of our model, learners explore stereotyping, the types of stereotypes, positive and negative, their functions, and how they influence behavior. Many individual and group activities are used to help students explore personal biases and discuss the origin of stereotypes. One popular instructional activity is having students read newspaper clippings and view movie clips to analyze how individuals from different cultures are portrayed in visual and print media. Another useful activity is having learners identify positive and negative stereotypes that exist about a particular group of people. For instance, a positive stereotype about Asian-American students is that they are all good at academic work, and a negative stereotype is that they typically have a heavy accent or are not proficient in English.

It is important for learners to appreciate that both positive and negative stereotypes promote inaccurate generalizations about a specific group of people. Once the process of stereotyping has been understood, the link between stereotypes and how they potentially lead to prejudice is elaborated. Case studies are used to illustrate how an unexamined stereotype becomes inflexible over time and can manifest itself as some form of discrimination. Students are encouraged to examine their biases and the impact of bias on delivery of professional services.

Stage 4: Understanding cultural conflict and its escalation

This stage focuses on teaching students about (a) the nature of intercultural conflict, (b) the factors that cause conflicts, (c) how conflict escalates, and (d) different types of conflicts (intrapersonal, interpersonal, and intergroup). By this point in the course, students are well grounded in the parameters that characterize cultures. Additionally, they have a greater sense of their own cultural identity and biases and insight into how stereotypes or biases influence behavior.

Armed with this knowledge, students then participate in individual or group activities designed to synthesize what they have learned. They are given examples of intercultural conflicts to analyze. News reports, newspapers, and movies are an excellent source of examples of intercultural conflicts. Another excellent source is the book, Critical Incidents, by Cushner and Brislin (1996) that portrays incidents in which differences in cultural orientation have produced conflict.

Students are challenged to record personal instances in which they have experienced cultural conflict. Cultural conflict is also discussed through a book review assignment, followed by a panel discussion. The panel discussion can be formatted so that students defend the position of one of the characters in the book, explaining the conflict from that character's point of view. We have used The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, as this story vividly illustrates how the cultures of health care providers and patients can clash.

Stage 5: Learning strategies to effectively reduce and resolve cultural conflict

In the final stage of the model, class activities focus on understanding the influence of culture on conflict management and students learn strategies for reducing and resolving conflict. Skills emphasized are active listening, negotiation, and asserting oneself without being aggressive. Learner-centered activities in this stage are typically geared toward pairs or groups of students. Students are given the opportunity to practice these skills through role-play exercises. For example, students can practice cross-cultural ways of communicating by taking opposing sides of a controversial issue. Also, they can role-play the creation of cultural conflict and learn to identify those behaviors that escalate conflict.

It is vitally important to debrief students after activities such as role-playing, and solicit feedback from the other students, as well as the "players" on what factors helped resolve the conflict. Self-assessment by the players helps them identify what was difficult and what might have been done differently. In our experience, individuals need ample opportunity to practice providing feedback across and within cultures in conflict situations. For our case study material, we focus on clinical care situations involving culturally-based conflicts between clients and clinicians, members of a client's family (for example, between the parents/guardians), or multiple clinicians on an interdisciplinary team.

Finally, we conclude with a unit on how to successfully work for or supervise people who are collectivists or individualists in cultural orientation. Brislin emphasized the collectivist-individualist parameter as especially important in influencing behavior. Students are asked to consider how they are likely to be perceived in the workplace by individuals with a collectivist orientation and an individualist orientation. Thereafter, they are invited to suggest strategies for working together successfully. For example, for many collectivists, saving face is very important and criticism that is explicit and direct can lead to serious problems. Students are challenged to consider how they can achieve a desired outcome without the collectivist losing face.

Final Thoughts

Cultural awareness is inherently about understanding and respecting different perspectives and values, and recognizing there often are multiple points of view. For students to apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that foster cultural competence, we must instruct them in inclusive, learner-centered environments in which we teach by example and model the conduct of culturally competent professionals.

Nidhi Mahendra, is an assistant professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at California State University-East Bay. She is a bilingual speech-language pathologist and the current chair of ASHA's Multicultural Issues Board. Contact her at

Kathryn A. Bayles, is professor and head of the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at the University of Arizona. Her primary interests are the effects of neurodegenerative diseases on cognition and communication and cultural diversity. Contact her at

Cheryl K. Tomoeda, is a senior program coordinator for development and diversity initiatives in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at the University of Arizona. Contact her at

Esther S. Kim, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at the University of Arizona. She was a recipient of the ASHA Foundation New Century Doctoral Scholarship in 2003. Contact her at

cite as: Mahendra, N. , Bayles, K. A. , Tomoeda, C. K.  & Kim, E. S. (2005, November 29). Diversity and Learner-Centered Education. The ASHA Leader.

The Five Elements of Learner-Centered Education

The following list is based on the work of Weimer (2002), a national authority on the subject.

  • Shared power between instructors and students—This prevents teaching from becoming too authoritarian and empowers students to become more involved in the learning process.
  • Course content as the means to knowledge and not its end—This element is about the relationship between learners, instructional activities, and content. According to contemporary learning theories of constructivism, individuals learn best when they construct knowledge by gathering and synthesizing information collaboratively with their instructors and peers, rather than passively receiving it from instructors or textbooks.
  • Role of the teacher as facilitator—The instructor's role strategically changes from being a "sage on the stage" to that of a "guide on the side." In other words, the instructor coaches students to become actively involved in the learning process by exploring content, thinking about it critically, relating it to their existing knowledge, and even challenging it based on what they already know.
  • Shifting the responsibility for learning—Students can and should assume responsibility for what they get out of a learning experience. This encourages them to become motivated, independent, and self-directed, thus facilitating lifelong learning, essential for ongoing professional development beyond a college education.
  • Using evaluation to promote learning—Students' learning in a course is directly related to how and on what they are being evaluated. Therefore, evaluation methods are closely related to learning outcomes.


Adler, P. S. (1975). The transition experience: An alternative view of culture shock. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 14, 13-23.

Chan, S. Q. (1990). Early intervention with culturally diverse families of infants and toddlers with disabilities. Infants and Young Children, 3, 78-87.

Cushner, K., & Brislin, R. W. (1996). Intercultural interactions: A practical guide, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Fadiman, A. (1997). The spirit catches you and you fall down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Harry, B. (1992). Developing cultural self-awareness: The first step in values clarification for early interventionists. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 12, 333-350.

Lynch, M. J., & Hanson, E. W. (1998). Developing cross-cultural competence: A guide for working with children and their families (2nd Ed.). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Martin, J. N., & Nakayama, T. K. (2001). Experiencing intercultural communication: An introduction. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.


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