In most Western classrooms, students are rewarded for speaking up, asking questions, and participating in classroom discussions.

In most Asian classrooms, students are taught to listen carefully, respect the teacher, and only speak when invited to do so.

In the U.S., struggle is an indicator that a student isn’t cutting it. Smart kids barely study, get A’s and they finish their work first. And the high achievers are asked to come to the front of the class to demonstrate their insights while struggling students are dealt with discreetly to ensure their self-esteem stays in tact.

In China, struggle is viewed as a predictable part of the learning process. A student is allowed to struggle because it’s a chance to show he or she has what it takes to resolve a problem by persevering through it. The student who can’t figure out a problem is asked to come to the front of the class to work it out in front of peers.

These are gross over-generalizations. But if you’re teaching away from home, you know that these kinds of educational differences are the tip of the iceberg for what you experience in the classroom. The importance of learning how to be true to your own teaching style and values while also adapting effectively to your students’ personalities, learning styles, and cultural backgrounds is essential. That’s almost self-evident. But research now demonstrates that your effectiveness teaching across cultures can be pinned upon your CQ, or your cultural intelligence quotient. Cultural intelligence is the capability to function effectively in a variety of national, ethnic, and organizational cultures.

Just as emotional intelligence helps you interact effectively with students based upon the cues they send about their emotional state, cultural intelligence allows you to have that kind of insight when you’re a cultural outsider. A great deal of what it takes to detect and respond in light of the emotions of a student presumes you know how to interpret their nonverbal behaviors and the subtext beneath their words. That’s difficult if not impossible when dealing with someone from an unfamiliar culture.

Cultural intelligence picks up where intuition and skills like emotional intelligence leave off. It allows you to have the same kind of practical sensibility when interacting with students and colleagues who come from different cultural backgrounds than you.

The question that drives our research on cultural intelligence is this: Why do some teachers easily and effectively adapt their views and behaviors cross-culturally and others don’t? What factors explain the difference?

Our CQ Assessments measure your skills in each of these four areas. And they’ve been academically validated to accurately predict your level of effectiveness teaching in a culturally diverse environment.

What does it look like to teach English as a second language with cultural intelligence? Many ESL students are most comfortable learning through rote memorization or by mastering mathematical formulas and grammatical rules. That doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t benefit from other methodologies that you might view as more effective. But teaching with cultural intelligence means you begin with where your students are most comfortable and then find ways to strategically prepare them for alternative strategies. For example, if you’re going to use games, a simulation, or an approach where students roleplay a conversation in front of the class, give them an opportunity first to develop their confidence by memorizing material, practicing privately, and working with a peer group. Teaching with cultural intelligence means you adapt your teaching style and content based upon your students’ cultural background but that you also must retain your personal style for what makes you authentic and effective in the classroom.

There’s a great deal of research behind the kinds of strategies that are most effective for teaching with cultural intelligence. And the good news is, anyone can teach with cultural intelligence. But it’s not automatic. It requires an intentional effort to assess and improve your skills and a developmental plan for adjusting the way you teach. But with a conscious effort, you’ll find yourself becoming more confident and comfortable in the classroom.

To learn more about cultural intelligence assessments and books or to attend an upcoming CQ Certification program, visit

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