Who is in Control?

In the fourth installment of “Look Beneath The Surface,” our continuing series on culture, Dr. Mooney de-mystifies one of the least familiar among the invisible cultural dimension—locus of control. If interacting and communicating with your English learners in the classroom seems challenging, and it doesn’t seem to be improved by addressing other cultural dimensions, then this topic may be just what you need.


The dimensions of culture we have talked about so far—identity and time—do not operate independently from each other. For example, most Americans lean toward the individualist and monochronic ends of the continuum. Those dimensions influence each other, potentially causing additional miscommunication or judgement when viewing another culture’s behavior. 

The individualist American believes that each person should take responsibility for themselves, and their monochronic view feels that arriving on time is very important. Thus, the American may have a very negative opinion of a teammate who arrives 15 minutes late for a group presentation in an important meeting. They will likely judge that lateness as the other person’s “fault” and not agree with a supervisor who penalizes the entire work group for the one member’s actions.

This intersectionality (interconnected nature; interdependence) explains why some of the dimensions of culture do not seem to fit perfectly to your experiences. No single culture, or individual, aligns completely with these descriptions. 

Personal preferences, past experiences, and the context around us all play a role in how we perceive these various dimensions of culture, as well. The context is an important piece to keep in mind because, when we look through our cultural glasses, we are not only viewing others and their behavior but we are also perceiving the context in which they belong. It could be that in certain situations, we view a behavior as positive, but in another context, it’s judged as negative. It is in this way that these experiences may change our cultural glasses over time. The iceberg that holds our invisible dimension of culture may be altered by the context in which it resides.

Another of the invisible dimensions of culture is the degree to which one believes they can control what happens to them. It is known as locus of control.

Locus of Control

Some cultures tend to view life’s negative circumstances as opportunities for change or growth. They feel they do not have to accept these circumstances, but instead, they look for options and make changes to try to turn things around. They believe that if they try hard enough or want something badly enough, there is nothing to stop them from accomplishing their goals. Their success in life is a personal achievement that should be celebrated. These cultures have an Internal locus of control.

Some cultural groups are more realists. They see life as neither better nor worse than it is. They feel that nothing is really wrong if they’re unhappy; it’s just part of life’s ups and downs because there are life factors beyond their control. Many circumstances in their lives must be accepted as they are, because some problems just don’t have solutions. This describes an External locus of control.

In the classroom…

In many ways, stereotypical Americans fall toward the Internal end of this continuum. The value of “making your way in the world” or “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is deeply embedded in American culture. One problem that exists with this view and its interaction with the individualist dimension is that Americans tend to harshly judge those whose life doesn’t seem to be going so well. When an individual attributes their success to long hours and hard work, they may look at others and think their life situation could be different if “they just worked harder.” This view often ignores systemic barriers that people face in society. 

Internal and External locus of control may be visible in your classroom when you contact a student’s parent because you are concerned that the student’s performance is not meeting grade level standards.  Based upon interactions with the student, you suspect a learning disability may be present. Contacting the parents to get their permission to have the student evaluated is your next step.

An Internal locus of control parent likely shares your concern and quickly agrees to the evaluation. The parent may actually be relieved that you feel this is an issue that can be addressed through additional support provided by the school. 

An External locus of control parent may not necessarily share your concern.  They do not want their child subjected to an evaluation that may leave them with a label. Doing so could be socially stigmatizing for an issue they have no control over and likely cannot be remedied. The parent may feel it is just the way the child is, and that fact should be accepted by the school. In a similar line of thinking, they may view the underperformance as a result of the school structure or your inadequate teaching.

What do you do?

Do you allow the student to continue to struggle with learning difficulties that might be addressed with formal intervention? Yes and no. 

Parents have the right to refuse testing or services for their children. You may not agree with it, but it is their right. (You want the same rights for your own children!) 

However, if these are your English learner’s parents, you will want to make sure they clearly understand the issue before giving up. Provide an interpreter for your meeting to ensure language is not a barrier. Seek advice from a cultural informant, another person who understands U.S. schooling and the parents’ culture. They might be able to tell you the best way to approach the family or help you understand the family’s refusal.

Sometimes, families may agree to have their child tested in deference to your position as the teacher, even if they believe nothing can change the situation. The testing results and any subsequent services may show them their child can experience positive changes. 

If families do not agree to formal testing, you can continue to work with colleagues to provide additional services to the child as they are allowed by state and district policies. Perhaps you may discover that improved or differentiated teaching techniques can make a difference, just as the parents had suspected. 


Since many of the behaviors we see in others are a result of the invisible dimensions of culture, they may be hard to recognize as cultural differences. The wise educator thinks carefully about the behaviors they see before passing judgement, particularly when the relationships are cross-cultural.

Next week…

Are parents much less involved in their child’s schooling than you expect and invite? Do some of your English learners hold back from the discussion you try to draw out of them in the classroom?  If you identify with either or both, then you may have encountered the last invisible dimension of culture in our series. Next week, Dr. Mooney will explore the concept of power distance with practical suggestions for helping your students thrive.

About          Articles          Discussion          Resources

Copyright ©2022 Angela J. Mooney, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

CONTACT US

Have a question or a challenge? Send us a message, and we'll get back to you quickly by email.

Sending

Log in with your credentials

or    

Forgot your details?

Create Account