How I Teach - Simulate a culture clash

10th January 2014 at 00:00
Show how misunderstandings can arise with 'Ninja Chopsticks'

When teaching about intercultural issues, it is crucial to let students experience how it feels to be culturally isolated from another person.

A great way of doing this is through a game I like to call Ninja Chopsticks. For this, you will need beads of six different colours and sizes and a pair of chopsticks for each student. The biggest beads should be large enough to make picking them up with chopsticks problematic.

Split the class into groups of about five or so. Give each team a plate and a box containing an equal number of beads. Here's where things get a little complicated. Tell all the students that this will be a silent task: no one is permitted to speak from this point on. Then distribute a set of rules to each team.

The rules explain that points are earned by picking beads from the box and placing them on the plate using the chopsticks. Two students from each team will join the next group along and it will be their job to win more points than the three members of the group they join.

However, unbeknownst to the students, each team has been given a slightly different point-scoring system. For one group, the red beads may be worth five points, blue beads four points and yellow beads three points. For another, the points may be the opposite: five for yellow beads and three for red. Yet another team could have been told that their total score will be doubled if they collect five blue beads.

After allowing some time for the rules to be digested, get the two students from each team to join their new groups and set them all off on a manic grab for beads.

When all the beads are transferred to the plates, get the students to count up their points and go around and ask each team for their score. Of course, this prompts an outcry. Arguments and accusations of cheating arise. Confusion reigns.

Step in before things get too rowdy and explain what is really happening. Emphasise that no one was wrong but that everyone was playing by different rules and could not communicate that this was the case. Then link this to the real point of the lesson: external versus internal culture.

External culture is often described as an iceberg above the water. It comprises the visible cultural cues we can recognise as being different: beliefs, arts, food, clothes and so on. Internal culture is the iceberg under the water: the hidden beliefs and patterns of thought that dictate behaviour.

Explain that the confusion in Ninja Chopsticks results from not realising that everyone is playing by different rules, and that this is exactly what happens when we fail to recognise other people's internal culture. Rather than arguing and accusing, we need to be more understanding - to recognise that the reasons for someone's behaviour may not be their fault.

Finish by getting the students to create some rules they should follow when meeting people from other cultures, using their own experience of cultural misunderstanding in Ninja Chopsticks to guide them.

Yasuyuki Kuwahara is a citizenship and cultural studies teacher in Tokyo, Japan

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