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The Cultural Iceberg Model: A Tool for Better Conversations About Culture

If you’re an educator, you'll know how important it is to teach cross-cultural understanding and respect - and how hard it can be! Some students may live in a community where they’re the only one of their kind, while others attend school with children who come from lots of different backgrounds and traditions than they do. 

As we see more cultural capabilities being added to the curriculum, it's important educators have the right tools and frameworks to talk about differences in a safe way with young people. 

From the title, you probably guessed that one framework we absolutely love is the Cultural Iceberg model. Read on for more about where the idea came from and how you can use it in the classroom (or home!) to foster better conversations about culture.

Why Understanding Cultural Differences Is Important

Growing up in a multicultural society is an experience unlike any other. While there are many differences to explore and opportunities to appreciate, it’s also important that young people learn how to respond appropriately. 

Learning about people who are different to us helps us understand things from different perspectives. It helps us recognise and respect ways of being, thinking, learning and playing that aren’t the same as our own, helping us realise that there’s no “normal” way of doing things. It’s also through deeply learning about different cultures, through many different perspectives, that we can dispel stereotypes and personal biases. Through appreciating and understanding our differences, we can make space for them to all fully shine! 

The Cultural Iceberg Model

When we talk about culture, what do you think of? Can you articulate it in a sentence? 

If you’re struggling, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Culture can be a complex thing to define for adults, let alone trying to explain it to the little people in your life. We love using metaphors and imagery to help us break down big ideas, and the cultural iceberg model is a powerful example of this!

So, what is it? 

Just like an iceberg where what’s above the waterline represents only a portion of the whole thing, culture is more than what it seems on the surface. 

A diagram of the cultural iceberg model

Click to download a high resolution copy

Surface culture (what’s above the water line) make up the easy to see things: things like clothing, celebrations, dancing, art, music, food, and languages. 

Deep culture (what’s below the water line), meanwhile, includes the more difficult to see parts of culture: things like our attitudes, beliefs, norms, morals, ethics and communication styles. 

Most of us will have a good understanding of surface culture, but when we get to know the deeper parts of culture, we can begin to understand and appreciate some of the more invisible ways we might be different. We can also start to realise the ways we think and the values we hold aren’t universal, and that there is so much to be learnt from this diversity. 

How to Use It

Having a framework and language that helps to describe something can be really helpful tools to have better conversations. 

Take a moment and think about your own culture for a moment, using the model. Are there ways that you think or communicate, or morals you hold that you never considered came from your cultural background?

Educators (and parents) can use the cultural iceberg to start unpacking not only the ways in which difference manifests in people, but also looking at the ways we are unique ourselves. We’ve created some free worksheets which can help little learners piece together some of the ways culture is present in themselves and their family. 

This model also works really well when paired with a story from a different culture - whether it’s a book, a poem, a movie or a song. Looking at the model, you can start by asking your little learners to identify the surface parts of cultural expression in the piece. Then, going a bit deeper, you can try and identify the values, norms, ethics and approaches that sit beneath. 

Excerpt from Lillian The Tiriki Girl

For example, the above is a page from our debut book, Lillian The Tiriki Girl, which follows a young Kenyan girl about her day to day life. We can look at things like the clothes the characters are wearing and the food they’re preparing (maize) as examples of surface culture. When we read the words, which explain how Lillian’s grandmother tells the children stories about their relatives and about life lessons, we can begin to understand how oral storytelling and family might be important parts of their culture.

Tips to Use This Model in Your Classroom (Or Home)


1. Start with surface culture and then go deeper.

Depending on the age of your little learners, understanding that people have different feelings and thoughts can be a tricky concept to get their head around. Typically empathy, the ability to understand your own feelings and relate to those of others, begins to develop at around 4 years of age. By starting conversations about the easier to see expressions of culture, you’ll be setting important groundwork for understanding the deeper parts later. 


2. It’s not just for others.

Much like a fish struggles to see the water around it, it can be really difficult to understand that no matter who you are, your culture shapes some of the deepest parts of who you are. This can be even trickier when you’re part of a majority group, or live in an area without much diversity. However, as the sayings go, the most important change starts from within. We cannot learn to appreciate and respect the cultures of others if we do not understand our own culture. 

3. Use it alongside stories.

Conversations around differences can be awkward to begin with. Add in a child’s natural bluntness and you’re in for some steep learning moments. Using stories can help expose your little learner to lots of different perspectives in a safe environment, where their curiosity and learning won’t cause offence. Like in the example above, you can use the iceberg model to identify parts of surface and deep culture that might be shown through the book, movie, poem, music, or illustrations.

The cultural iceberg model can help our littlest learners understand a simple truth: diversity isn’t just about physical manifestations of our cultures; but goes to the deepest parts of how we think and what we value.

Perceptions aren't malicious; they are based on what we know and how we've been taught to think so far. Making our little learners aware of the complexities of our own culture, and those of others, is an important step in unpacking our own biases and creating more inclusive and safe communities. 



📸 Top photo by Yan Krukov.

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