Overview: This lesson introduces students to the concept of culture. Using the iceberg model as a guide, students will be challenged to look inward and reflect on how their own cultural values influence their everyday behavior.

Time: 20-30 minutes depending on discussion

Activity (Methodology): Large Group Activity

Materials Needed: None

Applicable Content Areas: Applicable in a wide variety of content areas, especially those that require students to reflect and think critically or allow for multiple ways to arrive at an acceptable result such as in math, social studies, science, and world language classes.

Learning Objectives:
After this lesson, students will be able to:
• Define the concept of culture.
• Use the Iceberg Model to explain the connection between the visible and hidden parts of a culture.
• Identify elements of “American Culture”.
• Compare and Contrast American Culture to a different cultural group.

Getting Started: Set up by drawing one large iceberg on the board with the title “American Culture”.

Black and white drawing of a large iceberg with only a small portion at the top above the water line.


1. Begin by asking students to define culture aloud.

2. After a few responses, share with the class that Dr. Milton Bennet, a prominent intercultural communication researcher, defines culture as “shared characteristics (values, behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, etc.) and learned tendencies or patterns of a group that are transferred from one generation to the next and can adapt slowly
over time.”

3. Then explain that visual models are often helpful in understanding this complex concept. For example, the iceberg shows that some elements of culture are above the surface of our awareness such as what people eat, dress like, or what language they speak. These are all behaviors that we can observe directly. Whereas other cultural aspects lie under the water line and aren’t as obvious. These aspects are outside of our awareness usually until we have significant and meaningful experience navigating another culture.

NOTE: To discover other visual models of the concept, check out our Concepts and Theories of Culture for AFS and Friends handout to learn more.

4. Tell students that in the first part of the activity, you’ll be asking them questions to help them construct the American Culture Iceberg. The first set of questions will get at the non-visible elements of culture while the second set of questions will get at the visible elements of culture. Students should answer all questions based on their personal experience or understanding of Americans.

5. Read aloud the first set of questions one by one, allowing time for multiple students to answer. Record their answers on the board on the bottom half of the iceberg, under the water line.

• Do people concentrate most on the past, present, or future?
• Is hard work rewarded?
• Is cooperation or competition more important?
• How do they express their opinions or or concerns about others? Is it appropriate to express emotions?
• How do classmates’ express approval or disapproval? How do parents? Teachers?
• Are they comfortable with physical touch? (i.e., handshakes, hugs, pats on the shoulder…etc.)
• What is considered beautiful? Successful? Healthy?
• What are the roles and responsibilities of a mother? Father? Child/sibling?
• Do parents/guardians spend a lot of time doing family activities?

NOTE: Be sure to record all responses on the board, even if they are conflicting. Conflicting answers can prompt discussion on subcultures and differences in experience during the activity debrief.

6. Next, read aloud the second set of questions and write down the student’s answers on the top half of the iceberg, above the water line. Be sure to remind students to answer from their own experience.

• What do they eat?
• What music is popular?
• What are their favorite sports/hobbies?
• How do they dress?
• What language do they speak?

7. After completing both sets of questions, guide students through the activity debrief to help students reflect the iceberg they created.

NOTE: If your content area deals with another culture, you may wish to complete this activity twice, once with the American Culture iceberg, and a second time with a different culture’s iceberg before moving on to the debrief.


Discussion/Follow-up: This short lesson is intended to demonstrate the hidden elements of culture and how these impact our visible behaviors. Consider using the following questions to debrief the activity:

• What other invisible elements can you think of? Visible ones?
• What does it mean if there are conflicting elements above and below the waterline?
• How do these differences impact our behaviors?
• What connections can you make between the invisible and visible elements of culture? (For example, in the American culture people tend to emphasize competition. This value becomes visible in the sports we play or in school when we encourage students to get good grades).
• How might this American Culture iceberg look different than another culture’s iceberg?
• Why are these concepts important to keep in mind when interacting with those who are different from you or from another culture?


Virtual Implementation:
This activity can easily be replicated virtually by having students draw and complete their own “American Culture” icebergs asynchronously, using the assigned questions. Students could then upload their completed icebergs to a Padlet for other students to comment on before a synchronous debrief session.

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