Saturday, October 8, 2011

Cultural Views of Learning


This week, I “taught” a discussion group for one of my colleagues who is on vacation.

Cross-cultural discussion, graphically depicted
This discussion group was a free, round-table setting for employees of a pharmaceutical development company. The participants were German chemists, IT specialists, and engineers. When I say “taught,” what I really mean is that I was the native English speaker “expert” in charge of the group, but that my actual role was really not much like traditional teaching at all.

I prepared several discussion games and activities because I wasn't sure what to expect. However, it turns out that the participants wanted to talk about current events (occupy wall street, outsourcing business, total freedom, communism vs. socialism, etc.) amongst themselves. They were eager to use their English, they didn't rely on me “calling on” them before they answered. They simply negotiated a conversation the way they would have if they were conversing in German. They questioned each other, asked for clarification from each other, changed the topic together, and agreed/disagreed with each other. If the conversation ever died down, I would simply ask an open-ended question to direct the topic. The thing that surprised me the most was, at the end, when they told me that I needed to correct them more often!

My previous experience with group discussions is very different. I am used to having to pry words out of students' mouths, used to having to encourage and build them up in order to get them to talk, and used to having to decide on the one, singularly most important issue to correct so that I don't discourage learners.

Germans are direct people, and this is a fact. My very limited experience teaching Germans has led me to theorize that they, because of their culture, take a very different (and more active) approach to the role of the learner than some other cultural students do. (It could also be that the German learners that I have worked with have been very similar in their age, education, and socioeconomic levels, but since I am in Germany and the culture is new to me, it first occurred to me that it was a culture issue.)

This leads me to a more general question: How does culture shape language learners' expectations of their role in learning?

McCarger's (1993) survey of American ESL teachers and international ESL students in the U.S. showed that typically, “...students expected a more teacher-oriented environment than did the teachers” (p. 200).

**Interesting side note on correction of students errors. As I previously noted, the participants in my discussion session expected more correction than I provided. This survey confirmed that my experience seems to be typical: “The teachers clearly disagreed that they should correct every student error. Except for the Japanese, who agreed mildly, each student group clearly agreed with this item” (p. 198). Also, “...the diversity of expectations on the error and error correction items...shows that errors and correction are a sensitive factor in second-language classes. Students wanted more correction than teachers wanted to give, and much disagreement existed on whether students should make mistakes, how students should feel about making errors, and whether teachers should criticize errors” (p. 200)

I did some quick internet research about cultural teacher/students' expectation of learner roles, and here is what I found.

Hispanic Students:
When we watch our Hispanic students during the time we lecture and lead the discussions, we will see that they are all quiet and look at us somewhat scared at the thought that we might call on them individually. When they are called upon, they will often freeze, get confused and embarrassed as they try to answer. They feel much more comfortable responding in groups, doing exercises together, and helping each other. … [G]roup exercises can cut down the frequent interruptions, when a student explains something to his/her neighbor, namely what the teacher has said and what it means. (Source)

Middle Eastern Students:
Compared to Middle East, most US classrooms employ less power differences (egalitarian ideal), expect more self initiative (empowered students) and focus on critical thinking over memorization. (Source)

Asian Students:
While Western teacher expect students to use other sources of information, like libraries, media experts, the internet (i.e., they do not provide all information required), Asian teachers provide the information through notes and one main text. While Western students usually view the teacher as an expert (but more as a resource), Asian students see the teacher as one who has acquired a level of mastery worthy of significant respect. (Source)
These are very general (and very basic) stereotypes of expectations, but I think they illustrate a good point: expectations differ from culture to culture. When you are dealing with cross-cultural education, you will most likely encounter differences in teacher and student expectations.


This power point does a really good job illustrating some different aspects of culture and explaining how they affect student and teacher expectations in education.

The different cultural aspects discussed are:
  • Power Distance
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Masculinity (distinctly separate emotional gender roles) vs. Femininity (emotional gender roles overlap)
  • Individualism vs. collectivism
  • Long term orientation (working towards the future) vs. Short-term orientation (learning from the past)
Additionally, this site  also discusses these cultural factors:
  • Monochronic vs. polychronic cultures
  • High context and low context cultures
(While it doesn't talk about how these factors affect teaching or learning roles, I think that it is obvious that students from these different backgrounds will have different expectations, as far as learning goes.)

Once you have determined what your learners' expectations are (whether by reading about their cultures or by just asking them), another question presents itself: Whose cultural expectations should you teach to? The learners' expectations or your own expectations? 

The answer to this question will likely change depending on each group of learners you work with, the composition of the group, and the degree of difference between your cultural expectations and theirs. However, I think the most important thing is to be aware yourself and to discuss with your learners your shared and distinct expectations and motivations behind them. Otherwise, you will end up with learners who are dissatisfied, frustrated, and not sure that you are an effective teacher, despite your years of training in current teaching methodology.

Works Cited:
McCarger, D.F. (1993). Teacher and Student Role Expectations: Cross-Cultural Differences and Implications. Modern Language Journal, 77(2), p.192-207. Accessed through EBSCO Host.

2 comments:

  1. My ESL class is mostly Chinese students. They are sometimes disturbingly direct. In one class, I assigned the students to groups of two or three to prepare a response to an article chosen by a student. Paul and Kayla made up one group, but I noticed they were not talking to each other. Even after I prompted them, they still weren't talking, and after a while, Kayla joined another group, and then Paul did too. When I asked Paul later what had happened, he said, "I didn't like her." laughter didn't appear to be the response he had expected. When I asked him what would happen if he were a professional architect, and was asked to design a house with another person, could he said, "I don't like her?" That seemed to resonate. In an American classroom that response is unacceptable.
    I was expecting docile students, in the pattern of some former Japanese and Korean classmates, but the Chinese students are direct, unabashed, and sometimes rude. They can take it when you call them on it though.

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  2. Wow, that is direct! I was reading a news story a while ago about a "new" generation of Chinese students that are more aggressive/direct, due to the one child policy and child-centered family dynamic. I wonder if this is a result of that generation change, or if older generations are also like this. Thanks for the comment!

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