We Are Different…Education

By Todd Blackhurst

One of the things that is both intriguing and disturbing about another culture is the differences. Some people find that experiencing life from a different point of view is at first exciting or interesting, but then after a while, maybe irritating, even to the point of total frustration.

Western Cultures have a similar background, shared history and many common “cultural idiosyncrasies”, if I can borrow a term. What I mean is that most Western Cultures tend to do many things in a way that feels similar. Asian Cultures also share a set of these “cultural idiosyncrasies”. These things make it easy to travel on one’s “own side of the world”.

When we choose to make our home, learn the language, work, play, and make a life all in another culture, then we can find ourselves growing more and more uncomfortable with the differences. Other cultures have different ways of doing, saying, relating, playing, teaching and the list goes on.

Now, I am in no way suggesting that we can’t get along. We can even forge significant relationships and build a magnificent life in another culture. What I am suggesting is that without some true cultural understanding, you will always be on the outside looking in. Some people find it easier than others, but for everyone there are significant obstacles to true cultural assimilation and acquisition.

In Taiwanese culture, one of the areas where the difference between East and West is most openly exposed is in the field of education. Many Westerners come to Taiwan to study and/or work in an educational setting and find themselves frustrated by the Chinese system. Some spend a lot of time criticizing and comparing without really taking the time to understand and appreciate a system that has been around for a very long time. I am not suggesting the system is above scrutiny, but it does deserve understanding before being placed under the microscope.

So in the interest of understanding, here’s a brief guide to the basic differences. For most of Chinese history, people were ruled by emperors through a series of dynasties and empires. The emperor usually ruled a vast territory through a set of sub-rulers who carried out his wishes. In order for the system to work no dissension could be tolerated. If one of the sub-rulers or common people disagreed they were killed to make sure the people continued to listen to the emperor.

Over time, this created a particular cultural idiosyncrasy – the emperor speaks, the people listen. It became hard-wired into the Chinese mind-set. I don’t mean to say it can’t change, or isn’t changing, that there aren’t exceptions or that it shouldn’t change. I’m just stating what you can observe in almost every aspect of Chinese culture. The person of higher rank speaks, the person of lower rank listens. There is no back and forth, there is no public dissent. Now, of course people disagree, and there are ways to express disagreement that have evolved over time, but I’m speaking in generalities.

Then, around 500BC, along comes Confucius and builds onto this mindset with his ideas of filial piety and the correct order for societal structure which included a formalization of the student/teacher relationship. Of course there were conflicting and varying viewpoints that were also put forth by others at the same time, but the Emperor like Confucius ideas because they were the ones that kept the culture moving in a direction which supported his rule. So, the other views were set aside and Confucius was lifted up as THE teacher. The culture was already set to accept this idea and so it was easily accepted across Chinese culture. Teachers and masters spoke, students listened and learned.

So if you have experience teaching Taiwanese students then you understand how difficult it can be for them to speak up in class. They are culturally conditioned to listen to the teacher and not to question, not to ask questions, not even to really respond to questions.

If you are aware of this going into the situation, it makes it easier to adapt your teaching style and the way you interact with students. In addition, if you work with Taiwanese or Chinese people in business or other settings, these underlying principles will affect you also. Understanding them will help you in all your interactions in this culture.

Now the other side. Because I am an American, I will speak only for my own culture at this point.

In contrast to Chinese/Taiwanese culture, the American cultural idiosyncrasy that I would suggest most comes into play here is our questioning of authority. From the start, the majority of people who came to colonize America were dissatisfied with their home country’s religious and political leadership.

From the early days of American history until now, this authority questioning ethos continues to permeate the American culture. We question everything, and in our classrooms we permit, even encourage, students to question the teacher, the material, the books, and each other in their quest for understanding.

It is completely acceptable and common in the American classroom for the teacher to say, “I don’t know”, “I don’t understand”, “What do you think?”, and to allow the student to provide answers for the class in a way that might make the student look smarter than the teacher.

So, what’s the bottom line here? We are different, and each of our cultures can learn from the other. Both systems have a great deal to offer and have produced incredible results. Cultural understanding helps us individually to understand and be understood – which is a major step in building true relationships across cultures.

One thought on “We Are Different…Education

  1. I think this is an important debate. I’ll add my own views if that’s OK:

    The current trend of ‘standardization’ in ELT takes “Anglophone values” for granted, and fails to account for the fact that “methodologies for teaching English do not work unless they are compatible with local educational customs” (Hino, 1992). A teacher who comes to Taiwan with a certificate that would enable them to teach in their own country, or with an EFL qualification such as CELTA might find themselves struggling to meet their teaching and lesson aims not in spite of those qualifications, but because of them.

    A lot of training courses and certification programs (especially those aimed at new teachers) never consider the notion that a pedagogical approach which works well in, say, Los Angeles or London might not work at all in another setting. The growth of international publishers and training providers such as Cambridge, Pearson and ETS might be adding to this problem as courses, textbooks and examinations are deemed to be suitable for teachers and learners anywhere in the world (and are therefore internationally marketed and sold to schools, universities and education departments by the tens of thousands).

    The rationale seems to be that if we’re all teaching and learning the world’s language, we should all be using the same methods, teaching according to the same systems (CEFR, ‘key stages’ and so on), using the same text books and dictionaries, aiming for the same qualifications (IELTS, TOEFL, American or British high school exams, etc.), and adapting our pedagogical approach only to suit the needs, styles and personalities of individual learners or small groups of learners, not as a means of adapting the materials and our own teaching to the much wider sociolinguistic tradition of the country in which we’re employed. To do that would be to question the authors who’ve worked so hard to make their books error-proof – note how many texts now carry the “PhD-certified” badge, or contain several pages detailing how they’ve been successfully used in pilot schemes all over the world.

    Teachers who are trained to use methods and systems that are based on western customs and values are themselves being conditioned to believe that these methods are ‘the best way’ – after all, they’ve been ‘tried and tested’, are often deemed ‘proven to work’, and are therefore assumed suitable for use in any environment. I think this leads to a lot of frustration for teachers from other countries who come to Taiwan, China and other nations that have a Confucian-Heritage education system; much of what those teachers will have learned and used successfully elsewhere will fail them in a Taiwanese classroom, but when the teacher reviews his training materials and textbooks, and consults other teachers working in different parts of the world, he’ll probably read or hear that the methods he’s trying to use are the correct ones. So he’ll keep trying to do the same thing. Having said that, I don’t think that teachers who come from overseas to work in countries such as Taiwan should be going in for the solely teacher-centred approach!

    What I think ought to be considered are more meaningful efforts to enable teachers recruited from overseas to understand at least some aspects of the Confucian heritage for education in Taiwan and elsewhere. I know some schools and universities already do this, but there are many other teachers living and working here who never step out of the so-called ‘expat bubble’ and therefore can never begin to appreciate how they (and their students) could benefit from an understanding of how Taiwan’s education system has evolved and how it is fundamentally and in many aspects unchangeably different from the education systems they grew up with.

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