Teaching can be challenging enough on its own but add a culture clash, and the level of difficulty often soars! Westerners may not be completely aware of what they’re getting themselves into, but there are a few staple dilemmas they’re likely to face when they embark on a career with Eastern learners, notably the learning cultures of different countries and the teaching styles students are accustomed to. Being aware of these differing thoughts on education can help ensure teaching success online and in brick-and-mortar schools.
It’s heavily debated which style is best, with many Asian countries using test and exam scores as a basis for success. That said, Western schools and universities are popular for Asian learners with the opportunity to go on to successful careers, with many postsecondary institutions in North America and elsewhere boasting impressive figures on employment. Degrees from Western universities are coveted globally, making study there attractive as a wise career move. The role of a student as an active contributor with their own ideas in the classroom is viewed positively, showing initiative and a “can-do” attitude.
As we’re all aware, learning English is often vastly different for Eastern learners than studies in their mother tongue. But this doesn’t only extend to the language itself. For some, this may be the first time they’ve needed to interact with a real, live foreigner in a language they’re unfamiliar with, or struggling to grasp. Overcoming their inherent shyness and fear of making mistakes is only one element of this. We’ll take a look at some of the reasons why learning styles are so different on other sides of the world.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
As a teacher, the most obvious difference between Eastern and Western settings is often seen when asking students for their opinions on different things. Such as giving critiques of a reading passage, or expressing new ideas for resolving an issue. The common method many educators in Asia use is through repetition, especially for grammar. Offering Asian students the chance to give an opinion on something often surprises them, since Eastern teaching styles generally provide little opportunity for free thinking or analysis. As well, exams are such a key element of the education systems in Asian countries that considerable energy is devoted to memorizing what teachers break down in class and being able to reproduce it when testing takes place.
Pressure Makes Diamonds
Having started my teaching career in South Korea, I saw firsthand the toll exam preparation took on students. Obviously, all education systems depend on exams to some degree, but in Seoul, that period nearing the end of high school is known as “Exam Hell” as competition intensifies for coveted placements at universities throughout the country. Students often require help from their parents just to take care of themselves for fundamental needs.
What I found surprising was how much more relaxed the university students I taught were, contrasting sharply with my own learning experiences undertaking postsecondary education in North America. While getting into university wasn’t necessarily easy, university represented a sharp step up concerning difficulty. The Asian students I worked with had already gone through what was seemingly the worst of it all as they completed high school, and many seemed to enjoy learning a lot more when university placements were locked in. Competition is so intense during the high school years that often students are unable to enjoy what should be a relatively carefree time, or indulge in school teams or activities while still being able to do well academically. The importance of being well-rounded is not lost on prestigious schools in North America, for example, where marks are only one aspect of an overall application.
Not All Teachers are Created Equal
Some Asian teachers can have a better understanding of grammar than their Western counterparts because often times Westerners never had actually to study it in-depth. Explaining how adverbs affect verbs or what a modal is can be challenging for novice teachers. This is often in contrast with issues concerning pronunciation, where Westerners are often trusted with knowing what other Westerners will understand when they hear it. This can be frustrating for Asian educators when they speak to Western colleagues and find themselves being corrected, even if they have considerably more experience or training.
Teaching online allows educators to give more personal attention and is often much easier for classroom management without such unmanageable numbers of students.
Put Your Hand Up If…
Anyone ever see this one? Asking more than one student if they’ve done something or gone somewhere and “to put their hands up” brings only blank stares and tiny hands halfway up, unsure if they should put themselves out there. Even when you know the likelihood is high, canvassing a classroom for shared experience can sometimes be tricky. There are a number of reasons for this, notably (A) grasping the language involved and (B) being asked about past experiences.
Essentially, individualism isn’t often encouraged in the Eastern setting; adherence to a particular set of learned skills and shared data. As an educator, the advantages for each are different. It certainly makes it easier for marking purposes if all the answers on a test are meant to be the same. Often this is why scores in Math and certain sciences are high in China, Japan, South Korea, and other Asian nations since the method to reproducing those formulae comes through targeted repetition. The flipside is when an assignment involves offering an opinion on a theory, or the qualities of a particular piece of literature, whether they’re positive or negative. If no one has ever asked you before what you thought of the last film you watched, you’ll struggle to describe why you did or didn’t like it.
The Numbers Game
Coming from Canada, one noticeable element in many Asian classrooms for me has been the sheer number of students. Teaching online allows educators to give more personal attention and is often much easier for classroom management without such unmanageable numbers of students. One element that isn’t always present in Canadian classrooms can be the availability of a teaching assistant, which is generally a given in many Asian classrooms. The worry for most Western teachers in an atmosphere like this is whether the students are even absorbing what is being taught. With only a handful of students in a given class, this lack of assistance isn’t really an issue. Your main priority is to ensure connectivity and the reliability of your Internet.
Conversely, the ratios teaching online allow for greater attention on individual learners. This is often something they aren’t able to enjoy in their regular classroom, notably when they’re one of 50 or more students and the teacher doesn’t have the opportunity to give them a real focus. In some regular classrooms, often the students sitting in front benefit the most, simply from a logistical standpoint. Overloaded classrooms aren’t conducive to focusing on the individual needs of learners either. Often times high achievers become jaded about classes being “boring” while slower learners are often left behind, as educators seek to strike a balance for the greatest number (somewhere in the middle).
Balance is Key
In an ideal world, students can take the best elements from classrooms around the world and mold them where they see fit. Taking advantage of the rigorous methods employed in a South Korean cram school (Hagwon) to excel in Math, while applying the critical thinking needed to summarize an author’s message in a Canadian literature class.
This is where the online setting can give Asian students that much-needed bridge to Western thought; through the teachers themselves. Obviously, the bread and butter for online English is to improve fluency and understanding, but comprehension is an element that shouldn’t be overlooked. What good is it to be able to calculate your restaurant bill if someone warned you the food there was terrible anyway? Having critical thinking skills are often more practical than many people would imagine.
In short, employing a global view is really what it’s all about nowadays. Students are not only looking to be able to have simple chats with a foreigner looking for directions but to acquire skills to make them as competitive as possible in today’s marketplace. Even if they’re young learners, parents are generally looking at their long-term development and seeking a solid foundation for their future success.
Having the ability to bridge cultures and learning styles not only gives students a chance to make friends around the world but also opens doorways to exciting opportunities both professionally and personally. And as technology continues to become more sophisticated, the online environment is where they’ll turn whether it’s for convenience, as it fits their schedule, or necessity if there are no face-to-face English learning options in their area. As such, the onus is on the teachers in these settings to adjust their styles for the demands of their clientele, look at how they’ve been educated so far, and decide how they can benefit from exposure to methods from other corners of the world.
What are your thoughts on education in regard to Eastern and Western practices?
Harry Hodge is a seasoned ESL professional, with experience working with South Korean learners in Seoul as well as Vietnamese students at Kent International College and Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City. He helped co-author nine editions of the Smart Start ESL series by Dai Truong Phat Education, and also has worked as a copy editor for the China Daily in Beijing, Metro News in Canada and other publications. He has a Bachelor’s Degree from Concordia University in Montreal and a TESOL certification from the University of New Brunswick in Eastern Canada.