I’m riled up because I am sick and tired of hearing teachers blame students for their shortcomings and lack of courage to step out, try new things and support change. Look, let’s just get something straight right off the bat, if you want to teach a teacher centered lesson, if you can't scaffold a class properly as to encourage your students to think critically and/or creatively, if you don’t want to use an activity that puts the responsibility on the students to create the English language, if you don’t feel you have the ability or, most importantly, the training to help students understand the techniques as to how they can discuss and disagree with each other in English without upsetting the cultural status quo then that's fine, but that is not how you want to teach do something about it, but please, don't hide behind your students apparent lack of will/motivation/abilities if you don't.
O.k. I’m going to concentrate on Korea here because it is the country I have the most experience with, but I think the sentiment is applicable anywhere.
This is the type of statement, that I am going to keep anonymous, that frustrates me:
“Most Korean students don’t like to be put in the spotlight because they don’t want to lose face (if they don’t know the answer) or appear arrogant (if they do know). Also, people are not likely to disagree with each other publicly so that pretty much undermines critical thinking dialogue in a class this size where people will be reluctant to speak up.” or "Korean students only ever want to know the answer, they aren't capable of figuring answers out for themselves". Well of course they're not, if you keep giving them the answer.
Also, I honestly have lost count of how many times I have been told “Korean students won’t be able to do that activity” or “that is too hard for them” or “Korean students don’t enjoy that kind of activity”. I think is important to point out here these statements are not used to about a students English knowledge, but their capabilities for doing certain kinds of activities.
Well, my questions to anyone who hides behind these kinds of statements and presumptions are these; how do you know that? What are you basing those presumptions on? Where is your proof?
If your proof (in this case) is watching teacher centered lessons and admiring how smoothly it goes, that is not evidence that students can’t do anything else.
Also, observing a lesson or activity where students are put in a completely different learning environment (not just in a physical sense) to that which they are used to or asked to complete types of activities they have not done before, without the correct experience, support or scaffolding then, strangely enough, seeing it now working,
Of course it didn't work! It is the first time the students have ever encountered that kind of teaching methodology or activity. As teachers, it is our job to provide the long term support and scaffolding students need to be able to handle such teaching methodology, not just quit, hide behind our students and say “well, that didn't work, the students simply aren't capable of it because of ............ (in Korea usually where they are from), now back to the PowerPoint game.”
I’m not saying as teachers we should just pick up any teaching method we've seen and think looks great and then chuck it at our students, if we do that we are doomed to failure. Every group of students is different, every individual student is different, every class we teach is different, and so we need to structure and support our students differently, and maybe adapt the final goals too.
The fact of the matter is it takes time, effort, energy and probably a lot of failed activities to get it right. I am absolutely not going to be able to teach exactly the same lesson to my high school students here in Korea as I would to a high school class in Spain, but that certainly does not mean my high school students here in Korea are not capable of achieving the same (or very similar) goals if the class is structured correctly.
Bringing it back to Korea, there is absolutely no reason why a Korean student cannot think creatively or critically in an English language class or why they cannot work effectively in groups, why they can’t have diverse conversations in English, why they can’t disagree with each other or speak publicly, why they can’t work autonomously, why they can't figure out answers for themselves..... But don’t just take my word for it:
Gan (2003:43 emphasis added) “researchers argue that the extent to which cultural values are internalised in the learning process of Asian students in general has been overstated, and the EFL students’ learning attitudes and strategies in particular have mainly to do with situation-specific factors such as language proficiency level, TEACHING METHODOLOGY and ASSESSMENT PRACTICES”
Littlewood (2001:21) has concluded:
1. Most students in all countries question the traditional authority structure of the classroom.
2. Most students in all countries would like to see themselves as active participants in the classroom learning process.
3. Most students in all countries have a positive attitude towards co-operating in groups in order to achieve common goals.
Cheng & Dornyei (2007:171) “motivational strategies are transferable across diverse cultural and ethnolinguistic contexts”
Littlewood (2000:33 emphasis added) “The stereotype of Asian students as ‘obedient listeners’ … does not reflect the role they would like to adopt in class. They do not see the teacher as an authority figure who should not be questioned; they do not want to sit in a class passively receiving knowledge … [they did not believe] the teacher should have a greater role than themselves in evaluating their learning. The results suggest that… [these claims] are more likely to be a consequence of the educational contexts that have been or are now provided for the, THAN ANY INHERENT DISPOSITION OF THE STUDENTS THEMSELVES”
Littlewood (2000:34) concludes…
“They want to explore knowledge themselves and find their own answers. Most of all, they want to do this together with their fellow students in an atmosphere which is friendly and supportive”
If a teacher doesn't want to teach in a certain way or do certain types of activities that is absolutely fine, every teacher has their beliefs about what should and should not be taught and should or should not be happening in the classroom, but please, do not then put the blame onto the students.
I'm sorry if this came across as overly ranty, I do plan on sharing some tips from my experiences as to how we can go about bridging cultural gaps and how we can go about adapting new teaching methodology and activities to the needs of our students in the next week or so.