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Culture clash

crowdedplace Hamza Buttweb

It’s easy to make the wrong assumptions about students’ native learning cultures, says Melanie Butler, because it’s a lot more complex than ‘East meets West’.

Culture is ‘the collective programming of the mind’. So says the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede whose ground-breaking work on national and corporate cultures famously analyses culture across six separate areas.

The issue of the influence of culture and whether it does, or should, impact on the way we teach English was raised in the July Gazette by Jocelyn Wang from Chinese private education provider New Oriental. She argued that China’s strong educational culture should be harnessed, not ignored. It caused a Twitter storm.

Does culture influence the way we learn? A paper by Hulb Wurster and Carel Jacobs correlating educational systems and philosophies in 20 countries with Hofstede’s different areas shows that it does.

Three of Hofstede’s six key areas seem to me to be most important for English language teaching.

First we have Power Distance, which equates to how teacher-centred a culture is.

Second, there is Masculinity, which means the extent to which a culture is competitive – how much the success of education is measured by individual achievement rather than student collaboration.

Thirdly, there is Uncertainty Avoidance – or how much a society values structure, expertise and clear logical rules. In educational terms, this term measures whether a culture teaches deductively, by giving rules and facts and getting students to draw logical inference or inductively, expecting them to discover rules for themselves.

The first thing I was ever told on my EFL training course was that inductive learning was always better because students are more likely to remember something they discover. I was also taught to be student-centred – too much teacher talking time was a crime. And I was told to ignore the group dynamics of the class to concentrate on the achievement of each individual student. Personalization, after all, is the ultimate goal, isn’t it?

I believed then that these are not universal truths – they are just what Anglo-Saxons are taught to believe. Learning is just another cultural quirk like who you are supposed to kiss and how many times you are supposed to kiss them or how you place your knife and fork when you’ve finished eating.

But when it comes to learning culture we tend to think in terms of East and West. We’re prepared to cut some cultural slack for Koreans or Kuwaitis but if somebody looks like us, we presume they must learn like us.

In fact, the vast majority of European learning cultures are deductive, unsurprisingly since it is a rigorous method of logical thought passed down from the Ancient Greeks. Modern Greece still has one of the most deductive learning cultures in the world.

Only three cultural groups are predominately inductive: the Anglo-Saxons (except the Australians), the Scandinavians (except the Finns) and the Chinese (except Taiwan). Even the exceptions in these groups tend to be only moderately deductive, however, with the Australians being evenly balanced.

We see learning culture as a single whole. Anglo Saxons are both inductive and competitive – so other inductive cultures must be competitive too. Well the British, the mainland Chinese and the deductive Germans are exactly equally competitive, teaching to the top and rewarding academic achievement.

The Scandinavians, are the exact opposite, they are collaborative, teaching to the middle and valuing social cohesion over exam results with the result that a much higher proportion of their students do well. These same cultural values are shared with South Korea, France and those super inducers, the Singaporeans.

We also see learning cultures in terms of politics and ethics. Anglo-Saxons think teacher-centred is bad because it is undemocratic. So all democracies must be student-centred right? Well not in France, or Belgium or Portugal.

While Japan is hardly teacher-centred at all and Slovakia is the most teacher-centred in the world.

Learning cultures just do not fit neatly into single boxes.

Native speaker teachers of English need to remember that not one of the students they teach shares all the aspects of their learning culture. In multicultural classes the problem is even worse.

All too often, the Anglo-Saxon response is: our way is the best way, and the rest of the world can just copy us. We do student-centred, so will you. We do inductive learning, just get on with it. Of course personalisation is the answer to everything, to hell with collaboration. Best practice is what we do.

I have always wondered why the world believes us. Because whatever it is that Anglo Saxon learning culture is good at, it certainly isn’t learning languages.

Pic Courtesy: Hamza Butt