Sunday, January 12, 2014

Culture in the Classroom: What Excellence May Mean

Culture, while it is increasingly an issue to be reckoned with in business circles, does not get the same prominence in the discussion about International Education. The reason why business pays heed to culture is perhaps because increasingly the Chinese, Indian and other consumers are 'emerging', and it is no longer the same monolithic world where all purchasing powers were concentrated in the hands of a certain type, Western, consumers. For the same reason, surely, western educators may pay heed to the issue of culture, as the Chinese, Korean and Indian students flock to Western universities. 

However, such cultural sensitivities are less likely to take hold in the academia, simply because the demand for an Western education is simply taken as an acceptance of its superiority. Besides, educators usually resist the idea of education being a consumer commodity and see the need to adjust to the needs of different students as a compromise of the standards. And, finally, practically, given that most of these Asian students travel to Western universities to receive their education, it is well neigh impossible to respond to cultural norms beyond a certain perfunctory level, because the same standards must be held for all students, including the Western ones. 

Beyond the surface level, however, the culture question presents a deeper challenge for the educator. Indeed, the idea of universal standard itself is a Western one, and the Asian students are usually brought up to consider and allow particular characteristics of the other: They wouldn't complain about a practice even if they find it odd or discomforting, because one of their deep cultural values is to accept different things from different people, rather than seeking an universal standard. Besides, the demand for Western education does not necessarily mean an acceptance of their inherent superiority; many Asian students, indeed most students, employ a pragmatic approach to seek out the education they need for their lives and careers, and reject, in all practicality, lessons that do not suit their scheme of things. Education as an element of soft power often exist in the dreams of the closet colonialist, but the history of people traveling to seek knowledge dates back ancient times and it didn't necessarily imply cultural hegemony.

International educators need to think closely about culture, moreover, because the nature of education is changing. Last decade has seen increasing proliferation of Online models, as well as franchising and other arrangements to deliver education offshore. The talk of 'education export' has intensified, under the same assumption that a superior Western education can be easily exported, if a commercial model could be found, to countries with a lower order education system. In this, the educators often make no pretense that education is not a consumer commodity, and rather adopt quite a mercenary approach which would have put the early pirate-merchants in shadows. The usual method is to lobby the governments of different countries and business groups in setting up 'international campuses' offering a pure 'foreign education' for the local students, without them having to travel (or establish an online variant). In this model, however, the usual culture blindness of the educators make them responsible for even greater harm to the recipient societies, creating a false model which is neither locally relevant nor viable over even medium term.

Why so? Researches in Cognitive Psychology has shown, in experiments conducted many times over many years, that learning behaviours of pupils from different cultures are distinctly different. Richard Nisbett points out that when the American professors express their dismay with the written work of their otherwise diligent Asian students, they are often complaining about the lack of the rhetorical style of writing they are used to, than the lack of research and effort, though they would tend to express their views in those terms. He also talks about an experiment by Steven Hine and his colleagues with Canadian and Japanese school children, which showed that while the Canadians worked longer and more diligently when they were given positive feedback, the Japanese tended to focus more when they were given negative feedback, bringing out the Western need for esteem in contrast to Asian values of self-improvement. These sorts of factors, combined with the deeply Asian culture of living in harmony (which is often mistaken as conformity) rather than sticking out in the classroom, demand a different pedagogical design than the one practiced at home locations of these institutions. 

However, this does not happen: The claims of cultural superiority of Western academia, and some deeply flawed and underhand commercial logic, the market is not significant enough to make the changes etc., trump the very practical requirements of designing a different educational experience. This sort of reasoning is indeed self-defeating: The claims of cultural superiority runs counter to the reflexivity and humility that self-professedly accompany the educators' practice; the commercial logic is flawed because it turns the causality on its head and prevents the markets from being significant. Therefore, the field of International Education, with its crown jewel, Branch Campuses, is full of failed experiments, which is more often than not blamed on departed executives rather than triggering soul searching and culture change.

In the context of International Education experiments, which continue to proliferate, therefore, a new design of culturally sensitive classroom is a prerequisite of excellence. In fact, the modern technologies, if suitably designed, should allow such sensitivities to be employed even within the context of traditional classrooms in home institutions, rather than making the whole process of education culture-blind. Various adaptive tools, and adaptive assessments (blasphemy, indeed, but holding consistent standards and employing same assessments are not the same) should become the cornerstone of international education, alongside some timeless good practices of education, such as a responsive and reflective teacher: Education as commerce may be reaching its limits and further international expansion may demand a rethink of the models, just as businesses are doing today.


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