Increasing Participation In Asian Classroom Settings (Part I)

This post was written by Ted Cohen, a student pursuing his MAT-TESOL from USC Rossier Online. Ted is a member of the September 2012 cohort and currently lives in Manhattan Beach, CA.

One of the greatest challenges for non-native teachers in Asian classroom settings is trying to get students to participate — to speak out, raise their hands, and ask questions. If teachers don’t see this happening, they may start to doubt the efficacy of their classroom teaching skills. Even worse, they may just accept that this is the way things will be and continue to use the same techniques to try to motivate their students, jamming that square peg into a round hole like it’s their job (and to them, it is!).

As teachers in America, we assume that our system is the best. We try to get students from other cultures to assimilate in order to meet our expectations instead of trying to find the balance. What’s that you say, balance? Yes, balance. It’s a common suggestion that’s actually quite hard to achieve. The simple fact is that every culture has something to learn from other cultures, and if you’re aware enough to do it, taking the step back and assessing the situation will yield an interesting picture (usually): these kids have almost as much to teach me as I do them.

So what’s going on here?

From my personal experiences working with Thai students in Bangkok, I can tell you firsthand about the unique challenges a teacher from an individualist culture faces when working with students from a collectivistic culture. The value that the U.S. (and arguably much of the Western world) places on voicing beliefs, rising to meet opposition head on, and broadcasting individual accomplishments is not only different from the values of most Asian cultures, but sometimes it’s even directly opposed.

I’ve learned from my students that to say, “I believe…” is considered too strong a statement in Thai, so it is rarely used. Without spending a lot of time learning about the culture, could an American teacher ever really grasp that? I would say no.

I interviewed many students about this topic, and when I asked them why they don’t like raising their hand or speaking out individually, they usually answer, “I don’t want to look stupid” or, “I don’t want to seem like I don’t get it” or, “I just want to fit in with the group” or even, “I’m not always interested in participating — why do I have to speak out to show I understand?” While we try to deal with a similar issue in the U.S. by introducing the concept of “there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” this behavior takes on a whole new face across the Pacific.

What’s there to do?

The first step toward creating balance in Asian classroom settings is to learn about your students and your surroundings. Explore the socio-political landscape of the city and country you work in, and don’t be afraid to tactfully ask your students about it. Contrary to how they may behave in class, students usually like talking about themselves and their opinions — especially if it doesn’t feel like it’s a part of their formal class time.

Next, try to blend the best of both worlds — create lessons that offer them more opportunities to work as a collective unit, build their confidence, and develop their self-expression and individualistic attitudes. There’s no right way to try to prepare your students with a broad scope of knowledge and skills they can use on a global scale, but there is a wrong way to do it, and that’s by making your curriculum too culturally one-sided.

In my next blog post, I will address ways teachers in Asian classrooms can develop an unbiased curriculum by including activities and assignments that will increase students’ individual and collective participation.