What Happens When Two Cultures Meet in the Classroom?

Article excerpt

The paper investigated four Chinese graduate students' perceptions of the major differences between North American and Chinese classroom teaching styles. Major differences in the following five areas were identified: 1) the teacher's role, 2) the student's role, 3) the form of class organization, 4) the teacher's expectations, and 5) the student's expectations. It then explored these four Chinese graduate students' North American classroom learning reality. Finally, the paper examined how they adjusted their classroom learning strategies and approaches accordingly so that they could adapt to the North American classroom environment.

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During the past two decades there has been a significant growth in the number of non-native speakers (NNS) of English pursuing academic studies in North American universities. Statistics shows that students from the People's Republic of China are the largest single group, and approximately 80% of them are graduate students (Canadian Bureau for International Education, 2002; Institute of International Education, 2001). Generally, they have completed their undergraduate education in China prior to commencing graduate studies in North American universities. Chinese graduate students are from a very different cultural background. Their learning experience in North American classrooms has important educational implications for both university administrators and educators (Huang & Klinger, 2006).

Academic learning, as argued by Tweed and Lehman (2002), varies depending on the cultural context. They proposed a Confucian-Socratic framework to analyze the influence of different cultural contexts on academic learning. Socrates (469-399 BC), a Western exemplar, valued the questioning of both his own and others' beliefs, the evaluation of others' knowledge, self-generated knowledge, and teaching by implanting doubt. Socratic-oriented learning involves "overt and private questioning, expression of personal hypotheses, and a desire for self-directed tasks" (p. 93). In contrast, Confucius (551-479 BC), an Eastern exemplar, valued effortful and respectful learning, behavioral reform, and pragmatic acquisition of essential knowledge (Tweed & Lehman, 2002). Confucian-oriented learning involves "effort-focused conceptions of learning, pragmatic orientations to learning, and acceptance of behavioral reform as an academic goal" (p. 93).

Confucian philosophy has a strong impact on Chinese people's viewpoints, ways of thinking and behaviors. Confucius stressed the importance of hard work. He believed that success was mainly due to hard work rather than ability. He also believed that "behavior reform is a central goal of education because virtuous behavior can ensure individual success and societal harmony" (Tweed & Lehman, 2002, p. 92). Confucius valued pragmatic learning. He viewed the goal of learning as to competently conduct oneself within a civil service job. He stressed the acquisition of essential knowledge and respectful learning. He taught his students to respect and obey authorities. He once said that "to honor those higher than ourselves is the highest expression of the sense of justice" (Confucius, 1947, p.332).

When Chinese graduate students come to study in North American classrooms, many bring a Confucian-oriented perspective to their learning, while their North American professors and peers may have a more Socratic orientation. Since they have little exposure to Western classroom cultures, they will feel unfamiliar and even uncomfortable with North American classroom culture (Huang & Klinger, 2006).

Research with NNS of English studying at North American universities in an English for academic purposes context has indicated that Chinese graduate students experience considerable challenges and anxiety in their academic studies (Huang, 2004, 2005; Huang & Klinger, 2006; Sun & Chen, 1997; Upton, 1989). They often feel uncomfortable with the students' behaviors at North American classrooms (Upton, 1989). …