Tuesday, September 18, 2012

East vs West: Educational Philosophies Collide

Today I had the most interesting conversation over lunch with some of my international students, in particular my students from China, Korea and Vietnam. As we got to know each other a little better, the topic of conversation turned, of course, to school. I've had conversations before with each of the kids about their schools back home and their perceptions of American schools, but today's conversation will stay with me for some time. We did the usual banter about favorite classes, favorite teachers, etc., and then I asked them what seems to be giving them the most difficulty this year. Here's what they said:

They said their English and Bible classes are making them crazy this year because back home (in China, Korea and Vietnam) teachers never asked for their opinions, analyses, ideas or conclusions. Each of these students explained how difficult it is for them to make the shift to our classroom environment where questioning and drawing conclusions are behaviors that are encouraged rather than forbidden. In their home schools, they each said, the only opinions that counted and the only right answers were those provided by the teacher. They explained that they have never been required to think about what an author might mean or might be implying or trying to say in a piece of literature; the teacher back home tells them what the literature means and what the author intended, and that is the final word. Each and every one of them said the language barrier is a non-issue, math and science are no problem, and even grammar is manageable, but justifying and defending their answers and formulating their own ideas are giving them fits.

I already knew that stereotypical Asian schools require students to sit quietly in class from 7 a.m. until sometimes 5 or 7 p.m. (Often students remain in one room and the teachers rotate from room to room, which is opposite of what usually happens here.) I also knew that many Asian students leave school each day and go straight to "cram school" for a few more hours of drill and instruction in an attempt to get ahead and reach the top of the class. I even knew that teachers in Asia are revered to such an extent that the teacher is always right and is never to be questioned. I must confess, though, today's conversation about thinking, expressing ideas, defending positions, analysis and drawing conclusions left my head spinning.

As an interesting footnote to this conversation, I think it's worth saying that the students said they much prefer our approach to school and that they believe they are learning just as much as their friends back home, only more efficiently.

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