Where West meets East: Avoiding culture clash in Chinese Higher Education


Top-flight international education in China is no longer an exclusively English-speaking domain

Economic forces often precede changes in international education, with regional development affecting how and why students travel overseas to study. With the impending uncertainty of , trade wars, restrictions on migration and increased protectionism in certain areas of the world, the future of international education at tertiary level is difficult to predict. In the current climate of global uncertainty, how can international educators ensure that they continue to deliver high-quality and marketable services to students in different regions of the world? It may not be possible to totally future-proof against changing global factors, but taking some key cultural factors into account can help international institutions to stay successful in the regions where they operate.


Respond with compromise


As the quality of international universities in the region increases, top-flight international education in China is no longer an exclusively English-speaking domain. This is partly due to protectionism by Chinese universities (by far the greatest international student body in Asia) wanting to provide greater regional development in line with the ‘belt and road’ expansion into the 21st century, and partly due to the issue of Chinese graduates returning home to find their position in the workplace has been compromised by those students who remained in China and built important relationships in the same period. This protectionism has gone further, with closures of joint-venture educational institutions and other top-down pressure to maintain an international education with Chinese characteristics.


Foreign universities working in China must respond to this trend carefully, and with respect for the local educational paradigm. The most successful institutions in the Asia region have adapted to their host partner’s educational culture in a way that has brought mutual benefits for both institutions. Compromise of this sort does not have to mean conflict; with training in the features of the regional education system, stakeholder expectations and the assumptions held locally about the nature of education itself, many conflicts of culture at the levels of management, academic and marketing can be avoided.


Context is everything


Without this knowledge of the local educational context, it is easy for academic bodies who are very well-respected in their home countries to fall foul of cultural bias. Taking China as a further example, negative assumptions about the nature of Chinese education have long pervaded western institutions. However, these assumptions are often not well-founded. Reading certain learner behaviours in the context of the institution’s home values is dangerous, and as regionalisation becomes more common, the risk of students, parents and the powerful local education marketing industry pulling university applicants away from overseas education grows. Across most of Asia, reputation is everything when it comes to tertiary education, so if a local college gains in kudos at the expense of international or overseas universities, the negative effects on admissions can snowball.


Again, the solution to this is information. Having local expertise, with the knowledge of how to target key skills for international students in an inclusive, respectful way can mean the difference between a two-year partnership and lasting growth with a valued partner institution. This runs down through every level of a university, and an understanding of the needs of the learners themselves is paramount to success. Without this understanding, students can feel pushed into an unfamiliar and overbearing system, where they do not understand how to achieve, so lose motivation. Ultimately, their outcomes (and more importantly their pass rates) can fall, and the all-important reputation of the institution can dive with it.


Train for staff retention


Another common issue in international universities, especially those situated in countries where their students originate, is staff retention. Just as an ‘imported’ education system can feel alien to international students, managing another educational culture in the classroom can be tough on the tutors and lecturers themselves. Induction procedures, including clear expectations and objective definition of the student body’s wants, needs and goals, is essential for the smooth and progressive overseas university department. If this is not handled sensitively, dissatisfaction can spread quickly, leading to lower staff retention, and more experienced educators feeling resentful of any changes which occur as a result.


Effective, comprehensive induction to another culture of education is not an easy task. New teachers should be given a grounding in the types of educational setting their students come from. They should be allowed to observe their colleagues’ classes and see the potential challenges for themselves before going in to the classroom themselves. Most importantly, they should be given induction by some student representatives, to get a realistic idea of their learners’ motivations. Communication across and within the working environment of the institution can be encouraged with a little extra timetabling, and more attention to the features of the local education system and the aspects of education it prioritises. Only then can students and staff work with the skills that the students possess, rather than butting heads about those they need to develop.


Classroom solutions to meet learner needs


At the most fundamental level, it is what goes on in the classroom which affects the level of performance in an academic institution. Ensuring a high level of cultural perspective at the chalkface will help students to find more relevance in the content being taught, generate higher motivation levels and leads to higher performance as a result. Some classroom considerations to avoid culture clash in delivery:


Plurilingual approaches: Thanks to experience with English-langaue education, Chinese learners are thoughtful translators of language. This skill can be harnessed nd improved for greater performance in EAP contexts. Translation can be a valuable study skill, if handled appropriately - see it as a strategy rether than a crime, and develop healthy approaches to first language use, and the results can be surprising


Cognitive approaches: Critical and evaluative thinking are an important part of the Confucian education tradition, though not in areas which English-language EAP expects it to happen. This can cause conflict between teacher and student expectations. Integrate critical thinking skills into your classroom discourse with 'why' and 'how' questions, encourage students to rethink and evaluate their performance regularly, and it soon becomes a healthy routine that flows over into other areas of student work.


2-way classroom discourse: The perceived passivity of Chinese learners in the classroom is soon disproved upon leaving the classroom. Harness the motivation to participate by approaching academic topics in ways that students can engage with, through enquiry-based discourse. Work from a personalised starting point, and don't assume knowledge of culture-specific information. What matters in Western cultures may not even be on the students' radars in the Chinese setting. Equally, be prepared to learn from your students; their ideas may be more relevant to their context when compared to content based on a Western-oriented curriculum. Integrate both ways of seeing the issues you are teaching, and the middle ground will produce more interesting outcomes.


Using errors as learning tools: Like it or not, making mistakes is part of learning. The value placed on the learning process, including weaknesses and development, in Western education can clash with the outcome orientation of traditional Chinese education. Errors should be treated with respect as learning tools, and students should be taught how to deal with error in their academic setting. Without this expectation, students can find it difficult to self-evaluate objectively, and performance can suffer as a result. Congratulate all participation, however accurate, and more than anything, encourage students to admit when they don't know something. This admission is not a failure, but a fundamental part of learning, and a major cultural barrier to many Chinese learners.


Consideration of cultural factors, and the integration of context-specific induction and training can help to provide students with the best of both academic worlds. The need for English-language education in many industries will remain for some time yet, but not at the expense of sensitivity to local cultures of education. The time of linguistic and academic imperialism is coming to an end, and the more institutions develop their staffing, management and academic procedures along pluricultural lines, the more successful the institution of international higher education will be for all concerned.



Tom Garside designs and leads professional development and culture of education courses for teachers of ESOL, EAL and EAP around the world, with a specific focus on the Chinese context. For more information on training activity in international English-language education, and for related articles, events and resources, subscribe to the monthly Language Point newsletter, From the Training Room.

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