Of all the educational objectives a teacher would desire to accomplish, one remains to be the most vital, yet challenging. It is the objective to engage students in critical and creative thinking in the process of learning. This is a particularly difficult objective to fulfill in an oriental setting, where students come from a collectivist socio-cultural background. Despite learning and utilizing a variety of innovative teaching methods that encourage and require critical and creative thinking, teachers find that students from the collectivist cultural orientation do little or nothing to push their creative-imaginative prowess to invent and produce new knowledge.
An encounter with â€˜quietâ€™ students
Such was my experience when I started teaching at Mission College, an international college situated in Saraburi, Thailand; in 2003 (Mission College caters to the educational needs of an international student body). Discussions in classes were often dominated by outspoken and courageous students from the west. Asian students hardly talked or contributed their opinions about issues, even when an issue directly related to their lives and future. It was difficult to get them to talk. There were times when I had to wait for two to three minutes before a one-word answer emerged from the lips of an Asian student. It was tiring, frustrating, and to a great extent, scary. Scary because I couldnâ€™t imagine how these students would one day become leaders and yet, govern without being able to think and express their thoughts with confidence. The scenario seemed truly bleak. It still does.
The difference between East and West
Contemporary research in education and psychology propose that students learn the best when they are allowed a great amount of freedom in the process of learning â€“ to choose when, what, why, and how they would learn what they would want to learn. In other words, learning and the highest form of it â€“ thinking â€“ are enhanced when teachers employ student-centered teaching. Student-centered teaching requires that students are made responsible for their own learning. They are their own bosses, deciding, and judging what is good and bad for them. Nothing is imposed. Teachers merely play the role of a supportive mentor or guide.
While this sounds like a fabulous idea, it doesnâ€™t work all that easily. Even in a highly individualized society like the United States, a lot of students refuse to engage in the processes of thinking pertinent for improved learning and academic achievement. For most of us, thinking, just like reading, is an effortful, energy-draining task. We choose to borrow and use the ideas and suggestions of others rather than come up with our own, simply because we want to save time and mental energy.
However, compared to the western society, students from Asia have a more difficult time to open up, think, and express their thoughts. Somehow, student-centered teaching does not suit learners with a collectivist socio-culture background because of differences in societal values.
This is also true of Asian students who study abroad (even at graduate and post-graduate levels), in places like the UK or US. They are often considered â€˜good studentsâ€™ â€“ because they quietly listen to and absorb whatever is handed down to them by the teacher â€“ but by the standards of current development and advancement in education, they are the worst because they have not learned the art and science of thinking, critically, and creatively. In the end, they lose out. They become mere reflectors of other peopleâ€™s thoughts. They are unable to bring out and nurture their innate abilities to be original, innovative, and inventive. These students return to their home countries to continue in the same old vicious cycle of being â€˜copy/cut-pastersâ€™ of ideas and knowledge.
Why doesnâ€™t it work here?
Coming from an Asian family structure myself, this is a phenomenon that is easily understood. The Asian family and school structures require children to listen and obey. No questions are entertained and most decisions, big or small, are made by parents (at home) and teachers (at school). An individual grows up, programmed to conform to a variety of norms, without challenging the same. Thinking and asserting individual opinions are out of place. In fact, these are considered disrespectful. Hence, it is a commonplace for Asian students to submit to authorities, and inaudibly abide by the rules and regulations imposed on them. From very young, Asian students are taught to â€˜go with the flowâ€™ and avoid â€˜everything that depart from status-quoâ€™. This is also seen at school; in how teaching and learning transpire. Students are not allowed to think. Teachers think for their students and spoon-feed them with whatever knowledge deemed necessary.
Years of being exposed to such an upbringing makes it extremely difficult to break the pattern of brain function, even at neurological level. When asked to think, speak up, and express their thoughts, Asian students freeze and shut down socially first, and then, emotionally, and neurologically too.
The way to go
Trying to implement student-centered teaching in schools with many Asian students would prove to be unwise. If our aim in education is to inculcate patterns of mental processes and behavior that elicit maximum amount of thinking on the part of students, a culturally sensitive approach is required.
My suggestion is for schools to begin with learning-centered teaching and gradually transit into student-centeredness. Directly plunging into students-centered teaching would be catastrophic because Asian students are not used to taking responsibility for their own learning and thinking. They are more comfortable following directions from an authoritative figure. Hence, getting them into a new learning pattern would require a gradual move from being completely passive to becoming completely active and creative.
Learning-centered teaching encompasses methods and approaches that make use of findings in brain research, and how learners learn the best, as humans. In addition to this, learning-centered teaching makes use of cooperative teaching strategies to harness the potential of students in non-threatening environments. When students (particularly Asian students) are allowed to develop critical and creative thinking skills in small groups (less intimidating because they come from a collectivist background), they would eventually develop the confidence required to apply the same learning tools in a wider perspective, even at an individual level.