What Works: Is Western Educational Research Relevant for Educational Reforms in Asia ?. David Watkins
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What Works: Is Western Educational Research Relevant for Educational Reforms in Asia ?
A keynote address to the Conference on Redesigning Pedagogy: Culture, Knowledge and Understanding, Singapore, May 28-30, 2007. Correspondence about this paper should be sent to the author at the Faculty of Education, the University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong. (e-mail: email@example.com)
It is now commonplace for countries to bring in international experts to advise how to improve their educational system. In particular many Asian countries look to Western countries to provide such expertise while Western countries often look to Asia.
“The grass often seems greener on the other side of the hill”
As the review of meta-analyses reporting variables which correlate withachievement by Hattie ( 2005 ) shows, research can tell us much about whatworks in US classrooms
But would they also work in Asian classrooms ?
In every culture it seems clear that the main role of a teacher is to teach. But does ‘teaching’ mean the same thing in every culture? The work of Alexander comparing primary schools across cultures (2000) reported by Berliner (2005, P.205) supports the ‘no’ answer:
Alexander found that maintaining discipline is not part of any definition of quality in Russia or India because there are almost no discipline problems in their schools. But in the organizationally complex world of American and British schools, with individualization of some activities, promotion of collaboration and negotiation, and a concern for students’ feelings, there is a greater incidence of behavior problems. Thus, American and British teachers of high quality must have classroom management skills that are unnecessary in Russia or India.
In their well-known book “The Teaching Gap” Stigler and Hiebert (1999) described the nature of the pedagogical flow of educational systems in Germany, Japan, and the United States. After analyzing video-tapes of secondary school classrooms in these countries “they were amazed at how much teaching varied across cultures, and how little it varied within cultures” (p.10). It seemed that each culture had developed its own script.
More than two thousand five hundred years ago, Confucius stated that education is an important way for people to acquire knowledge, ability and virtues and thus it plays a substantial role in personal transformation and enhancement. He maintained that every man can receive education regardless of his social status or class (You Jiao Wu Lei).
Of course, one can question whether the words of Confucius and later ancient scholars have relevance today. For many Hong Kong teachers this is clearly the case as shown in the following quotes volunteered by such teachers in the author’s ongoing research:
Most Chinese students automatically show their teachers great respect and treat them as sources of wisdom who should not be questioned (Lee, 1996).
Gao, and Watkins (2001) developed a model of the teaching conceptions held by PRC physics teachers:
The emphasis on cultivating attitudes and good citizenship is consistent with the Chinese cultural values. As one of the respondents of Gao and Watkins (2001, p. 31) put it:
However, teaching should involve far more than knowledge delivery. It should include educating and cultivating students. Help them to learn how to be a person. That’s what we call ‘Jiao Shu Yu Ren’. This should be more important than other things.
I. Ho (2001) in a comparison of Australian and Hong Kong secondary school teachers, found that the former felt their responsibilities ended in teaching the curriculum inside the classroom.
The research of Cortazzi and Jin (2001) also depicts a similar view of Chinese teachers. They refer to education as “books and society” and the teacher as friend and parent. They too argue that this reflects the Chinese holistic view of teaching, where teaching refers not only to the cognitive but also the affective and moral.
Chinese students particularly those in Hong Kong and more recently the People’s Republic itself, have been the focus of much recent research. This research is indicating that a number of accepted principles of Western educational psychology are not applicable to Chinese learners.
Much of this work has centered around what has been referred to as ‘the paradox of the Chinese learner’ (see Watkins & Biggs 1996 for a fuller account of this apparent paradox and related research).
This is based on the following premises:
But the evidence is that students from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and at least some areas of China tend to outperform Western students in international comparisons of educational progress and as international students at Western universities.
In our discussion of the resolution of this paradox John Biggs and I have pointed to a number of misperceptions of Western educators based on their invalid application of some basic tenets of the Western educational literature to Chinese students.
Unfortunately, too often Asian educators, in Hong Kong and China at least, have also assumed the applicability of these Western principles.
Memorising and Understanding.
There is no doubt that memorising without understanding can lead at best to very limited learning outcomes. However, the mistake that many Western teachers make when they see a Chinese student memorising is to assume that they are rote learning.
Our research indicates that many of the teachers and better students in Hong Kong and China do not see memorising and understanding as separate but rather interlocking processes and believe that high quality learning outcomes usually require both processes which can complement each other.
This then was the solution to the ‘paradox’: Chinese students were observed correctly by their Western teachers as making great use of memorisation. But many of them were in fact not rote learning at all as their Western teachers supposed but developing their understanding through the process of memorisation.
The Role of Repetition. In subsequent research, Dahlin and Watkins (2000) pinpointed the role of repetition in building such an understanding. Through in-depth interviews with Western international school and Chinese system secondary school students in Hong Kong, we were able to show that Chinese students, unlike their Western counterparts, used repetition for two different purposes. On the one hand, it was associated with creating a ‘deep impression’ and thence with memorisation, but on the other, repetition was used to deepen or develop understanding by discovering new meaning. The Western students tended to use repetition to check that they had really remembered something.
This finding was consistent with another cross-cultural difference identified by Dahlin and Watkins (2000), namely, that whereas the Western students saw understanding as usually a process of sudden insight, the Chinese students typically thought of understanding as a long process that required considerable mental effort.
Effort versus Ability Attributions.
Viewed in the above light the frequent finding (Hau & Salili, 1991; Biggs, 1996; Salili, 1996) that Chinese students were much more likely to attribute academic success primarily to effort rather than to both effort and ability, like Western students, makes more sense.
After all, if you believe that understanding is a sudden, insightful process then what is the use of a lot of effort. If, however, like the Chinese students you believe that understanding is a slow process requiring much hard work then effort attribution for academic success seems logical.
Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation. Western psychology books typically treat intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as a bi-polar construct with the intrinsic end being considered the more desirable:
‘To offer a prize for doing a deed is tantamount to saying that the deed is not worth doing for its own sake’ (Neill, 1960: 162). Contrast this with the Confucian saying that ‘there are golden houses and beautiful girls in books’
At an even more fundamental level in a Confucian heritage culture are ‘internal dispositions (that) create a sense of diligence and receptiveness’ (Hess & Azuma, 1991: 7).
Such dispositions help make academic tasks ‘meaningful and worthwhile’ at a much more basic level than the Western notion of intrinsic motivation: ‘in short, the familiar extrinsic/ intrinsic polarity collapses’ (Watkins & Biggs, 1996: 273).
Achievement Motivation: ego versus social.
In Western societies, achievement motivation is treated as a highly individualistic, ego-enhancing concept. It is characterised by individual competition where the need for success tries to overcome the fear of failure where winning is its own reward (Atkinson, 1964).
But in East Asian societies the notion of success needs to be reinterpreted in a collectivist framework which may involve significant others, the family, peers, or even society as a whole (Holloway, 1988; Salili, 1996).
Competition versus cooperation. The Western literature also typically contrasts ‘competition’ unfavorably with ‘cooperation’ (e.g. Johnson & Johnson, 1989).
In their recent major reform documents the Education Commission of Hong Kong pointed to motivation and competition, in particular, as serious problems in the education system of Hong Kong that need to be rectified if Hong Kong is to be successful in the new millennium:
The reform package put forward by the EC aims to instill a new concept of competition and to introduce a new competition mechanism that takes account of selectiveness, fairness, social equity and the “no loser” principle. These principles are adopted in our proposals for school places allocation, examinations and admission.(Education Commission of Hong Kong SAR, 2000, pp. 39-40)
A disappointing feature of the debate on the role of competition in Hong Kong schools is the lack of a research base. How does the education system affect the motivation of Hong Kong students? Just how much competition do Hong Kong secondary school students actually experience? How do the students feel about it? What does ‘competition’ mean to them anyway?
Problems of the motivation of secondary school students have been reported in many countries. Typical are a series of national reports in the USA.
Despite the huge amounts of money poured into the US educational system it seems that negative attitudes and lack of confidence towards specific subjects become more common as students progress.
However, a recent major one-year follow-up study of 700 Hong Kong Form 1 (12-13 years) and Form 3 (14-15 years) found the intrinsic motivation of such students remained stable and at quite a high level.
Moreover several in-depth studies of the role of competition in Hong Kong schools (Watkins, 2005) showed that Hong Kong secondary school students did not feel their academic experiences to be overly competitive. Many of them had quite positive views of competition which they did not see as antagonistic to cooperation: competition could lead to everyone improving by working together.
Current educational reforms in Hong Kong have advocated more student-centered constructivist teaching methods. The main need for such changes has been a perception that too many Hong Kong students are prone to rote learning and lack creativity, the class sizes are too large, and teacher-talk is used as the default teaching method.
There have been claims that constructivist teaching approaches are not appropriate for Hong Kong classrooms as Chinese culture has emphasised more teacher-centered, transmission methods with the teacher regarded as an authority not to be questioned.
However, Biggs (1996) has argued forcefully that, while at specific levels of abstraction cultural differences are evident, but at more general levels the principles of good teaching are universal. In particular Biggs points to the underlying constructive nature of effective teaching in both Chinese and Western classrooms.
Indeed a number of examples of successful teaching innovations based on such constructivist principles are reported by Watkins and Biggs (1996; 2001). These include Problem Based Learning (Stokes, 2001); conceptual change interventions (Chan, 2001; Ho, A. 2001); computer supported collaborative learning (Chan, 2001); and teacher education based on ‘reflective practioner’ principles (So, 2001; Tang, 2001).
Ching (2001) also showed that a change to a cognitive constructivist teaching approach led to higher order cognitive strategies and learning outcomes in an experimental class than a control class of Form 3 Hong Kong Chinese secondary school History students. So teaching and learning based on traditional cognitive and social constructivist principles are appropriate for Hong Kong classrooms.
I used cross-cultural meta-analysis to test the generalisability of propositions derived from SAL theory (Watkins, 2001). In particular it was hypothesised that across different cultures deeper, more achievement focused approaches to learning will be associated with higher academic achievement and greater student self-esteem and an internal locus of control.
Among the main findings were the following, that:
Markus and Kitayama (1991) warned us that Western research and theorising about a number of basic psychological processes such as cognition, affect, and emotion may not generalise across cultures. Boekaerts (1998) added that lack of cross-cultural validity may be particularly a problem for educational psychology.
It seems that the main thrust of current Western literature based on constructivist principles does work in Hong Kong schools. Moreover, research on student learning has shown that the basic notions of deep and surface approaches to learning are relevant to Chinese as well as Western and at least some other cultures. In addition, these approaches to learning are associated with the quality of learning outcomes, self-concept, locus of control, and learning environments in similar ways across cultures.
However, it also seems that basic notions of the nature of teaching, memorisation, motivation, and attributions for learning need to be reconceptualised for Chinese learners. So there are basic Western educational principles which lack cross-cultural validity.
Therefore it needs to be recognised that not everything that works in one educational context will work in a very different one. Thus educational reform based on importing ideas on teaching and learning from one culture to another needs to be handled with much more caution than currently.