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What Works: Is Western Educational Research Relevant for Educational Reforms in Asia ?. David Watkins
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org)
“The grass often seems greener on the other side of the hill”
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.
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).
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.
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).
Unfortunately, too often Asian educators, in Hong Kong and China at least, have also assumed the applicability of these Western principles.
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.
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.
‘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’
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).
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).
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.