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Synergetic Culture of Learning: Researching the Academic Experience of CHC Students Studying Abroad. Dr Anwei Feng Email: [email protected] Seminar for the Faculty of Education, Hong Kong University. Outline. Background Literature on CHC students studying abroad

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Synergetic culture of learning researching the academic experience of chc students studying abroad

Synergetic Culture of Learning:Researching the Academic Experience of CHC Students Studying Abroad

Dr Anwei FengEmail: [email protected]

Seminar for the Faculty of Education, Hong Kong University


  • Background

    • Literature on CHC students studying abroad

    • The issues and the notion of culture of learning

    • How are the issues studied and debated?

    • The Concept of Third Space

      • Homi Bhabha (1990; 1994)

      • The 2005 Leicester Conference

      • Claire Kramsch (1993)

  • The Durham Project

    • Methodology

    • Data

  • Summary


  • Literature

    • Substantial on international students studying abroad. Research in the UK alone:

      • M. Byram and A. Feng (2006)

      • J. Coleman (1997; 1998, 2001)

      • E. Murphy-Lejeune (2002)

    • Much focus on CHC students studying abroad:

      • M. Byram and A. Feng (2006)

      • M. Cortazzi and L. Jin (1993; 1996; 1998)

        Many more in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other countries.

Driving forces
Driving Forces

The literature grows rapidly because:

1. UK has the most diverse student body in the world (CIHE, 2006)

  • 11% of student body come from overseas

  • 40% of postgraduate population from overseas

  • 75% HEIs have students from more than 100 countries

    2. HESA 2004/05 statistics show many from CHC countries:.

  • P. R. of China – 52,675 (Largest overseas group studying in the UK)

  • Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore – all in top ten in the number table (45,000)

  • Total overseas Ss – 318,410

    This increase is driven both by

  • Forces of globalisation and internationalisation

  • Financial significance for resource constrained universities

The issues
The Issues

Widely agreed: Students from different cultures do differ! Their values, beliefs and behaviours do differ!

To address the differences, some say:

  • International students come here to receive a British education, so they should and they do adapt, accommodate and acculturate into our system (i.e. to do things OUR way). So we stick to what we do.

    Others say:

  • Student mobility renders many ‘established’ theories of learning and teaching problematic.

  • We need to study their experience here and to internationalise our curriculum, our pedagogy, etc.

  • Both ISs and we teachers need to develop intercultural understanding and to communicate better with each other.

    In order to address the issues, they say:

  • We need to know differences between ‘cultures of learning’

    e.g. Confucian culture of learning

    Socratic culture of learning

  • We can then explore a common ground, or a space or place where we can celebrate our differences. Etc.

What s culture of learning
What’s Culture of Learning?

  • Working definition of ‘culture of learning’ (one form of culture):

    Values and beliefs of quality teaching and learning shared by a particular national group and the norms or behaviours that are built on them (cf. Cortazzi & Jin, 1996)

    Philosophical assumptions about the nature of teaching and learning, perceptions of the respective roles of and responsibilities of teachers and students, learning strategies encouraged, and qualities valued in teachers and students (Hu, 2002)

How is it studied
How is it studied?

Often through comparative or contrastive studies into the values, beliefs and behaviours of cultural groups under question.

Literature documenting such studies with a focus on East Vs West conceptions of learning includes:

  • Cortazzi and Jin (1996a; 1996b; 2001)

  • Fullen (2001)

  • Hammond and Gao (2002)

  • Harris (1995)

  • Jin and Cortazzi (1993; 1995; 1998)

  • Kember (1997; 2000)

  • Littlewood (2001; 2003)

  • Tweed and Lehman (2002)

  • Watkins and Biggs (1996; 2001)

Comparative studies
Comparative Studies

Socratic versus Confucian Conceptions of Learning

  • Socratic Conception of quality learning which is widely discussed as learning philosophy for all is a western exemplar that values questioning of received knowledge and generating and expressing own hypotheses on such bases.

  • Confucian Conception values effortful, respectful, and pragmatic leaning of knowledge as well as behavioral reform. (Tweed and Lehman, 2002)

Socratic conceptions
Socratic conceptions

Main theories of learning

  • Constructivism (Steffe & Gale, 1995; Biggs 1999)

  • Phenomenography (Marton & Booth, 1997)

    Core argument:

    Learning is a way in which learners interact with the world. Quality learning takes place only when they generate their own knowledge on the basis of the existing and when they engage themselves with higher cognitive-level processes.

Good teaching is getting most students to use the higher cognitive level processes biggs 1999 4



Passive Ss’ activities Active

(e.g. Lectures) (e.g. PBL)

“Good teaching is getting most students to use the higher cognitive level processes …” (Biggs, 1999: 4)

HCL Proc.









LCL Proc.

Teaching Method

Confucian conceptions 1
Confucian Conceptions 1

  • Confucian learners consider knowledge to be commodity to be transferable between teacher and student.

  • Quality learning is accomplished through successive repetitions and iterations, each of which drills deeper and deeper into the knowledge transmitted. One questions it only when s/he understands it properly (Pratt, 1992b)

    Memorisation (the lowest cognitive level activity) is strongly emphasised!

Confucian conceptions 2
Confucian Conceptions 2

In exploring the “paradox of Chinese learners” – rote learning, large classes, expository methods, relentless norm-referenced assessment, etc. but good academic performance – Watkins and Biggs (1996) summarise features of Chinese learners as follows:

  • Understanding through the process of memorising

  • Success attributable to hard work, not ability

  • Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation mutually inclusive

  • Respect for seniority and conformation to group norms

  • Individual success tied to family face

  • Collaborative learning outside classroom

Chinese perceptions
Chinese Perceptions

N = 135 (Cortazzi and Jin, 1996)

Contrastive studies cotazzi jin 1996
Contrastive Studies (cotazzi & Jin, 1996)

Contrastive studies hammond gao 2002
Contrastive Studies - Hammond & Gao (2002)

Many models suggested are
Many models suggested are

  • Based on the binary view that takes cultures in contact as two entities of homogeneity and unity.



The ‘Bridge’ Metaphor

Binary contrasts challenged
Binary contrasts challenged

Is there a contrast?

(Biggs 1999; Kember, 2000; Littlewood, 2001)

  • “Myths”, “misconceptions”, or only “partially true”

  • (Littlewood, 2001) Sample size:2656 students in eleven countries (8 Asian and 3 European)

  • Research tool: 12-item questionnaire on perceptions and attitudes in learning (similar to Cortazzi and Jin)

  • Major finding (See Graph in transparency)

    • No significant difference in perceptions and attitudes

      Contrasts such as those given before are criticised as an essentialist or reductionist approach to theorising culture (Holiday, et al. 2004)

Reconceptualising culture
Reconceptualising Culture

Culture should not be limited to essential features of a particular social group, i.e., to ‘shared values, established norms and patterned behaviours’.Bhabha (1994) argues that:

  • On the one hand, culture is “heimlich” with its seriality, generalisability and coherence.

  • On the other hand, it is “unheimlich” , heterogeneous and ambivalent, with its openness: permeable by otherness, susceptible to context and even self-contradictory.

  • Cultural differences, thus, “should not be understood as the free play of polarities and pluralities in the homogeneous empty time of the national community.” (p. 162).

  • Third space perspective 1
    Third Space Perspective 1

    • Bhabha, H. (1990; 1994)

      • All forms of culture are subject to hybridity which leads to a third space that “constitutes the discursive conditions of enunciation that ensure that the meaning and symbols of culture have no primordial unity or fixity; that even the same signs can be appropriated, translated, rehistoricised and read anew.”

      • This space “displaces the histories” and “gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognisable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.” (1990: 211)

    Third space perspective 2
    Third Space Perspective 2

    • Kramsch (1993: 257) – ‘For most, it [the third place] will be their stories they will tell of these cross-cultural encounters, the meaning they will give them through these tellings and the dialogues that they will have with people who have had similar experiences. In and through these dialogues, they may find for themselves this third place that they can name their own’

    • Leicester Conference (June, 2005) – ‘A third space is forever a ground for negotiation. It can never be generalised or institutionalised. Once it becomes generalisable, it is no longer a third space.’ (a conclusion by a participant)

    Durham project
    Durham Project

    Foreshadowed Questions:

    • Do CHC students truly experience the differences between Confucian and Socratic cultures of learning as defined by commentators such as Cortazzi and Jin (1996a)? Or they construct something entirely new and unrecognisable?

    • If the former, how do they reconcile the differences? Negotiate their identity?

    • Do they co-create with others, e.g., local students and lecturers around them, a space they can celebrate?

    Informants and methodology
    Informants and Methodology

    • Informants

      • Mainly CHC students at DU

      • Some tutors

    • Ethnographic approach

      • Classroom observation

      • Ethnographic interviews (casual conversations)

      • E-Forum for lecturers

    Emergent themes from data
    Emergent Themes from Data

    Four themes emerged from the data:

    • Initial expectations or perceptions versus experience

    • Negotiation of identity (Evidence of something new, unrecognisable asa result of hybridity)

    • Inside or outside classroom dynamics (a negotiation process)

    • Surface or Deep Approaches to Learning or something else (Based on constructivist theory particularly the binary comparison of deep versus surface approaches (Biggs, 1999))

    Perceptions versus experience
    Perceptions versus Experience

    • MA Law student from China

      “The difference was immediately proved when I arrived. In law classes in China, the teacher is the centre while students are on the receiving end. Group discussions or assignments have to take the teacher’s points as the ‘dominant views’ (主流观点). In England, however, the interaction between the teacher and the students is more prevailing. … The teacher seems to like challenges from students.” (FN – 10, 03/02/05)

      Difference expected and experienced

    Perceptions versus experience1
    Perceptions versus Experience

    • EdD student from Taiwan

      • “I knew it is necessary to speak up in class here. So I try to participate …” (FN – 5, 17/07/04)

    • Local lecturer in finance (e-forum)

      • “… I had a Japanese student last year. Surprisingly, she was quite an active participant in every thing, tutorials or group work. …” (E-forum, 09, 02/11/03, Original English)

    • MS student in computer science

      • “… Not much as expected, some of our tutors are from China. …”(FN – 8, 12/01/05)

        Perceptions of difference in norms expected but not always proved true.

    Perceptions versus experience2
    Perceptions versus Experience

    • MA from China

      • She originally took a local student’s behaviour of asking ‘simple questions’ in discussions as “Hou Lian Pi” (thick-skinned). In time, she accepted it sincerely, “If a question can get answered quickly, why do I have to waste time figuring it out myself? Of course, I would ask a friend first, or in a small group. …” (FN-11, 17/10/04)

        Value of ‘face’ was shown initially, but change took place, partial transformation though.

    Negotiating identity
    Negotiating Identity

    MA student in education from China,

    • “… the majority of my classmates are British. Honestly, I often couldn’t follow what they were talking about. They often talked about the local system. But I don’t wish to look Ben (slow-witted), so I spoke up when sometimes I only sort of understood what was going on. … I was even more frustrated when they showed no interest in what I said …” (FN-8, 26/10/04, my translation and emphasis)

      Trying to negotiate a space, at a risk, but not successfully

    Negotiating identity1
    Negotiating Identity

    • ‘Stunning student’

      “(Some local students) tend to think that all Chinese can’t speak English properly. … They tend to size international students up. Then when we say something pretty intelligent during tutorials, they are stunned. …” (FN–3, 18/02/04)

      MA student from Singapore

      (He said he was much more active in a UK classroom than he used to be back in Singapore but still struggling with essays)

      A new identity for the individual

    Approaches to learning
    Approaches to Learning

    • ‘More active’

      “… Since I came here, I feel I have become more active and analytical in studying. I research more. I also try to contribute more to the class. I find it very interesting and of course. I have done quite OK, lah, and definitely impressed the teacher …”

      Economics S. with experience in HK and Singapore

      Active learner taking a deep approach (but showed respect for authority).

    Approaches to learning1
    Approaches to Learning

    • “Listen attentively”

      “A ‘quiet’ EdD student from Taiwan who was observed closely came up with two quality assignments that showed many features of a deep learner who analyses, relates and theorises competently. When asked she replied she lacked oral competence, but “listened attentively”, took notes, tried to figure out the meaning through all available means, in- or out-side the classroom.

      Is this a deep or surface learner?

    Approaches to learning2
    Approaches to Learning

    • Memorising

      “… (Memorising is helpful).The students who go through the Chinese system all know how important memorisation is. In China, you get nowhere if you don’t memorise. … Here it seems I memorise less. But I feel the extensive readings I do for each module can help me remember a lot of things.” (FN – 21, 08/11/05)

      MS student in computer science

      Showing trace of a deep learner, but at the same time, value of memorisation

    Approaches to learning3
    Approaches to Learning

    • “Research study”

      “Since I came to UK, research study has been my major strategy of learning, for essay writing, to be more specific. … However, a lot of principles, formula, definitions of terms, etc. must be memorised. Otherwise, the knowledge will soon disappear from my brain like ‘flowing sand’. ...” (FN–23, 17/10/05)

      MA student in finance from China

      “[Research study] is searching for information focusing on one topic. You read a lot and do lots of things in the library or internet to understand the information for your essays …”

      Understanding, memorising, and learner autonomy

    Approaches to learning4
    Approaches to Learning

    • A MA student in management from China moved from a college to a house where he could have daily conversations with a local landlady and spent huge amount of time socialising with local friends while remaining quiet in class and focusing only on things to be assessed. Reason:

      “My English is very poor. First, I wish to master the language as soon as possible. … I don’t care how others think of me. To improve my English is one of the main purposes of my study anyway. With that [English], I have a great advantage …” (FN-2, 12/03)

      A surface learner or a strategic learner?

    Classroom dynamics
    Classroom Dynamics

    • In a mixed classroom, there is a contrast between local students who tended to be more articulate and CHC students did not

      • Major causal factor: linguistic barrier

    • In group Activity it is less so

    • In a mixed group, the first student who speaks up determines quantity of participation

    • If majority is CHC (often the case in ‘popular courses for Asia’ such as business administration, international law and computer science), some could be as active as their local counterparts(FN-4, 23/10/04)

      • Causal factors: Tutor’s pace of speech; “We discuss in Chinese if …”, “same level of English”, etc.

        Participation is mostly context dependent

    Classroom dynamics1
    Classroom Dynamics

    • Tutors measures:

      • Slow down pace of lecturing

      • Approach Ss individually to show concern

      • During discussions, fill in cultural gaps

      • Encourage weaker voices (including naming a quiet student in a small group to elicit a contribution)

    • Students’ response

      • “It [slow-paced lecture] was OK at the initial stage. In time, many of us got fed up with it … because slow pace in lectures are not authentic teaching. Showingspecial concerns looked irritating as they made me look stupid” (FN-17, 06/12/04, my translation and emphasis).

        Close observation of students and frequent elicitation of feedback necessary

    Summary 1
    Summary 1

    CHC Students academic experience abroad

    • (many) developing a new identity

      • Stunning student in classroom (to claim breathing space)

      • Language-first learner (non-language major but put language first)

      • Surprisingly active Japanese student (unrecognisable identity)

    • Mediating in intermediate zones

      • Asking questions first to friend then in a small group (‘face’ kept and new value accepted)

      • Extensive reading to enhance memorising (New strategy based on own belief)

      • ‘Research study’ (eclectic conception)

    Summary 2
    Summary 2

    CHC Students Experience in the UK

    • Mediating in intermediate zones

      • Doing-well student who “impressed the teacher” (deep or active learner with respect for authority)

    • Creating own space of learning

      • Quiet listener who adopted deep learning approach (listen, take notes, try to clarify and understand through all means, … theorise)

      • Valuing research study by extensive reading (to develop higher-order thinking skills) but refusing to give up memorising (‘lower’ cognitive skills)

      • Learners having linguistic difficulties but rejecting being patronised (?) Self-esteem

      • Discussing in Chinese when no one else around (?)

    A theoretical issue
    A Theoretical Issue

    The data support the claims by third space/place theorists that cultures in contact do lead to something new and something that displace the history, creating very individual, heterogeneous and ambivalent space/place for celebration.

    However, the data also show that, in the process of negotiation, one can also see something recognisable, coherent and something that reflects the history(ies) of the parties involved, e.g., Socratic and/or Confucian cultures of learning,.

    Furthermore, there is no evidence to show that the change in identity or in values is permanent. Some students might be simply ADJUST their strategy in the situation.

    Question: Do commonly cited definitions of third space/place place too much emphasis on ambivalence to render the notion unhelpful in researching or studying cultures in contact?

    Concept of synergetic culture
    Concept of Synergetic Culture

    Culture(the modified)

    (Shared, patterned, established) norms, knowledge, values, beliefs, etc. with coherence, seriality, etc.

    Synergetic (the modifier)

    Contact, interactive, reactive, simultaneous, improvising, cooperative leading to things new, unpredictable, unrecognizable, or greater than the combined two

    Synergetic culture










    Synergetic Culture

    Conceptual Model

    Synergetic Culture

    A working definition
    A Working Definition

    ‘Synergetic Culture of Learning’ can be used to refer to:

    • Interactive space in which ‘culture’ is negotiated in or built into the very condition of communication in the performative present of interpretation.

      • In this space, something entirely new and something that displaces the histories of all involved can arise, forming the ambivalent and heterogeneous part of a learning culture the individuals involved can name as their own.

      • It can also be intermediate zones where mediated ways of behaving and modes of thinking can be identified and individual identities are negotiated and transformed, i.e., the integrated part of this culture whose roots can be traced to the cultures of learning in contact.