15 October 2014

Context and complexity: Cultures of teaching and learning

By Dr Melinda Kong

The context of teaching and learning is complicated and messy as each setting varies significantly with different learners and teachers. Every environment comprises challenging and complex agendas at the current local level, with human and pragmatic influences that consist of classroom circumstances in which the actuality of teaching and learning is lived out with shifting dynamics. The messiness of the immediate setting is due to students’ particular and unique needs in every class at specific times, and these needs fluctuate from time to time.

Other factors involve students’ interactions with the process of learning within the broader context of students’ needs, concerns, attitudes, expectations and perceptions. Aspects that can affect students’ interaction with learning include their perceptions of the process of teaching and learning, as well as how they interact with methodological choices.

Since the context of teaching and learning is complex, academics such as Professor Martin Cortazzi and Dr Lixian Jin of Warwick University, England, suggest that teachers need to examine and reflect on students’ cultures of learning, as well as develop teaching methods that are appropriate to their sociocultural identities. Ian Tudor, who works at a university in Belgium, explains that these cultures of learning consist of students’ general ethos and manner of learning, preferred learning strategies, as well as expectations, beliefs and attitudes that underpin their behaviour. For instance, some Asian cultures have educational histories that are affected by the Confucian tradition, in which many individuals in these societies view learning as a serious transmission of knowledge by teachers. Many parents and students in such cultures often place heavy emphasis on the product of learning, marks and success in examinations, rather than the process of learning itself. Many of these students possess high expectations on teachers and desire to have classroom talks that are inclined to be teacher-centered. Most of them prefer to have a more teacher-centered approach, instead of being facilitated by their teachers. These students want to be guided intensively and extensively, instead of carrying out independent research and studies.

The culture of teaching and learning in many Asian settings is in contrast to features of teaching and learning in Western classrooms that tend to be student-centered. The cultural and professional values in the Asian contexts often clash with some of the pedagogical values ingrained in Western teaching and learning. Consequently, many teaching activities from Western contexts often face resistance and/or rejection in Asian countries. In her research on Asian teachers who were trained in English-speaking countries, Phan Le Ha, an Associate Professor at University of Hawaii, found that Western-influenced activities and also Western-trained teachers experienced resistance from their locally-trained colleagues and students. Many of the Western-trained teachers often faced the challenge of being connected to the current local context and practice, while introducing changes so as to minimise cross-cultural conflicts and clashes of values.

According to Patricia Duff, a professor and distinguished university scholar at the University of British Columbia, and Yuko Uchida, who has taught in Japan and Florida, teachers’ professional development is affected by their previous learning and teaching experiences, as well as by their cross-cultural experiences. Some difficulties may arise when some teachers’ beliefs regarding teaching methods clash with those of their colleagues, students and local cultures. These teachers have to negotiate local stereotypes that are related to their linguistic and cultural values. They also have to negotiate the local setting of teaching and learning that comprise institutional culture and expectations, as well as the local classroom culture.

It is necessary, therefore, for teachers, particularly Western-trained teachers, to continually reflect on their own teaching and learning practices, expectations and perceptions, while trying out various activities in class and contemplating on students’ feedback, expectations, needs and perceptions. These teachers need to help their students in adapting, adopting and extending new learning strategies, while harnessing the students’ present culture of learning, as well as developing teaching and learning styles that students can identify with, in a spontaneous and harmonious way.

Teaching is an art that requires teachers to be open to different cultures of teaching and learning. It requires teachers to be open to constructive feedback and to view such feedback objectively in order to assist their students in gaining the most benefits in a particular context of teaching and learning. It requires understanding and commitment, especially when there are potential gaps between the teachers’ own past teaching and learning experiences, expectations and perceptions, and the expectations, needs and perceptions of their students.

Consequently, teachers should not only be equipped with the latest theories on teaching and learning but also know how and when to apply these theories by being aware of their present local context, classroom settings, as well as their students’ expectations, perceptions and learning preferences. They also need to find ways to manage potential resistance and confrontation.

Teaching is not a skill that can be acquired overnight, but a process of lifelong learning across different cultures of teaching and learning, as well as across various points of time.

Dr Melinda Kong is Associate Dean (Academic Practice) with the Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at mkong@swinburne.edu.my