Classroom strategies that just don't work in Asia

Classroom Strategies That Just Don’t Work in Asia

When I started teaching in Asia, I burned straight through my classroom strategies that had worked back in the States. What was I doing wrong? My certificates, college coursework, and previous work experience were no longer able to prop me up. It turns out classroom strategies don’t transfer so well across continents! I was in for a surprise.

Imagine the softest students in the United States. You know the ones, heads bent toward their desks, jotting down every word that leaves the teacher’s mouth. They don’t raise their hands when the teacher asks the class a question, but you can bet they know the answer if you call on them. When they’ve got questions themselves, they never ask. The only way their question gets answered, is if someone else raises their hand and asks the same question.

In contrast, imagine a gifted mastermind student with more mental processing power than an adolescent knows what to do with. He or she finishes up the handout in 120 seconds flat and drops it on the teacher’s desk right as their classmates get started on question number two. The next fifteen minutes, the majority of their classmates are wading knee-deep through material they’ve only just started learning. Meanwhile, the mastermind is testing if an elastic band flies further when launched from a mechanical pencil or from a ruler.

During my year in Taiwan’s education system, then my year with online Chinese schools, I found that the majority of my students were in one of these two camps. American classrooms tend to have every learner on the spectrum: from the kinesthetic aisle wanderers, to the voluntary teacher’s assistant helping their peers out once they’ve finished their own work. My classrooms, on the other hand, tended to cultivate these two extremes. There were outliers for sure, but in the end, developing a successful classroom practice relied heavily on addressing the needs of these two types of learners.

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The Front of the Classroom is a No Man’s Land

Because of the rote learning method that Asian students are familiarized with from early on, the front of the classroom is seen as a podium space and a place of authority. Watch your students’ style of eye contact change, just based on where you’re standing in the classroom. It’s no wonder I’ve seen even the most confident of my students crumble at the front of the classroom during presentations. Not only are you coupling new material with the potential to fail in front of their peers, you’re asking them to do it from a spot they don’t see themselves as worthy of standing on.

To be in front of their class is to say, they have authority in relation to their classmates. If you must get them to present in front of the class, this is another western ideal that needs to be worked in gently. Confucian thinking sees speaking one’s own opinion aloud in class as going against the grain (you can learn more about the bigger picture here).

A happier medium is to begin encouraging students to participate in classroom discussion from their own desks. Even that is a stretch from the typically silent classroom setting. This way, the discussion becomes everyone’s. You are still there facilitating the discussion, but now the peers are all equals once again.

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Open-Ended Assessment Versus Examination

I’m all about project-based learning and open-ended assignments but the Asian educational system is not built to applaud this type of thinking. If you put any type of task in front of them that doesn’t come with a fill-in-the-blanks or multiple choice answer, your students are going to look back at you with distress in their eyes. If you take it upon yourself to be that teacher who brings divergent and critical thinking into the classroom, you’re in for a ride.

Many districts and principals haven’t considered these methods as ‘education’ before (but here’s one school in Taiwan going above and beyond with project-based learning). Introduce these instructional methods gently, by familiarizing students with assignment formats they already know and trust. Expand these assignments into formats with more open-ended questions, storytelling parameters, or self-assigned direction only in increments. When introducing the more open-ended assignments, don’t weigh those grades as drastically into their grade roster or the possibility of failure is going to restrict their participation.

The Asian classroom has been built on principles of Confucian learning for hundreds of years, and no teacher from the west is going to successfully overhaul a classroom overnight. It’s best to keep a classroom steeped in the traditions according to the students’ culture, informed secondly by the teacher’s culture. Not the other way around.

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Tailoring to Either Extreme: Praise and Discipline

A classroom strategy that didn’t work in my Asian classrooms, was how I praised and disciplined my students. You don’t want to build a praise system that is only going to pat your star learners on the back. Neither do you want to build a discipline system that is only built to put out fires started by your little rascals, or you will always be leaving your quiet, diligent learners in the shadows.

The best way to evaluate your praise system, is if it is generous enough for your rebellious students to take a vested interest in. They will still be rebellious at times, but they can see the benefits of behaving.

The best way to evaluate your discipline system, is if it can be used on your quiet students without breaking their spirits. For example, a tally system where even restroom breaks warrant a tally on the board. The culture surrounding a tally system like this acknowledges that it’s okay at times to have tallies by their name.

Find a classroom management style that suits the needs of both those types of learners, and you’ll find that implementing new classroom practices, types of assignments, or new classroom rules will come much more easily. You already have the most extreme learners on board. The rest of the class always falls in line.

No matter how much preparation you do before changing educational cultures, there will be curveballs thrown your way. These three pointers will help set a foundation, but the best thing to do is keep in mind that natural learning is less of an uphill battle than forced classroom strategies. When you learn to read your students as to what is and isn’t working, then lesson planning and shaping a classroom culture becomes a beautiful, iterative process.

About the Author

Liann is an educator based in Taipei, building and studying the most efficient and enjoyable ESL methods based on social/emotional and divergent learning. Outside of professional ESL development, she also works in design.