Cultural Predispositions in Teaching Practices

by Edward Lake

Having been a teacher in an international school for a few years I have noticed that new teachers and school leaders often come in with approaches to teaching and leadership that are frequently related to how they were taught in their educational upbringing. But are these approaches to teaching the most effective or are they simply more familiar and comfortable for these teachers and administrators? In some cases these predispositions may be effective, but in other cases they might not be. Therefore it is crucial that the teachers and school leaders reflect on whether their educational approaches are based on best practices, or simply on a predisposition from their own backgrounds. As I started pondering this I realized that this not just an issue within international schools, but also exists within countries, cities, and individual schools.

I am currently teaching at an international school in Southeast Asia which is an offshoot of a larger international school in China; being as such the owner of the school hired a principal from mainland China to operate our school. This man, although excited to be leading an “international” school, has a tendency towards a more traditional Chinese educational approach; similar to how he was taught in Mainland China in the 1970’s. He favors military training for all the students and has students standing at attention for a flag raising ceremony which occurs every Monday morning. He also favors a more teacher-centered approach to instruction, and is hesitant with cooperative learning groups.  It seems that he might be (consciously or unconsciously) trying to recreate his educational experience for the students under his leadership.

Another woman that I know was teaching at a boarding school in Malawi, when a new principal came in from North America. During that year one of the students died of a disease. The principal organized a memorial service for the students to have a time of remembering, but was shocked to see many of the girl’s close friends showing up in ragged old clothes, which were very dirty and was equally upset that these students were wailing inside of a church, since churches should be quiet places. She sent all of the students back to their dorms to put on their best clothes and tried to make the students keep quiet during the church service. She didn’t understand that this is how Malawi people hold memorial services; she was just following her predisposition for how a school principal in North America would hold a memorial service for the students.

I started to wonder if on some level I am also trying to arrange my school and my classroom to match my cultural predisposition. Am I arranging my classroom in a way that reflects the educational upbringing that I received while attending schools in America? Am I influencing the school identity to cater towards my cultural upbringing? I began to reflect even further: Even while I was teaching in the US, was I trying to recreate my suburban educational experience in an urban school setting? Was I teaching a unit in a similar way to how I remember being taught, or teaching vocabulary in a way that I enjoyed while I was in high school without first reflecting on better practices and methods?

I began to talk to some of my colleagues about their educational experiences and asked them to reflect on their teaching practices to see if they are replicating anything from their own educational background. One of my colleagues explained that in his science classes as a student, teachers were more of facilitators and when doing lab experiments for science classes the teacher would simply hand them a piece of paper which had the procedure written on it. He started his teaching career in this same way. On the day of laboratory experiments he simply handed out the piece of paper with the procedure written on it, but realized that his students needed more of an explanation before they got started. He said that it took him a few months of poorly written lab reports before he realized that he should change his approach to laboratory experiments.

I also came across a curriculum leader of another international school while at a conference. This man was highly in favor of standardized testing and wanted to standardize midterms and finals for each grade level at his current high school. He thought that standardized testing kept rigor high and made sure that students received a strong education. After talking to the man further, it came out that as a student he attended a school which had a strong emphasis on standardized testing.

But how are we to know whether we as educators are simply replicating our own educational upbringing or whether we are truly searching out the best practices? Some aspects of teaching I am realizing I have never questioned: I am just replicating. As I was thinking about this recently and as I have taken a few more university courses I am realizing there are some methods and approaches to teaching I avoid completely just because it was not part of my educational background.

Using computers blogs etc…

I was very fortunate to have an IT resource teacher at my previous school who was very enthusiastic about helping teachers to incorporate more technology in the classroom. I was very hesitant at first; I was thinking that technology might be interesting for my students, but they would not be productive while using technology in the classroom. But I decided to give it a try anyways since my resource teacher was a very nice guy and was very eager for me to try using some technology in class.

After talking for a while we decided to create a Wiki for the class and to have them post their reactions to the novel they were reading at that time. Students could also post on each others’ Wiki and be able to exchange ideas and discuss the bigger ideas of the book and unit. There were some students who were able to cause problems while doing the project, but overall I was very impressed with the learning that took place.  

Cross-Curriculum Teaching

Another aspect of teaching that I previously was resistant to was cross-curricular teaching. I think I was most strongly against this because I have seen it done very poorly in the past. Prior to student teaching I was able to do some observations of a cross-curricular team taught class. One of the classes was an English class and the other was a history class. It seemed like a great idea going into it, but the two teachers didn’t really ever connect the two courses. What actually happened was that the teachers would take turns teaching their own subjects, but using the class time of the other period. So if one of the teachers had to leave school early, he would ask the history teacher to teach a double period of history and the next day the English teacher would do a double period of English. Obviously this is not really cross-curricular at all (and neither is it team teaching), but it still made me put off to any idea of cross-curricular teaching.

This year however I began to work a lot with the art teacher at my current school, and we came up with a way to incorporate my grade 12 English unit on “destiny” with her art unit. We ended up having students create murals in our school hallways (which were previously void of any excitement) which demonstrate their views on destiny and what they have learned from the unit in English class. My students also needed to type up a rational for why they painted what they painted and how it demonstrates what they learned from our unit in English class. I was very impressed with the results: my students created very clear and professional rational papers. What was even more impressive was the supernova of school spirit that it created and how grade 12 began to see themselves as a more integral part of the school.

I originally felt uncomfortable trying these new approaches to teaching, but I realized they went very well and that students benefited in amazing ways. I know that some of my new approaches to teaching will completely flop, but that is part of the teaching process. I think the main thing is that we should become aware of how our educational predispositions might be ruling our classroom and reflect on how things could be done in a different way.

Here are a few tips to help keep you in check:

-Collaborate with teachers from a variety of cultures regularly and make sure to give each teacher an equal voice. Do not let any teachers feel they are unqualified to share their opinions or practices. Encourage everyone to share.

-Observe teachers from many cultural backgrounds. If this is not possible at your school, then talk to your administrators and make arrangements to observe teachers at a different school and have them observe your classroom as well.

-Read academic journals that give voice to many different cultures and approaches to teaching.

-Participate in international workshops. There are many international workshops which are available, and your school might have resources to send you there. If there are no resources available, write a grant; they are much easier to obtain than you would think.

-Teach a summer program abroad. There are many opportunities for teaching a summer program abroad. Although these programs do not pay a salary, many of them do pay for the airfare, housing, and even give stipends for food.

Edward Lake started his teaching career in the Chicago Public Schools. While teaching a summer program in Taiwan and China became drawn to Asia and decided to spend an entire year teaching in Tianjin, China. During this year in China he was able to observe and collaborate with teachers at the local public schools and at the international schools. He is currently an English and TOK (Philosophy) teacher at the Chinese International School of Singapore.