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Meeting, but not in the middle
Richard Mast
By Richard Mast, introduction by Chris Green
     

Schools providing Chinese students with an international education typically have a staff that includes both Chinese and foreign teachers and school leaders. The development of the skills that students need to be successful learners in an environment beyond China assumes that the teachers have the understandings and skills to foster intercultural learning and competencies.

Through my work at CIS, I have the privilege of working directly with diverse school communities around the world, a number of them similar to the communities Richard so aptly describes in his post, below. Schools regularly report grappling with the question of how to develop intercultural competence in their leadership and faculty. Anaïs Nin reminds us: “We don’t see things are they are, we see them as we are.” Intercultural understanding and competency begin with knowing ourselves and our own culture, and how to adapt our perspectives and behaviours to bridge cultural differences and contextualise learning in ways that recognise, value and align with the host culture.

At the heart of all we do at CIS is our vision: Inspiring the development of global citizens through high-quality international education:  connecting ideas, cultures and educators from every corner of the world. 

In his post, Richard Mast notes that one of the main purposes of offering Chinese students an international education is to enable students to develop the skills to be successful in an education environment beyond China. He raises the question then of how to contextualise and align that international education with Chinese culture. Richard is an experienced international educator and school leader, who now trains educators engaged in providing an international education for Chinese students. 

Read Richard’s insights below on the tremendous potential of international education in a converging world:

Schools that are seeking to offer international education to Chinese students, particularly in China, will often have discussions about what this means. Part of the discussion can include the idea that the two cultures meet in the middle.

There is something comfortable and almost inevitable about this conclusion. After all, the school is for Chinese students and the school is seeking to expose the students to western education through the curriculum of their choice.

"Once this position is declared, there is an assumed agreement as to what this means. It sounds like the two cultures are meeting in some metaphorical middle space and in doing so, they will achieve their aims."

This whole idea is significantly flawed. To accept the conclusion is to work on the premise that the educational experience for the students will be some sort of mathematical mid-point. 50% Chinese and 50% western. This is not stated as such, but there will be individuals who will act in ways that assume this is the expectation.

There has to be a stepping back from this type of dialogue.

Yes, a school that is offering international curriculum to Chinese students is bringing two cultures together. The students are products of the Chinese education system and intimate members of Chinese culture. They will always be so and so the question is, what are schools doing when they offer an international curriculum to the students and parents and teachers?

The international curriculum with its content, pedagogy, assessment practices, assumptions and values are designed by and for western culture students. This is a powerful Trojan Horse that is brought into the lives of the community members.

The assumption is that the international education experience will provide advantages for the students and their families.  Whatever these advantages are, the articulation of those advantages has to be in line with the host country culture. An advantage that is perceived by western educators, may not be a desirable or recognisable advantage to a non-western person.

All of the advantages have to be identified and all have to be presented to the parents, teachers, students and Education Ministry officials in ways that are recognisable and acceptable to all the audiences.

On the surface, this does not sound like a difficult task. Experience shows that the advantages that are espoused for the various international curricula (overtly and presented in the course outlines) do not always translate in the way that they do in the west. Some words and phrases that are valued highly in international education are counter-cultural and bordering upon being cultural threats.

"For example, in western education, we see that students need to be 'critical thinkers'. For a Chinese person, this term is potentially very stressful. The reader sees the word 'critical' and becomes anxious about the intention to criticise." 

This is not the intent of the phrase but translation is not the same as interpretation. The words and phrases that are built into international curricula and programmes are full of jargon that sit easily in western culture. It cannot be assumed that they translate well, let alone are interpreted as intended.

Even if the translation and interpretation are recognised, there is no guarantee that these expectations match the values and benefits of education that the host culture nurtures and expects of education.  This is a minefield that has to be recognised and traversed safely.

The key here is to recognise that any teaching and learning experience for a Chinese student has to fit in with Chinese culture. The culture of China has a long and complex history and is a dominant factor in the lives of Chinese people. It guides them, supports them and protects them. Bringing in an education experience that is western in character and implementation is a threat by its very presence. This is because it is so different. 

The exposure of Chinese children to an international curriculum, has benefits and should not be dismissed as being totally inappropriate in the context of Chinese culture. Rather, the view to be taken is that under all circumstances Chinese culture has to be safeguarded as the students learn new ways of learning and experience new ways of being taught.

The identification of the advantages that Chinese students can and should gain from international education has to be done only by Chinese people. It is their culture; these are their children. Once the decisions are made about what these advantages are, the manifestation of the advantages has to be shaped by and be compatible with Chinese culture.

This is not a 50:50 proposition. In real terms, it has to be closer to 100% Chinese. The education has to allow the students to be successful beyond study in China and as such, the students must learn skills and processes that will ensure that success. However, the foreign teachers and administrators have to recognise that they are providing a service that serves the needs of the students within their cultural context exclusively.

The foreign teachers and administrators have to let go of many of the priorities, assumptions and values that they would normally deliver and promote to western students.  Focus upon not only what has to be taught but also upon how the host culture interacts with what is being taught and learned. All the foreigners have to work with the teachers, parents and administrators to ensure that the version of education being developed and implemented contributes positively and constructively to the life of the students.

"This is a shift in mindset that is essential."

The cultures are meeting but on the terms and conditions dictated by the host culture. Certainly, not in the middle.


Richard Mast is Director at New Dimensions in Teaching Ltd in Australia. New Dimensions in Teaching develop and deliver courses for Chinese teachers working or seeking to work in Chinese schools offering international curriculum and Chinese teachers in international schools.

Chris Green is a CIS School Support & Evaluation Officer. She supports and visits schools, primarily in the East Asia region, which are applying for CIS membership and participating in the CIS accreditation process.

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