Behavior and culture interdependently related

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Behaviour and culture are commonly believed to be interdependently related since behaviour is viewed as the core product of culture.  This essay “An analysis of classroom interaction in Thai school / Thailand” will consider the effects of culture on behaviour, more specifically, the effects of Thai culture on student - teacher interactive behaviour in the Thai classroom.  The analysis will be approached by applying Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions (1991), where they are suitable, as a source of explanation for aspects of the teacher - student interaction in the classroom.

1.2 Motivation for Topic

I am a Thai student studying in a Master of Arts course in the United Kingdom.  During my time here, I have observed differences between Western and Asian students and, from my brief observation, I have found that Asian students tend to be shy in classroom settings.  The question that comes to my mind is “Why does it seem that Asian students are not able to adapt easily to a different teaching/learning style?”  I am interested in exploring the cultural influences on the communicative dynamics of the Thai classroom to help me better understand of the differences between Thai/East Asian and Western cultures.

1.3 Literature Review

1.4 Objective of  this Essay

Burnard et al. (2001) advise that when we are trying to understand other cultures, we should make every attempt to better understand our own.   The objective of this essay is to examine the impact of culture, according to Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions, on student-teacher interaction in the Thai classroom.

2. Defining Thai Culture

Before discussing the main findings in this analysis of classroom interaction, Thai culture in relationship to Geert Hoftstede's (1991) Cultural Dimensions will be outlined. Although Hofstede (ibid: 5) defines culture as, “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another”, it must be noted that when discussing cultural differences, there needs to be caution in order to avoid blanket stereotyping.  For the purpose of better understanding the implications of cultural influences on classroom interaction, this essay will discuss characteristics of Thai society in general.  But at the same time, it must be acknowledged that societies are comprised of individuals who are capable of independent thought and who are not simply products of cultural programming. This will be kept in mind throughout the following discussion. 

Hoftede (1991), over several decades, conducted a global survey of workers in a multinational company with the goal of identifying differences in national values.  The differences were organised into five cultural dimensions, each on a spectrum from low to high.  Four of these dimensions will now be explained as they relate to Thai culture.

  1. Power Distance Index (PDI) reflects “the extent to which the less powerful members of organisation and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally” (Hofstede, 2009). Cultures with a low PDI tend to be “more democratic and all members demand equal contribution whereas those with high PDI are autocratic and paternalistic with formal, hierarchical organisation and power structure” (Hofstede, 1991).  Thailand scores high on the PDI as observed in figure 1.  This indicates that there is a high power gap in Thailand's society and that power is distributed unequally.  According to Hofstede's theory (2009), this is value that is accepted and expected by the members of the society.
  2. Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) indicates “a society's tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity... [and] to what extent a culture programs its members to feel uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations” (Hofstede, 2009). Thailand also scores high on this index (see figure 1).  Because Thai people function best with a high level of certainty, the society seeks to set up predictable structures with its rules, traditions and cultural rituals.
  3. Individualism (IDV) and its opposite, collectivism, identify “the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups” (ibid). In societies with high IDV, people value personal achievement and individual rights while in collectivist societies, like Thailand, “people from birth onwards are integrated into strong cohesive groups” (ibid). With a low IDV score (see figure 1), Thai people tend to demonstrate their collectivist values through commitment to following the societal rules and norms rather than acting independently.
  4. Masculinity (MAS) versus femininity “refers to the distribution of roles between the genders” (ibid).  Thailand's MAS is low, and according to Hofstede, this means that the society as a whole is less assertive and materialistic but places more importance on relationships and quality of life. Hofstede also suggests that low MAS cultures are more fluid in traditional gender behaviour (ibid).

3. Student-Teacher Classroom Interaction

Taylor (1990), in Cross-cultural Communication: An Essential Dimension of Effective Education, discusses culturally influenced patterns of communicative discourse between teachers and students.  Of the aspects of discourse which Taylor outlines, the following will be considered in this essay when analysing teacher-student interaction in the Thai classroom:

Thai students' willingness to

  • open or close conversations;
  • participate in discussions;
  • interrupt or argue a point; and
  • use silence or non verbal expression as a device for communication.

4. Classroom Interaction in the Thai or Asian Context

Hofstede's original research was conducted in a business setting so it must be noted that although many researchers have applied his findings to other contexts, some complain that there is a lack of empirical evidence for application to educational settings (Signorini et al., 2009).  Hofstede has also been accused of oversimplification in his cultural definitions (ibid). These concerns will be kept in mind as this discussion proceeds.

4.1 Traditional Role of Thai Teachers and High PDI

The impact of high PDI in Thai society can be clearly observed in student-teacher classroom interaction.  Education in Thailand has a strong tradition of teacher-directed instruction and it is very important that students show respect to their teachers in the classroom. In fact, it could be said that it is “compulsory” behaviour for Thai students. According to The Dhammakaya Foundation (2005, cited in Laopongharn and Sercombe, 2009:  73), Buddhist teaching emphasises that “teachers are to be esteemed as those who provide knowledge while students are the ones who should receive this knowledge from them”. As a result, in cultures influenced by Buddhism, like Thailand, teachers are viewed as the givers of knowledge; students, in contrast, are inexperienced and hence not in a position to share or express ideas (Laopongharn and Sercombe, 2009).

Additionally, there is an expression in Thai culture that(Pagram and Pagram ,2006:5) “schools are the second home and teachers are the second parents to Thai children.”  All people are expected to respect teachers since they are viewed as second parents.  Because the relationship between teacher and student is so similar to the one between parents and children, students are required to obey their teachers as they do their parents. As a result of how highly respected teachers are in the society, the Thai government has even created a special teacher day in which people have the chance to return and pay respect to their former teachers. 

Because of the importance of hierarchical distinctions in Thai social relations and social identity, acknowledging higher and lower status or “senior/junior” relationship can be viewed as a fundamental part of Thai social interaction (O'Sullivan and Tajarroensuk, 1977: 31). Given the high status or ‘senior role' given to teachers in Thai society, Thai students who take on a corresponding 'junior role' do not feel it is appropriate to speak up to question the teacher. Moreover, the pastoral role teachers perform adds to the ‘senior' position of the teacher and a feeling of “krengjai” (respectful consideration) on the part of students towards teachers.  This perspective is embedded in the Thai students' mind and therefore, it is customary that Thai students listen and keep silent until they have been called upon.  Their silence communicates respect (Laopongharn and Sercombe, 2009; Littrel, 2008). 

Additionally, in Thai culture, there is a gesture referred to as “Wai” which is used to show respect to those older or in positions of power or authority.  Instead of shaking hands when meeting or saying good-bye to parents, grandparents or anyone who is elder, children must “wai” or place their fingers together in a prayer-like position at heart level and bow.  This translates into the classroom with the ritual called “Wai Khru”.  “Wai” is the gesture just explained and “Khru” means teacher.  So at the start of the school day, all the students are required to “Wai Khru” or show respect to their teachers. 

With this high view of the teacher, one would assume that Thai students “are more ready than European students to accept the traditionally dominant role of the teacher” (Littlewood, 2001: 21).  But contrary to Hofstede's suggestion that the characteristics of high power distance are accepted by those in high PDI nations, Littlewood (ibid) finds that many East Asian students feel that this tradition is imposed on them, and actually prefer a different teaching/learning style.  Although they do behave in more “conformist, non-questioning ways than their European counterparts,” they do so because they have been influenced that way (ibid).  But when given a chance to express their desires, East Asian students, as Littlewood's study suggests, express preferences contrary to the Thai tradition style (ibid).

4.2 Thai Learning Style and High UAI

Umemoto (2001), by examining Japanese students studying in the United Kingdom and the impact that uncertainty avoidance makes on their learning process, finds that Japanese students are reluctant to ask questions and are unwilling to respond to questions in the classroom. In Japan, students are expected to listen, to take notes, but not to speak up. Similarly to Thailand, Japan has a high UAI and thus Japanese and Thai students exhibit some common characteristics in the classroom, such as being passive, being reluctant to speak, avoiding risk and highly valuing accuracy (see Table 1). 

Weak Uncertainty Avoidance

Strong Uncertainty Avoidance

Students are active participants.

Teachers expect interaction.

Students are passive recipients

Teachers do not expect interaction.

Students are eager to speak.

Teachers expect to be questioned.

Students are reluctant to speak.

Teachers do not expect to be questioned.

Risks are confronted.

Risks are avoided.

Creativity is valued.

Accuracy is valued.

Table 1: Uncertainty Avoidance in Classroom Interaction (Umemoto, 2001: 4)

Because the Thai education system emphasises a closure oriented teaching style and tends to rely on rote memorisation of information, students learn to dislike ambiguity and expect that every question has a correct answer (Hayes, 1996). For example, Thai students' 16 years of English language classes tend to be teacher-directed and involve a great deal of rote memorisation with a minimum amount of free conversation and without much responsibility for “their own learning” (Suk -a-nake et al., 2003 , cited in Tharawoot, 2009: the diversified method has been used and  provide the student with unique learning 5).  Since a strong UAI indicates an emphasis on accuracy and risk avoidance, Thai students tend to fear getting the answer wrong and thus are reluctant to speak up (Littrel, 2008).

Students in Thailand consider “knowledge as something to be transmitted by the teacher rather than discovered by the students” (Suk -a-nake et al., 2003 , cited in Tharawoot, 2009: 5). The rote acquisition of knowledge is given priority over independent creative thinking (Laopongharn and Sercombe, 2009).  As a result, Thai students only want to answer a question if they are certain their answer is accurate.  Because they are not accustomed to thinking independently, they tend to be shy and feel that they lack ability to synthesise information and answer.  The research of Jittisukpong (2005,cited in Tharawoot, 2009: 5) shows that Thai English as a Foreign Language students struggle with feeling too shy to use English with their classmate. They have a sense of passivity and lack of control over their own learning. (Hayes, 1996) and Littrell ( 2008) on  closure oriented teaching styles particularly student who dislike  ambiguity and need conclusive.

Furthermore, the nature of Thailand's saving face culture impacts classroom interaction.  Park (2000: 246) explains that because of the saving face culture “the learning style preferences of South East Asian students tend to be non verbal in class and they are unlikely initiate the discussion until they have been called on.”  Pagram and Pagram (2006) also say that the fear of losing face hinders students speaking because they want to avoid answering incorrectly.

4.3 The Thai National Curriculum and Low IDV (Collectivism)

Burnard et al. (2001) compare nurse education in Thailand and the United Kingdom and find an interesting difference in that Thai nurse education programmes include the teaching of Thai culture in their courses.  The importance of teaching Thai culture is not only evident in nursing programmes, it is an intricate part of all education in Thailand.  The national curriculum itself is designed to ensure that national development through education is in line with the Thai way of life and Thai culture. It addresses Thai cultural values and students' human rights, morals and ethics as indicated in the National Education Act of B.E. 2542 (1999) (Office of the Nation Education Commission (2000: 11-12) section 23 and 27 of the ‘National Education Guidelines':