The article, Cultural Variations: Difficulties for Students Studying Abroad, was written by Ballard and Clandchy, in 1984. The authors describe three kinds of difficulties which students studying abroad have to face, different styles of thinking, learning, writing and presenting ideas. They also point out that if overseas students want to have a good studying and living condition, they must try to change their thinking, learning and writing style into critical and analytical approach in order to adjust to the western country. Generally the viewpoints are good, but there are some weaknesses about examples which should be re-evaluated.
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To the first question-different style of thinking, the authors observe that culture variation lead students with different context think for different purposes. This phenomenon is not only for the different languages, but also culture background. An example about a Japanese student studying at Australia is given to support this view. He was a good student who had studied Economics for two years in Tokyo before coming to Australia. However he even could not pass the exam and mistook the meaning of his essay question because of different thinking style. When he was able to see the problem and adapted to the Australian thinking pattern, he became a promising student again.
The authors’ second main point is different styles of learning. They present three kinds of learning method: reproductive approach, analytical approach and speculative approach. Different students from different culture background are used to their own ways of learning. When they come to a new academic environment, it is hard for them to develop a critical and hypothesising attitude towards tasks. A Singapore undergraduate, a Japanese MA student and an Indian PhD student’s comments proved that the variety of learning style make them unfit. An Indonesian postgraduate also suffered with the studying problem when she moved to Western university. Once she switched her thinking and learning approach and began to ask questions, she was successful.
Moving on to the third style main point–style of writing and presenting ideas, the authors refer to Kaplan’s research. He argues that there are five independent patterns for writing: English pattern, Romance and Russian pattern, Semitic pattern and Oriental pattern (cited in Kaplan). Each pattern has its own characteristic. For example, English pattern is a linear one, moving from main opinions directly to examples, which is totally different from Oriental pattern, indirectly, circling round the main ideas for avoiding making an ultimate conclusion.
In the article, Ballard and Clanchy point out that Asian student should exert critical thinking to adjust to the Western learning system. Though the authors’ viewpoints were raised in 1984, I agree with it to a large degree. But there is no example about Chinese students in the article and many examples are not powerful enough to support their view.
Overseas students lack critical thinking, even today
Though the article was written in 1984, generally its views are good, many of which are still valid today. Back to Chinese traditional culture, the thinking and learning style are different from that of western countries. In China, we were used to absorb what teacher said, and never doubted whether it was right or not. Because in our eyes, teacher’s duty is to preach, teach and disabuse, so they must be exactly right (Patrick Huang, 2009). If someone is doubtful of teachers’ words or theories on the book, he will be regarded as not respecting teachers or crazy.
When I came to the UK, what I felt on the lectures made me to recognise the learning style is different from China. Whenever, British students feel a question got them, they would put up their hands, though in my mind, the question was easy. On the lectures, it is can be often heard from a teacher: Are you all happy with that? It is the time that the teacher wants to get some feedbacks from his students, whether they understand his lecture or not. Most of the time, some British student will shout out what make him confused. But to our Chinese, though the question is really hard, we would read some reference books rather than to raise it up on the lecture, because there is a high-self-esteem ideology in our mind. I will feel shame if all of the other classmates understand the question, but me.
Examples are not powerful enough
As mentioned above, the authors’ ideas are generally good, but the examples used in the article are not convincing evidence to function as the authors expect.
Firstly, the examples in the article are not enough in quantity and quality. In my opinion, a questionnaire about whether different culture context have different learning style and comparison between Asian students and Australian students should be done in Ballard and Clanchy’s investigation. An example like Biemans and Mil raised in their research is expected: 25 Chinese students and 16 Dutch students were divided into two groups respectively. Most Chinese students have the characteristics that reflect a reproduction-directed and an undirected learning style, while the Dutch students as a group do not demonstrate any one particular learning style (Biemans and Mil, 2008).
In addition, the evidence is not relevant to Chinese students. According to Ku at el, the most common difficulties For Chinese students are associated with language ability, academic performance, and social adjustment (Ku at el. 2001). It is thus clear, besides critical thinking and learning strategy, language ability is another obstacle which limits Chinese students’ progress.
Another weakness is the analysis Ballard and Clanchy’s did is not deep going. To the Chinese style of learning, it must be retrospect to the fundamental education for children. I have read a funny story about a Chinese couple, taking 3 year-old son, visited their American friends who had 3 children. When these children played the “building block”, the Chinese child often asked his mother to help him, while these American children never did that. Oppositely they were happy to help their new friends solve the problem. At dinner, these American children were happy to see the guests using chopsticks, so they copied the actions to eat food. Whereas the Chinese kid did not want to eat by himself, just shouting: “mom feed me, mom feed me…” The Chinese lady had no choice but feed him. It is an example in our daily life, yet we can get more information and think deeply rather than the superficial meanings. Sometimes we consider kindergarten or primary school is where fundamental education begins. Well actually parent is children’s first teacher whose teaching style effects initiatory learning style of the kids. In my opinion, most Chinese parents like to teach their children hand by hand. Just like my parents, when I was young, they checked up my homework every day and told me to remember the equations or formulae time after time. Western country parents will not do that, because they think that is the teachers’ work. They just tell the children to learn by themselves. So when children step in schools, they would be used to the ways of learning from their parents. And also the teachers, under different culture context, teach their students with different ways. These factors lead students to form the habit of how to learn and not adapt to other style of learning.
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Just like the authors mentioned, we cannot say which learning method is superior to the others. Reproductive style lay emphasis on memorisation and imitation, which, I think, is suitable for primary schools’ study, not for high school or university, because it prepares students for bigger tasks ahead. But when they go to study abroad, normally western countries, the speculative style of learning, such as, group discussion, questionnaire, makes them uncomfortable. Otherwise, with the combination of eastern and western culture, more and more universities of the eastern countries have begun to attach importance to analytical and speculative learning style and encourage students to ask questions.
When a western university takes over an overseas student, I think, his marks and English level must be both good enough. Maybe only the way of learning and thinking is different from that he acquired in his country. What he needs to do first is to learn how to ask questions. Never be shy! And then try to use critical and analytical views to do the different tasks. When he breaks through these main points, everything will go well. He can prove he is excellent both in his country and abroad.
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