“Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember.
Involve me and I will understand.” — Confucius
around the world
n most classrooms around the world, an instructor stands in front of a group of students, imparting the day’s lessons. This is the traditional model. But countries around the world are realizing the importance of training students to think critically and work together effectively so they can compete in the global economy. More and more, schools and instructors are turning toward a collaborative learning model as a way to accomplish this.
While each country has its own set of historical, religious, political and cultural factors that contribute to its national identity, these factors also influence how well collaboration can be incorporated into the country’s educational system and business environment.
We don’t often reflect on how our own culture shapes our beliefs and actions, but we can appreciate that our American tradition of independence, optimism and entrepreneurship encourages students and business people to continually work toward their pursuit of happiness.
A look at Germany, Ghana, Abu Dhabi, China and Japan highlights how cultural factors can affect attitudes toward collaboration: Some are individualistic and others entrepreneurial, some are focused on the greater societal good and others are rigid in their hierarchy. All are trying to move toward more collaborative learning.
Take a class in Germany today and you will likely find a teacher lecturing to students. This fits with the culture that values formality, neatness and a traditional style of education. Germans also value independence and have a strong work ethic. Learning can be quite competitive, and students tend to be private and reluctant to seek help, so collaboration may not come naturally. However, there has been a shift in the past few years toward more collaborative learning, in recognition of industry demands and globalization. And students are adapting.
“I don’t see tremendous cultural differences in terms of collaboration between the United States and Germany,” says Lisa Marie Blaschke, assistant professor, Distance Education and E-learning program, University of Maryland University College. “Collaboration has emerged as an important learning form and is being integrated more often within course curricula.”
The traditional learning model is the norm in Ghana, as well. This is true for many reasons, but one may be that Ghana is a hierarchical society. People are given respect based on age, wisdom, experience, wealth or position. People expect leaders to make the best decision for the group. People are used to being told what to do. In school, students do not feel free to interact with instructors. Add to that an educational system that is quite competitive and a curriculum that is inflexible, and you have an environment that makes collaboration difficult.
“Collaborative learning is not really commonplace,” says Dr. Stephen Asunka, director of Instructional Technology & Media at Regent University. “Ghanaian culture trains younger people to refrain from challenging authority, so students always expect to be taught.”
In Abu Dhabi, culture is closely tied to Islam. In addition to rules regarding modesty, there is strong gender segregation. Lani Carrow, chief learning officer of Work/Life Connection, had to navigate a few cultural differences as she trained bank employees in Abu Dhabi. Her role was, in part, to help them learn how to speak out and be better supervisors.
The class was filled with managers and vice presidents but of the Emirati employees, only the women attended the class. Since they are not permitted to speak with men other than their husbands and because the culture fosters shyness in Arab women, they would cluster together at one table, separate from the expats.
“The learning environment is more traditional and structured than anything we do in the United States,” says Carrow. “The adult students in the United Arab Emirates are more guarded than U.S. students. They are very respectful of the teacher (as authority) and it took a concerted effort early in the session to explain that they are welcome to question or challenge the points that I made.”
Among the many characteristics, the Chinese place high value on education and hard work. There is always a competitive drive to succeed. In China, the teaching model is like that of the United States. The primary distinction seems to be the reverence Chinese students have toward instructors as authority figures. Students may have questions about what they have been told, but it is considered impolite to question or interrupt.
The models are so alike that when Westminster College partnered with Donghua University in Shanghai on a new collaborative, project-based MBA program, students from both the United States and China faced similar challenges.
“We have to break the ‘memorize and regurgitate’ habit—for all students in all locations in our programs,” says Dr. Aric Krause, dean of the Division of New Learning, Westminster College. “But in China, we have to break the silence mindset. Once it’s broken, the interaction is incredibly valuable.”
Other than that, Dr. Krause does not see major differences in students from the United States and China. One thing they definitely share is trepidation about collaborating. Dr. Krause says, “Both (students from the United States and China) have been trained forever to see, listen and give back. When they discovered that that technique didn’t really work anymore … that was nerve wracking.”
Once they settled into the program, though, students from both cultures adapted to the new model. One reason it works may be because it turns the traditional teacher-student relationship on its head.
“Implicit in the way our program works is to show learners that we are there to work with them, not to hold power over them,” says Dr. Krause. “We put the power in the student’s hands and make this a very important part of the program, so we don’t have to work through much cultural adjustment. I believe that respect transcends cultural dimensions.”
There is a Japanese proverb that says: The stake that sticks up gets hammered down. In a culture that values harmony, order, discipline, conformity and the fulfillment of social obligations, this means that if you stand out, you will be subject to criticism.
Brent Duncan, lead faculty at University of Phoenix, has recently researched group learning models, applying a Phoenix-style team learning model in a traditional Japanese classroom. “The Japanese higher education system is a traditional environment that does not tolerate any level of student participation or collaboration in class,” he says, adding that students typically tell him, “It’s rude to ask questions.” However, one university wanting to adapt to a dynamic global environment has asked Duncan “to help them learn about how team learning might invigorate their classrooms.” Duncan says, “Team learning is so radically foreign to Japanese education, but they are desperate enough for change that this could be a seed for revolution.”
By understanding and respecting the important role culture plays in collaboration, we bring together people with varied strengths and expertise, resulting in better project outcomes and performance. When schools and business accept cultural differences and create better group dynamics, collaboration becomes easier. The implications this increased and improved collaboration would have on international relations would be truly positive.