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Cross-cultural Tensions in EFL Classrooms?
Evidence Appears on ChinaTEFL Listserv

Two recent contributions by David Kees, on the Yahoo Groups ChinaTEFL listserv, present data about differences between teacher and student views of the language learning process which may be impacting the teaching practices of EFL teachers from English-speaking countries who are living and teaching today in China and other Asian countries.

Kees first pointed to a paper, "Discourse and Culture of Learning--Communication Challenges," which was presented by Mingsheng Li at an AARE-NZARE Conference in Melbourne, Australia, in 1999. The paper, available online at www.aare.edu.au/99pap/lim99015.htm, argues that "in transplanting Western educational models to Chinese classrooms, [English native speaking teachers] did not sufficiently acknowledge the cultural distance between these models and the Chinese local sociocultural and educational realities." At Chinese universities, explains Mingsheng Li, "the discourse of participation was strongly resisted by Chinese students and teaching by native speakers often failed to achieve the desired results...there existed a vast gulf in their perceptions of what constituted 'good' teaching and learning, of what appropriate roles they were fitted in and what they expected of each other."

"The most controversial issue in expatriates' teaching," continues Mingsheng Li, "is the discourse of participation which has been highly valued, promulgated and practiced by expatriate language teachers in China." According to Mingsheng Li, Chinese students see this discourse as "exotic" and they "often become confused with what the teacher expects of them in a seemingly unsupportive environment where conversations, discussions, debates and participation become the dominant mode of teaching."

In another ChinaTEFL posting, David Kees presented recent data from his own action research comparing teacher and student attitudes regarding certain classroom variables. "Knowing what teachers think is one thing," wrote Kees. "Where the rubber meets the road is knowing also what students think." He encouraged teachers to survey students in order to discover their views of the learning process. Kees presented preliminary data from his own students regarding their views on grammar, conversation practice and error correction by the teacher.

"The big divide is the 'G' word," wrote Kees. "Grammar. Students think it's much more important than teachers do and it's the number one difference of opinion." It is a challenge for teachers to reconcile this gap with current thinking on more natural approaches designed to help students "internalize rules through developing and testing their own hypothesis rather than explicitly studying rules." Kees suggest that "the wise teacher will make sure students know he is not ignoring the grammar issue," instead explaining the reasons for his or her particular approach. "Otherwise," Kees warned, "teachers risk causing the students to feel insecure about the quality of training they'll be receiving."

The second big issue separating teachers and students, according to Kees's action research, regards conversation practice. "Perhaps we've been told so frequently [that students] are grammar experts but don't know how to talk that we have prioritized speaking practice," suggests Kees. "Or perhaps students don't know how much they need conversation practice."

The third area where Kees surveyed his students was error correction. "It's hard for students to spot their own errors and they desperately want some help," he explained. "But I suggest teachers correct the errors that they think will be easiest for students to correct and let the students focus on these." Kees believes current language learning theory favors fluency over accuracy, and that "some inaccuracy is strategically tolerated at times."

Kees is next going to survey his students regarding communicative teaching principles. He suggests that each ESL/EFL teacher should use similar surveys, appropriate to their own purposes and styles, to determine where there are big differences between them and their students regarding attitudes about how language is taught and learned. These differences can become the focus of discussions through which the teacher prepares students to better take advantage of classroom activities, and also give the teacher insights which may cause him or her to adjust teaching strategies.

The bottom line is that if students understand why they are being asked to do something, and if they buy into the activity, then they will have a more successful language acquisition experience.

Report by Robb Scott, Hays, KANSAS

2003 ESL MiniConference Online